Faced with the might of surveillance capitalism, one’s first reaction might be to despair and declare the battle lost. But we’re not done yet. In fact, there’s a lot we can do to tame the surveillance beast, both at the personal and political levels.
by Michele Kipiel
Collage by the IotL Magazine
“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.”
Despite the heartfelt warnings of many civil rights activists, it took surveillance capitalism a little more than a decade to anesthetise our society and normalise the surveillance practices it needs to profit off our daily lives.
Few today recall that, in the early 2000s, some of the first, careless intrusions into our privacy were met with fierce resistance, as was the case with Facebook’s Beacon advertising service in 2006. Thirteen years later, you’d be hard pressed to find any organised reaction by the wider audience, even in the face of encroachments as severe as Amazon employees listening to the private conversations recorded by Alexa devices.
The vast majority of users are not aware of the implications of surveillance, mostly because there is no regulation in place and the algorithms used by surveillance companies are protected by patents and trade secrets, which makes research an almost impossible task. Simply put, these companies operate outside of any scrutiny and are determined to keep the status quo unchanged by all means necessary, be it aggressive lobbying, deceptive communication tactics or even direct pressure on the regulators.
Nothing to Hide, Everything to Lose
The amount of money and effort that surveillance capitalists pour into protecting their “lawless” status is a testament to how instrumental the systematic violation of our personal space is to the success of the whole surveillance business model.
The vast majority of users are not aware of the implications of surveillance, mostly because there is no regulation in place and the algorithms used by surveillance companies are protected by patents and trade secrets.
Described by technology advocates with words like “inevitable” and “beneficial”, the invasion of our privacy is often disguised as personalisation, a blanket term that implies vague suggestions of reciprocity and friendliness meant to captivate users by making them feel relevant. Alas, surveillance is far from being friendly, and it has dire consequences on our society, most of which are invisible to the untrained eye.
While it’s worth noting that the effects of surveillance are felt in different ways by different people depending on the community they belong to, the country they live in, their education level and their wealth, the most insidious and invisible threat of surveillance capitalism affects as all equally: its ability to shape our perception of the world without our consent, knowledge or understanding. This might sound far-fetched and bordering on conspiracy theory, but it’s exactly what happens every time someone checks their Facebook timeline or sends a query to Google Search. Let’s see why.
The content algorithms developed by surveillance companies are designed first and foremost to extract as much value as possible from each single interaction, regardless of ethical implication of any kind. This means there is no practical way for a user to determine whether anything that’s served by a surveillance company is trustworthy or manipulated.
Google, for instance, was recently caught using so called filter bubbles to serve results that are tweaked to intercept the expected interests of each user. The research paper that uncovered this behaviour explains filter bubbles in a blunt but effective way:
put simply, it’s the manipulation of your search results based on your personal data. (…) These editorialized results are informed by the personal information Google has on you (like your search, browsing, and purchase history), and puts you in a bubble based on what Google’s algorithms think you’re most likely to click on”.
It’s easy to see that this kind of filtering has two obvious implications: it reduces the possibility of random discovery of new or unexpected information and, at the same time, it strongly reinforces whatever beliefs a user might hold on any given subject. Both of which have a devastating impact on free society and democratic discourse.
Facebook’s timeline might be even more dangerous, given how many people use it as their go-to source of news, the incredible amount of information it holds on each of its users and the way it harnesses that information to tailor each user’s timeline.
The still unclear events surrounding Trump’s election, the rise of right-wing populist parties across the EU and the seemingly unstoppable popularity of conspiracy theories of all sorts are all sobering reminders of the risks posed by the kind of “tunnel vision” we develop when we’re only exposed to facts that confirm our own views. What makes Facebook a perfect bias-confirmation machine in this context is the way it tricks the human mind into believing the information it receives is coming from “friends” whom we’re naturally inclined to trust more than official sources.
As dangerous as they might be, public-facing surveillance companies are but the tip of the iceberg, there’s a lot more going on below the surface. There exist other, far less known and even less controlled companies that operate in the shadows and only offer their services to a very specific clientele: governments. Their services range from identifying potential terrorist threats to providing face-recognition software to police departments to building secret databases of “unwanted” citizens.
As dangerous as they might be, public-facing surveillance companies are but the tip of the iceberg, there’s a lot more going on below the surface.
One of the most powerful and controversial of such companies, Palantir (named after a dangerous artifact from the Lord of The Rings lore) was recently accused of collaborating with the ICE and enabling the unlawful detention of children and their families at the USA-Mexico border in 2017. Incidentally, it’s worth noting that Peter Thiel, the powerful founder of Palantir, is a well-known alt-righter and neoreactionary who believes extending fundamental rights to women and the poor effectively undermines the concept of democracy.
