Surveillance Capitalism: Ought we permit behavioural data to exist?

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I want to draw attention to an interview in the Guardian I just read about surveillance capitalism and the allegedly illegitimate conquest of personal data by big digital firms.

The subject of the interview is Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff who is author of a book to be released end of January 2019: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

I’ve previously cited one of Prof Zuboff’s earlier papers in an article about ‘Rapid developments in artificial intelligence: how might the New Zealand government respond’.

I found the Guardian interview so compelling I have already ordered her new book.

The book promises to provide a robust intellectual framework for deconstructing the power of the giant tech firms on the basis of illegitimate conquest of ‘digital natives’ (a very clever metaphor).

This argument could be the forceful rejection of rampant data harvesting that many who oppose the unbridled power of big tech have been seeking.

Here are some key points from the article and interview:

Surveillance capitalism:

  • Works by providing free services and enables the providers of those services to gather a phenomenal amount of information about the behaviour of users, frequently without their explicit consent.
  • Claims without care for opposing views that human experience is a free raw material that the surveillance capitalist may translate into behavioural data.
  • Feeds such data into machine intelligence driven manufacturing processes and fabricates this into prediction products.
  • These prediction products are traded in a behavioural futures market.

Why is this a problem?

  • The initial appropriation of users’ behavioural data is arrogant. Data are viewed as a free resource, there for the taking.
  • The key digital technologies are opaque by design and sustain user ignorance.
  • The emergence of these tech giants occurred in a largely law-free context.
  • The combination of state surveillance and capitalist surveillance is separating citizens into two groups: the watchers and the watched.
  • This is important, because as Jamie Susskind notes in his excellent 2018 book Future Politics, the imbalance in political power has historically been mitigated by the strong being scrutinised publicly and the weak enjoying personal privacy. Upset that dynamic and power shifts.
  • Asymmetries of knowledge translate into asymmetries of power.
  • We may have some oversight of state surveillance, but we currently have almost no regulatory oversight of surveillance capitalism.

Finally, the key concept that leaped from this interview for me is the following:

  • “The idea of ‘data ownership’ is often championed as a solution. But what is the point of owning data that should not exist in the first place?”

Zuboff argues that what we have witnessed over the last two decades is a conquest by declaration. A unilateral decree that some entity may harvest and use a resource freely and without limit.

This is colonial imperialism at its most ruthless and it needs limits.


Author: Adapt Research

Adapt Research provides high quality evidence-based medical, technical and academic research, writing and analysis services to universities, government departments, and private firms. I am available for large and small research projects, peer review, and medical writing assignments of any size

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