Review: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff. New York: Public Affairs, 2019.

Summary: An extended treatise on the idea of surveillance capitalism, in which we are the “raw materials” for others economic gain and the object of instrumentarian control.

I heard about this book from an interview with the author. I wish I had been forewarned that the soundbite argument of a radio interview was a bloated treatise laden with abstraction, jargon, and a determination to “show all one’s work.” A much shorter work may have been more effective in making its point.

There are two major ideas in this book. One is that a new form of capitalism has arisen as companies like Google and Facebook have figured out how to monetize their platforms through the information that users willingly and sometimes unwittingly surrender that are used to generate the advertising revenues that really fund their enterprises. We are not the customer, we are the raw material, and these platforms have become increasingly skilled at “scraping” data from every aspect of our lives that may be monetized. Our posts, our likes, our searches, and via our smartphones, our locations, and all our app use are sources. So are the devices wired into our cars and our homes, and eventually, even into our clothes. All of this data is “behavioral surplus” about us enabling various entities to market to us and, less benignly, manipulate our perceptions and behavior.

This leads to the second and perhaps more sinister idea that the entities controlling these platforms are seeking to establish instrumentarian, not totalitarian control of society, working toward the idea of a “frictionless” hive mind, controlled by “Big Other.” The aim is total certainty in the control exercised and guaranteed outcomes to marketing efforts. Platforms own the means of behavioral modification, the use of which is concealed. Zuboff’s description of these efforts reminded me of Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel The Circle (review), a world in whose ideal is that nothing be hidden, nothing secret, and all transparent. For Zuboff, the greatest problem these platforms face is “friction,” in which individuals do not surrender privacy or information.

One idea introduced toward the end of the book is that of “equivalence.” Anything that produces more traffic, more engagement, and information is good. It struck me that this was the flaw in the supposed dream of a “hive mind.” This was amply on display in recent elections and efforts at social disruption. Platforms do have the ability to control these but tend to refrain, even though these promote conflicting rather than harmonious interests. My hunch is that capitalism is of greater interest than control and that these platforms are relatively indifferent to content as long as it is profitable.

The bigger problem I have is that this book is long on assertion and short on data or practical recommendations. The most she can offer is “be the friction.” I do believe she offers legitimate warnings about how unwittingly we yield up all kinds of information about ourselves. She doesn’t explore the networking of platforms, and how everything from what we buy at the grocery store to our credit records to our health records, the layout of our homes and our travel histories can be compiled. I’m not convinced that “Big Other” is the greater danger than “Big Brother.” What I do believe is that Zuboff raises a necessary warning that our democratic freedoms, including some measure of self-determination, may be lost. It may even be that they are not taken from us so much as willingly surrendered.

Surveillance Policies

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

That is what Shoshana Zuboff, in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, calls privacy policies, whether they are ones we sign when we apply for a loan or seek medical care, or when we click on a website or install a phone app. She contends that basically what we are doing over and over in daily life is agreeing to how a variety of organizations may surveil our behavior and mine and distribute the data that every click we make, everywhere we go with our smartphones, how we drive our vehicles, and the conversations we have with Alexa or Google Home.

We think we are accessing sites like Facebook or Google at no cost. Actually, we are the raw resource that these companies use to mine tons of data. Our “likes,” the articles and ads we click on, our location, our demographics are all used to supply targeted information to us. It is also shared, often without our knowledge. It can go badly wrong as occurred with Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to attempt to manipulate voters.

But increasingly, it is not simply our behavior on our computers and phones. The expansion of the “internet of things” all offer data about us. Computers in our cars provide insurers and others information about our driving behavior, determining insurance premiums. Lenders who do not receive payments can literally turn our cars off! A variety of devices are being installed in our home. If I wanted, I could connect my garage door and washer and dryer to wi-fi and control them by my phone. Thermostats can feed information about the interior of our homes. There are beds that transmit sleep data and even can record sounds. Not sure I like that! In addition to the phones we carry, there are fitness wear that record and transmit a variety of biometric data. Personal digital assistants like Alexa and Google Home are always listening (as are SMART TV’s).

Of course, our customer cards and apps that we use for grocery shopping, at pharmacies, and other retail outlets appear to offer us discounts on our purchases, but what is really happening is offering data about us. Sure, some of it is anonymized, but the coupons and offers mailed to us seem keyed to our purchasing history. Likewise, our credit cards offer and record of our commercial habits, our recreation preferences, our charitable giving and more.

I’m reading Zuboff’s book and it is chilling both to realize how much of our lives are rendered into data sources often distributed to parties of whom I’m unaware and the relative contempt with which various entities view the privacy of our information. Furthermore, we willingly comply in the surrender of this information in most cases. Most of us never read the “privacy agreements” allowing various entities to obtain and distribute our information. We click or sign without reading, and some estimates suggest we could spend a good part of each year reading these if we chose.

