Welcome to Surveillance Capitalism – the tech giants stealing your private data

Surveillance Capitalism is here. It watches your every online movement and wants to commodify your next moment. It’s in your browser and it’s doing it now.

As you read this sentence your internet browser is quietly scooping up your raw digital exhaust and shovelling into a data lake.

From there, AI robots, machine learning and data scientists will organise, analyse and monetise your personal information.

Whatever device or operating system you use to consume these words – in a smartphone, a tablet, laptop, desktop or smartwatch – Apple, Windows, Android or Linux, you create a little trail. And that trail can be used to affect your life.

We are gluttons for connections

Over 4.5 billion people – comprising 60 percent of the global population – are active internet users. The average user spends 6 hours and 43 minutes online each day. And since COVID-19, research shows that 50% of consumers are on social media more since lockdown measures were put in place.

Every day, every hour, every minute we exude valuable bytes into the traffic of the internet ether. As we trek from page to page, site to site, app to app, device to device, phone tower to phone tower, wi-fi to wi-fi, car to desktop, supermarket to gym – the big data capitalists extract the oil from each digital handshake.

Smart, hyperconnected and addicted

Over 90% of Australians own a mobile phone and nearly half of us check our mobile device at least once every 30 minutes. That scroll-and-swipe, highly addictive behavioural information is pure gold to those that have access to it.

Our homes get smarter by the year, with nearly three-million Australian households now using smart speakers. TVs, doorbells and voice-controlled vacuum cleaners all share private information to third parties for consumer behaviour and marketing objectives.

Every time we log in, load a page, swipe an ID or credit card, play a game, use a smartwatch – virtually anything we do every day – we are tracked. We cannot escape it. We are hyperconnected.

We need it: to check our bank balance, pay our bills, to drive our car, to use public transport, to hail a ride-share, to order dinner. We do our tax, we access our health records, we share a workplace cloud, we upload assignments, we check the weather and facetime the folks. All to get through the necessarily digital day.

Digital footprints

Data exhaust – the records and traces we leave behind as we traverse the internet is our digital footprint. We unwittingly, yet willingly gift this stuff into the hands of the Surveillance Capitalists. It happened as you arrived at this page – you dropped a little data nugget. Did you tick the “accept cookies” box? Did you read all the Ts and Cs for every page and app to get here?

Either way – you choose to share your data. Consent to your private data is often assumed. And that consent is regularly abused. A recent Irish report found almost all websites it studied revealed cookie and tracking compliance issues – some with serious breaches.

Stealing our private experience

The guru of Surveillance Capitalism is Professor Shoshanna Zuboff. She is the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

In a recent interview, Zuboff explained: “Surveillance capitalism exists by unilaterally taking – what any eight-year-old would translate as stealing – our private experience, translating it into behavioural data for analysis, manufacture, and sales.”

In her 700-page tome Zuboff describes the: “new phase in economic history in which private companies and governments track your every move with the goal of predicting and controlling your behaviour. Under surveillance capitalism you are not the customer or even the product: you are the raw material.”

But do we know what happens to our data? A recent Deloitte report shows that only 7% of consumers had a very good understanding of how their personal information would be used after they consented to its use.

Nevertheless, this seemingly innocuous data contains invaluable information about the choices we make, our actions and preferences. It may include log files, cookies, temp-files and much more – often termed metadata – and this information is generated in almost every digital process or transaction.

Once accumulated, across all those transactions (micro-moments as Google coins them), that’s a lot of data. Image all of it. Generated all day every day by billions of us. It is Big Data.

Once analysed, this data can reveal individually significant information to marketers and business entities. And it works. As I write this article my Facebook feed is advertising smart vacuum cleaners, cookies, surveillance cameras and data lakes ad nauseum.

Data Exhaust to divine your future

In the early days of the web, data exhaust was considered waste. But the then fledgling search engine company Google discovered how the behavioural residue from user searches, can predict and monetise human experience. Even better, they could grab it for free.

The Surveillance capitalists (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple et al) want all your data. They are listening. They need to know the things you say, how and why you say them. The more data they collect, the clearer the data portrait – the easier to monetise your behaviour.

Google says: by utilizing its analytics tools, businesses can “predict future actions people may take,” including predicting the “likelihood that users who have visited your app or site will purchase in the next seven days.” Effectively, Google confidently offers prediction behaviour products. And if your business can predict user behaviour, it can modify future consumer activities.

Likewise, Facebook will “use data from advertisers and other partners about your activity on their websites and apps, as well as certain offline interactions; use information we have about others and their activity; use data like your activity on websites off Facebook to decide which ads to show you… based on information from a specific business that has shared a list of individuals or devices with us.”

Indeed, an Intercept article shows how the social media giant goes further than just a few personal ads on your feed. Facebook will use your data “to train AI prediction models that will be used to target and extract money from you on the basis of what you’re going to do in the future.”

Willingly tracked and happily commodified

Google and Facebook collect an alarming amount of data as you travel the digital universe. And most rational people would not let governments or corporations install tracking devices or establish cameras and microphones in our homes – yet we have.

We’ve eagerly enabled the digital giants to follow us, collect data, predict and affect our daily lives. We should be concerned that despite convenience, a furtive capitalism is at work beneath our complex digital experience.

This new and highly lucrative economy is poised to manipulate as it shares our behavioural data across its murky networks. The issue is what happens to all the data. Who is it shared with and how are we being manipulated for profit?

Surveillance Capitalism is watching. Waiting. Predicting the future…