[SCMP Column] Surveillance Capitalism

February 11, 2019


“They know everything about us, while their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They predict our futures and configure our behaviour, but for the sake of others’ goals and financial gain. This power to know and modify human behaviour is unprecedented.”

This is Shoshana Zuboff, Charles Edward Wilson Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School, and no she is not talking about George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or BF Skinner’s Walden Two. Nor about dark Communists at the heart of Beijing, or spies in the Kremlin.

She is talking about the impending “perfect storm” brewing around the icons of Silicon Valley and the “surveillance capitalism” that has made them billionaires and made us their pawns: “Private human experience is free raw material that can be computed and fashioned into behavioural predictions for production and exchange,” she warns: “You are not the “product” but rather the abandoned carcass. The “product” derives from the surplus data ripped from your life.”

The perfect storm is brewing for many reasons: first, because of the rising power of the digital world, with its Internet of Things that can listen to all parts of our lives in all parts of our homes, and the Artificial Intelligence that can predict and manage outcomes before we have even thought of them. We are not just talking about China’s “social credit” profiling, or the reach of surveillance and intelligence agencies everywhere, but the power of credit rating agencies to decide whether we can have a mortgage or not, or of medical insurers to use DNA data to set our health premiums, and even the power of Uber drivers to “blackball” passengers who behave badly.

Nor is it just because of the imminent introduction of 5G, though this is set to provide the superhighways along which the storm can travel unfettered at unprecedented speed. Nor just about Huawei, the global champion of 5G, which western defence and intelligence services have decided constitutes an existential technological threat as they struggle to keep pace with Huawei’s innovation.

It is about a business model spawned by the likes of Facebook and Google and California’s “PayPal mafia” which is invisibly concentrating corporate power, spawning thousands of “privacy deathstars” like Oracle and other data brokers who now have the capacity to enable bad actors to influence voting patterns in elections, or foment race hate. As Prof Zuboff notes: “Google is now pursuing a “land grab” for all of our data, with an array of smart devices that serve as “one way mirrors” into peoples’ lives: “There was a time when you searched Google, but now Google searches you.”

Roger McNamee, one-time advisor to Mark Zuckerberg, shares Zuboff’s concerns: “If you are a member of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, the misuse of internet platforms for hate speech has dramatically altered your life – or in the case of thousands, ended it,” notes: “Internet platforms did not set out to harm the Rohingya or to enable interference in the politics of the EU or the US. Those outcomes were unintended consequences.”

Here, perhaps is the rub: there seems to be scant evidence that this “surveillance capitalist” business model was created by evil people with evil intent to spy on us, or addict us all to the “soma” of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”.

Rather, it is the product of naïve technophiles enthralled and intoxicated by the magnificence – and profitability – of their own creativity. As John Thornhill noted in the Financial Times: “The people who theoretically wield power appear to have little interest in exercising it, beyond enriching themselves and their shareholders.”

Unorchestrated though this storm may be, the danger at the heart of it is slowly becoming apparent. Tim Cook, Chief Executive at Apple, stepped into the European Parliament in October last year and attacked the “data industrial complex”: “This is surveillance (that) allows companies to know you better than you may know yourself. This crisis is real. It is not imagined, or exaggerated, or crazy. And those of us who believe in technology’s potential for good must not shrink from this moment.”

The stealthy invisibility of its encroachment, and a tacit agreement that a loss of privacy was a price inevitably paid for marvellous new services for free, has left Silicon Valley’s “privacy deathstars” to amass great wealth and awesome power. And this has occurred while most of our regulators have watched, and blinked, again contributing to the danger of a perfect storm.
They are only now beginning to wrestle with the challenge. At the fore is the European Union, with its new privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and its anti-monopoly battles with Google and Facebook – in particular its concerns about the monopoly implications of Facebook’s acquisition of, and data sharing with, WhatsApp and Instagram.

The state of California seems set to adopt GDPR-type laws intended to protect privacy, and in Congress the Democratic Senator from Virginia, Mark Warner, is working on data transparency legislation that would put a price on user data and force companies to disclose it.

Inevitably, the PayPal mafia are fighting trench by trench against the legislation – and anti-monopoly moves – both in Europe and in Washington.

Europe’s GDPR appears to have provided a good start for improved regulation, but efforts towards global rules have been frustrated by indifference (note the frequent claims that our Millennials care little about digital intrusions into their privacy), excitement (over the potential of the new technologies), anxiety (that local companies need to be at the forefront of innovation), and a profound uncertainty over how best to tackle this unprecedented challenge. Technology conflict between China and the US, which could lead to a “digital iron curtain” dropping between countries, forcing them to use distinct Western, or Chinese systems, adds a further ingredient pointing to a perfect storm.

As Prof Zuboff pleads: “Just about everyone connected to the internet is crying out for an alternative path to the digital future, one that will fulfil our needs without compromising our privacy, usurping our decisions, and diminishing our autonomy.” Problematic, then, that even she offers few clear suggestions on how to avoid the perfect storm.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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