Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Surveillance Capitalism: overview and solutions

-- By AmaranteMurino - 10 Mar 2020

The Recent Emergence of Surveillance Capitalism

Since the dot-com bubble in the 2000s, use of internet and new technologies have become pervasively more ingrained in society, reshaping economic models and giving rise to concerns surrounding the marketing of personal data by the emerging web sector.

This issue is not merely theoretical. The emancipation of capitalism over the past 20 years lead to a democratization of surveillance methods and techniques, which S. Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism". This new business model of internet, Google beings its primer mover, is simple: the GAFAM (the 4 main surveillance capitalists, i.e Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) build systems that serve us, but which in turn allow them to spy on/automate us.

It concretely translates human experience into behavioral data in order to produce predictions which are then sold on the market for future behaviors. And the surveillance capitalists compete on the quality of their predictions by constantly refining their algorithms. In this view, Facebook proudly revealed that its “prediction service” produces “more than 6 million predictions per second”.

The mechanism is vicious. Surveillance capitalists provide people the use of services which the users think are free, while they actually consent without knowing to having their behaviour monitored in astonishing detail. No wonder why Al Gore says we are in a "stalker economy" and why tech giants are magically able to bombard us with tailor-made advertisings, based on their predictions of which ads users would click.

Over the past years, more and more voices have been raised to criticize this human-made monster the free and merchant web had given birth to. Like a modern Frankenstein of whom we would have lost control, even the CEOs of these tech behemoths have publicly adressed the need for regulation to improve the privacy and security of user data.

Truth be told, the entire project emerged in what was effectively a "no law’s land". The 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does protect individual liberties against threats posed by the government but notoriously did not elaborate a constitutional framework for a right to privacy against intrusions form the private sector. The result is that we currently have almost no regulatory oversight of the private sphere. Hence, the birth of surveillance capitalism.

An Irresolvable Problem?

Could we tackle surveillance capitalism by drastically modifying the consumer’s behaviours?

The idea seems difficult to rally, considering our world where we cannot function effectively on a daily basis without using the channels which also constitute the supply chains of surveillance capitalism.

So much is this that surveillance capitalism ultimately reflects an internal contradiction that drives most of us: the grip of the GAFAM over our personal data goes certainly against the values of many of us, but yet paradoxically we fail to do what it takes to oppose it. In this regard, Facebook's results were (almost) not affected by the Cambridge Analytica scandal (there are still 2.5 billion users of at least one of its services on a daily basis).

Could we thus turn to the culprit and ask the tech giants to protect our privacy themselves?

According to S. Zuboff, who considers self-regulation a non-starter, it would be "like asking Henry Ford to make each model of Ford T by hand": a nonsense.

Could we finally imagine to regulate the intermediate, i.e the internet?

Here again, the job is not easy. As Google executives E. Schmidt and J. Cohen put it, the Internet is “among the few things humans have built that they don’t truly understand” and call it “the world’s largest ungoverned space”. The simple example of the totally deregulated darkweb is enough to be convinced. Is the continuity of surveillance therefore inevitable?

Potential Solutions

The fight against surveillance capitalism is undoubtedly based on rational arguments, namely the fact of wanting to protect our private lives, not feeling “used” as automates or even wanting to regain our self-determination. Different approaches have been elaborated to take the bull by the horns.

On a personal scale...

M. Grothaus has proposed to start taking back our online privacy by short-circuiting the use of the GAFA and favouring softwares that were built with privacy in mind (e.g, use Brave instead of Google Chrome). Similar is the alternative of Time Well Spent, which advocates for a more ethical technology that puts people at the center, not profit. These solutions are appealing, but definitely not that will effectively canalize the abuses of surveillance capitalists.

On a global scale...

Some legal initiatives have been put forward. Pr. Balkin sets forth his Information Fiduciary Theory according to which tech companies should be regulated as if they are legally recognized fiduciaries acting in the interest of the consumer while retaining an incentive to produce a profit. Here again, the proposal might not be constraining enough to tame such phenomenon, unless hefty fines could be imposed.

More convincing is the implementation of the European GDPR and its right to oblivion, intended to give back control to users of their data, along with the recent invalidation of the Safe Harbor doctrine. In the same vein, the US has also introduced the new Online Privacy Act of 2019, H.R. 4978 that aims to strenghten online user protections and create a new federal agency to increase accountability for tech companies. I believe indeed that what will save us from the excesses of surveillance capitalism is the mobilization of our politics in the creation of new legislative frameworks that would adapt to the pace of transformation of digital platforms.


Privacy became a public good for the sake of profits on the basis of a systemic inequality in the division of learning and knowledge. As S. Zuboff puts it, "they know more about us than we know about ourselves or that we know about them", and as one knows, knowledge is power. Surveillance capitalism hence evokes a profoundly anti-democratic power, a reversal of the sovereignty of the people.

By virtue of democratic principles, where people enjoy the right to self-determination, I believe individuals should be the only ones entitled to decide about their data’s fate. Surveillance capitalism is a recent phenomenon and what human has constructed, he can deconstruct it.

The theft of personal data is everyone's business and we should all act towards the regain of our privacy on digital platforms. And for the remaining people that can’t fathom the problem and who argue they have nothing to conceal, they should keep E. Snowden’s precious quote in mind: "Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say".


Webs Webs

r1 - 10 Mar 2020 - 15:26:13 - AmaranteMurino
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM