Law in the Internet Society

Same Surveillance, Different Day!

-- By NathalieNoura - 06 Dec 2021

A New Form of Surveillance

Surveillance is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a close watch kept over someone or something. Traditionally, surveillance was an invasion of privacy by the state with the goal of controlling the masses and eliminating individual freedom, as Orwell warned in his book 1984. Surveillance was always associated with feelings of fear, anxiety, stress, and distrust. It results in individuals changing their behavior or suppressing their free will. However, in the past century, a new form of surveillance has emerged dubbed "Surveillance Capitalism" which has shown to have a similar effect on individual freedom. Nevertheless, people do not seem to be threatened by it. As Shoshana Zuboff defines it, surveillance capitalism is the exploitation and control of human behavior, by private companies. Companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook extract information from us and employ it to re-design our behavior to increase their profit. Quite simply, these companies are using technology to gradually, slightly, imperceptibly change users' behaviors and perceptions. By using these platforms, we willfully surrender our free will and agree to be surveilled, manipulated, and engaged rather than actively making free undirected choices. Additionally, surveillance capitalism is also being utilized by governments to control societies by manipulating elections, suppressing opposition, and directing the population to adopt the government's way of thinking. An example of that would be Russia's use of Facebook and Twitter in creating accounts and spreading polarizing misinformation, to manipulate Americans into casting their votes for Donald Trump.

Why we "trust this device"

It is no longer secret that surveillance capitalism employs tools used to surveil us and modify our behavior to maximize profits. Yet somehow, even when Mark Zuckerberg was testifying before the Senate following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook was still making billions. We embrace this form of surveillance rather than fear or reject it. Perhaps an explanation to our enthusiastic reaction to surveillance lies in that the threat of surveillance capitalism is not visible nor tangible. Fear is an emotional reaction largely motivated by what we perceive threatens our existence, triggered by instinct or memory. A person cannot fear what they cannot see and in the absence of a visible surveillance threat, no instinctive response is triggered. Moreover, new generations (millennials and GenZ? ), save for Uyghurs in XinJiang and people in Hong Kong or similar Big Brother regimes, did not experience surveillance and do not recognize its dangers, which fails to trigger these emotions through memory. After all, we are simply getting a cappuccino delivered to our doorstep, not a gun. So, where's the harm? Another explanation is that the tools surveillance capitalism uses come in the form of attractive objects that give us a sense of control and convenience. Instagram, Facebook, Tiktok, etc. are purposefully designed to attract us. Designers use the human innate attraction to beauty to develop the user experience and interface. The products are more elegant and focus on colors, shapes, clicks, feel, and ease of use to make them more appealing to the senses and effortless to engage with. These products are also advertised as tools at our disposal which gives us a sense of control. Meanwhile we becomes a prey to these tools which are designed to intentionally make us addicted and strip us of actual control. Stanford University founded a Behavioral Design Lab which teaches engineers to use human psychology to make tech products addictive, including strategies such as placing hot triggers in the path of motivated users. These hot triggers may be colorful icons which glow with a light pulse when notifications remain unread, a smartwatch poking you ensuring you don't miss an update, or a "next episode" box on Netflix. Netflix's option of automatically launching the next episode, strips the viewer of the decision of choosing to watch the next episode. We are thus placed in a continuous state of distraction jumping from one episode to the other and from one platform to the other. Finally, these tools are convenient, and we have relied on them to a point where we are unable to envision an alternative. Google, Facebook, Apple, et al. want to render the choices they want users to make easier, and the choices they don't want users to make harder, or inexistent. These convenient tools are the new norm. Generally, people do not fear what they know, or think they know, and what they need, or have been convinced they need. We believe we can no longer keep track of events, find a date, find a job, have a social life, listen to music, stay healthy, learn remotely, or communicate without these tools. We have thus surrendered into a fascist way of thinking where we don't question things as long as they are working. Why not use facial recognition to save a few seconds to access the app?

Take Matters into Your Own Hands

These "attractive" tools have taken on the form of a physiological nervous system capable of creeping into our mind and manipulating our behavior. This "being" is not a harmless object. It is a threat to freedom of choices and thought just like traditional surveillance is. However, unlike Winston in Orwell's 1984, we have not yet been reprogrammed by Big Shareholder. Of course, I am not suggesting to abandon the net altogether. Instead, it is about ensuring freedom of thought while using the net. One can learn how the nervous system works and choose hardware and software that ensure freedom from surveillance and manipulation, such as managing one's own servers like FreedomBox instead of uploading to a cloud. Other practical approaches can be gluing a pair of eyes to the phone, decreasing the uploading of stories and posts, not swiping up for advertisements, turning off all notifications, not watching another episode, gradually decreasing our engagement by the phone, and ultimately leaving our phones at home for hours or even days. The latter may seem strange and unsettling at first, but from experience it will also feel liberating.

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r5 - 11 Jan 2022 - 17:35:33 - NathalieNoura
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