The Age of Surveillance Capitalism | Shoshana Zuboff

Summary of: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
By: Shoshana Zuboff


Welcome to the world of surveillance capitalism, where every aspect of your human experience is transformed into data for businesses to profit from. In this summary of Shoshana Zuboff’s ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power’, you will discover how companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon are profiting from your personal information. You’ll learn about the rise of this new form of capitalism, the changes it has brought about in society, and the stakes it holds for our privacy and freedom. Brace yourself as we explore the fascinating, yet concerning implications of surveillance capitalism and its impact on our lives.

The Dark Side of Data

In surveillance capitalism, businesses like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon turn all aspects of the human experience into data and sell it to a variety of companies for a variety of reasons. Personal data can help businesses target ads and create predictive products, such as virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa. Google was the pioneer in surveillance capitalism, which quickly caught on with other companies when Google’s use of data to improve ad targeting resulted in a 3,590% increase in revenue in just four years. Facebook is the second-biggest company in the market of accumulated data, selling advertisers targeting data that includes email addresses, contact information, phone numbers, and website visits from across the internet. The internet or digital products now mean opening the door to aggressive monitoring by unknown parties in surveillance capitalism.

The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism

In the 1970s and 1980s, capitalism underwent significant changes that loosened regulations and changed attitudes for the online age. The double movement, a system of laws and policies designed to protect society from destructive tendencies of capitalism, was dismantled as influential economists like Hayek and Friedman preached the gospel of self-regulating free-market economy. This unregulated environment paved the way for the rise of surveillance capitalism, where principles of capitalism became the principles of society at large. With unprecedented amounts of wealth accumulated by the highest income brackets, surveillance capitalism thrives within the self-governing rules of free-market capitalism, posing a threat to global stability.

The Evolution of Online Privacy

This summary highlights the transformation of early concerns about online privacy to a more relaxed surveillance approach. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began steps to limit personal information leaks through cookies in 1996. In 2000, legislation was almost established that would make the rules of online commerce similar to those offline. However, the events of September 11, 2001, led to a different outcome. The US government created the Patriot Act and the Terrorist Screening Program, resulting in loosened regulations around surveillance. Google worked with the NSA and the CIA to provide them with better search technologies in 2003, allowing them to analyze mountains of metadata and identify behavioral patterns. Google’s treasure trove of personal data became the holy grail for advertisers and law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, cookies were still being used; by visiting the 100 most popular websites, your computer would collect over 6,000 cookies. The study also found that 83 percent of the cookies came from third parties – not the websites that were actually visited. Google’s “tracking infrastructure” was found to be active on 92 of the top 100 sites.

Google’s Invasion of Privacy

Google’s surveillance capitalism practices have been met with initial outrage, followed by a sense of acceptance from the public. The company’s Street View, Glass, and Pokemon Go operations provide examples of how it has found ways to invade people’s privacy.

The advent of the internet has given rise to concerns about privacy invasion by cookies. However, as it turns out, such concerns have fallen by the wayside over time. This is the recurring trend of surveillance capitalism where there is an initial outcry by the public against invasive practices. Unfortunately, this eventually leads to begrudging acceptance, playing right into the hands of companies like Facebook and Google. These companies want the general public to believe that their practices are inevitable.

Google’s Street View and Glass operations are great examples of outrage turning to acceptance. In Germany, in 2010, it was discovered that the Street View cars were scanning Wi-Fi networks and collecting personal information. Investigations in twelve countries found that Google had broken laws in at least nine. However, prosecuting cases like these isn’t easy since the practices of surveillance capitalism are unprecedented, and laws that specifically address privacy and boundary issues in the digital sphere are often lacking.

In 2012, when Google introduced Google Glass, a wearable technology that allowed it to see into private spaces, there was also an outcry. This led to a rebranding in 2017 with the introduction of Glass Enterprise Edition designed strictly for the workplace, where people may already have lowered expectations of privacy.

Niantic, the gaming company owned by Google’s Alphabet Inc., released Pokémon Go in 2016. The game uses a device’s camera and GPS to reveal the location of virtual Pokémon creatures that users can capture. However, the game also allows Google to capture personal information in a clever way. The reason the game requires access to user contacts and “to find accounts on device” has nothing to do with gameplay and everything to do with surveillance capitalism.

Google’s surveillance capitalism practices have found ways to invade people’s privacy and provide a grave cause for concern.

The Granular Data Collection of Surveillance Capitalism

Google’s advanced data collection goes beyond just location and browsing habits, as the company aims to know about your wants, needs, and even emotional state. This granular level of data includes the use of emotional analytics, digitally enhanced fabrics, and social media analysis to modify consumer behavior. Advertisers can use this data to sell their products effectively and boost revenue, making this data a goldmine. If you care about democracy and free will, this advanced level of data collection should concern you.

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