I have a friend who prefers to use cash and works hard to minimize his electronic footprint. He’s accepted the fact that this limits his access to many things. He stays off all social media. Yet it’s hard, he carries a cell phone, a huge source of data about us.

What, then, can we do? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Assume that nothing about your life is private. Maybe that has a silver lining. If we believe in an all-knowing God, we already believe that nothing in our lives is private!
  • Assume that anything you have ever done online, anything you’ve said is still out there and accessible to someone, and that every click yields information about you.
  • Review the “permissions” for each app on your phone. The defaults for some ask for far more than the app needs to function. Deny these.
  • Be aware of all the devices in your home that are or may be connected to the internet, usually via your wi-fi, or to your phone via bluetooth. Think carefully about enabling each of these and what information they collect. Assume all of it leaves your home and you may not know where it goes.
  • Consider the wearables, like fitness trackers, that are uploading biometric information about you. Any health and fitness apps on your phone also upload any data you voluntarily or involuntarily provide.
  • Assume that all privacy policies are surveillance policies. They are not intended to protect you, but rather whoever is providing service.
  • You may consider DuckDuckGo for internet searches, which has greater privacy protection.

The challenge right now is all these “applications” have you over a barrel. Unless you agree to their surveillance policies, you either can’t install the app, or use the service, or it only has highly limited functionality. Companies don’t need to do this but there are huge financial interests that favor this surveillance. Probably only broad-based advocacy with legislative support can change this, unless someone figures out how to protect privacy and make money, creating an alternate business strategy.

Caveat emptor friends!

Forget the NSA, It’s the Data Brokers We Should Fear!

It may be that the issue of the government surveilling our every move could be the least of our worries. In our online and highly networked world it appears according to an article in today’s Washington Post, that data brokers may know more about us than some of our family members. These brokers harvest profiles of us not only from public records but also via our credit card and shopper card usage and our online behavior. It is not at all an accident that my grocery store sends me emails with digital coupons for products I purchase or competing brands.

What was disturbing are the inferences that might be made from sites we could visit out of mere curiosity. For example, what inferences might be drawn from visits to sites referencing high cholesterol or diabetes? In my wife’s case, and she is a web newbie, she noticed ads showing up in email after visiting a few sites she was casually curious about, even though she had not subscribed to the emails. Of course, all our online activity is logged whether it is social media, web searches or purchases from online vendors. Supposedly, this information cannot be used to determine insurance rates, to make job offers, or determine credit worthiness. Given other abuses of “big data” I’m not reassured.

Funny and scary at the same time is the fact that these brokers segment us into categories based on all this information, such as “Bible Lifestyle” or “Affluent Baby Boomer”. Some are even less complimentary, such as “Rural Everlasting” which describes older people of “low educational attainment and low net worths.” What drives much of this is the effort to tailor marketing to our interests, whether it is those book recommendations on Amazon, or the ads on Facebook, or even the content we see on our newsfeeds.

Most of what the data brokers know about us is not known to us. How many of you have ever heard of these companies:  Acxiom, CoreLogic, Datalogix, eBureau, ID Analytics, Intelius, PeekYou, Rapleaf and Recorded Future? The article discusses the lack of transparency in this industry, which does not deal directly with the public, but obtains its information from third parties and from each other and markets it to various vendors.

At very least, it seems utterly reasonable that we have access to these profiles, just as we do to credit records, our own health records, personnel records and more. It would also seem proper, although this could be complicated, to know who else has had access to these records–who knows what this profile says about us? And it seems that there should be established protocols to amend erroneous information that could have a harmful impact upon us. So far, however, the FTC and Congress seem unwilling to afford these opportunities to us or consider any further regulation of this industry.

What all this means is very simple: for most of us, there is very little about our lives that is private–our online activity, many of our purchases via online or physical stores, our medical records, our employment, salary, and housing, our hobbies, beliefs and relationships. Many of us actually accept this or even value the convenience of advertising tailored to our interests, which may be why there is so little stink about the NSA revelations. The act of writing this blog makes a public record of my thoughts and whatever activities, family history, whatever else I post. There is probably no way to completely avoid this although going off the net and cash only would greatly reduce the “data points”.

The Latin phrase, Coram Deo, means “in the presence of God.” It reflects the idea of being consciously aware that one’s life is lived every moment under the watchful care of God and for God’s glory. Perhaps the greatest source of freedom in the midst of our highly surveilled lives comes from living unashamedly before God. Perhaps Coram Deo might be our greatest protection from Coram Data.