Other companies, like the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica, were contracted by political parties to win elections, trigger political changes or save corrupt regimes. Prior to the 2016 referendum, the Leave movement in the UK was able to tap into the almost infinite wealth of data collected by Facebook using a simple game application developed by Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook’s lack of control over what data was being accessed by the game did the rest. The political campaign that followed the data mining operations eventually triggered the Brexit, an event which spawned political, social and economic effects that will impact the whole of the EU in the coming years, in ways that remain yet to be understood.
Naturally, such a successful business idea didn’t go unnoticed. Hailing mostly from Israel, a whole army of “private Mossads” is waiting in the shadows, eager to accomplish all sorts of missions on behalf of their clients, be it winning a local election or tarnishing the reputation of activists protesting Israel’s intervention in Gaza. Matching their logos to slogans like “Shape reality”, these companies blur the lines between surveillance and outright espionage, all in the name of profit and with an almost complete disregard for the consequences of their actions.
Breaking the Cycle of Dispossession
Focusing on our right to privacy might look like a futile exercise to the masses who only see the shiny surface of surveillance. The examples provided so far demonstrate it is not.
By invading our privacy, surveillance capitalists profile us and feed us a crafted view of the world; by severely restricting our access to unbiased information, they strip us of the fundamental human right that is self-determination; finally, by preventing us from developing a critical and independent view on the world they turn us into easy targets for populist, fear mongers and charlatans of all sorts, whose actions are already damaging democracy worldwide.
Faced with such a powerful system, one’s first reaction might be to despair and declare the battle lost. But we’re not done yet. In fact, there’s a lot we can do to tame the surveillance beast, both at the personal and political levels.
First and foremost, we need to spread the word among our friends and families. People must be made aware of the fact that they are being effectively spied upon by unaccountable entities that operate in obscure ways. This is not going to be an easy task, as people are now accustomed to free services and see no harm in data extraction.
Nonetheless, this is by far the most important step for civil rights activists who want to fight surveillance capitalism: a sizable group of informed citizens is needed to trigger political action.
Furthermore, informed citizens are dangerous to surveillance capitalism not only because they can demand political action, but also because they can adopt counter measures to data extraction. By moving away from surveillance services, installing tracking protections or removing proprietary software from their devices, these citizens can effectively reduce the amount of information extracted from them, thus directly harming the companies relying on that data.
Informed citizens are dangerous to surveillance capitalism not only because they can demand political action, but also because they can adopt counter measures to data extraction.
Regardless of how much effort we put into it, personal activism alone will not solve the surveillance problem. Political action is needed if we want to break the cycle of dispossession. What political action should we call for, though?
It would be hard to cover all the potential actions a state or the EU could undertake to protect its citizens from surveillance, but it’s worth mentioning two that could have a significant impact, if the Union was willing to follow up on them.
For starters, we could demand the creation of an investment program aimed at helping free and open source projects that offer viable alternatives to surveillance services. These alternatives already exist, but are are largely ignored by users who prefer the free services offered by “household names” like Facebook and Google.
For starters, we could demand the creation of an investment program aimed at helping free and open source projects that offer viable alternatives to surveillance services.
Investing in the development of such projects might help citizens move away from proprietary services and, at the same time, create a new market for independent, local and privacy respecting companies that will create new jobs and help EU citizens keep their wealth, and data, on this side of the Atlantic.
Another important action the EU could undertake to curtail the power of surveillance companies would be the dismantling of one of the biggest tax avoidance schemes in history: the so called double Irish, Dutch sandwich. Google reportedly shifted 23 billion dollars to Bermuda in 2017 alone using shell companies and tax loopholes; money it can then use to pressure local governments by promising or denying investments in their country.
Forcing surveillance companies to pay their fair share could have far reaching consequences: it would vastly reduce their bargaining power with governments and at the same time it would allow the EU to tap into a river of money that could be used for the good of the many and not for the profit of the few.
One last political action we could demand from the EU would be to develop a comprehensive, robust, legally and financially sound framework meant to enable widespread cooperative ownership and control of the European digital infrastructure. Allowing common citizens to fund or become part of cooperatives that own and operate the services they use on a daily basis is by far the best way to make sure our fundamental rights are safeguarded: when the set of those who use a system perfectly overlaps with the set of those who control it, then exploitative behaviour becomes highly unlikely.
Unfortunately, as things are, it’s hard to imagine the EU ever taking any of these steps to protect its citizens, and itself, from the effects of surveillance capitalism. Weak, divided and liberal to the core, the EU appears unwilling to impose regulations that depart from the free market dogma even in the slightest of ways. It should though, as tackling tax avoidance and surveillance would in turn allow European institutions to partially contain inequality and fake news, the two major sources of power for the right-wing, nationalist parties that threaten the Union’s very existence.
This article is part of Surveillance Capitalism: Utopia for the Few series. Read the other chapters below.
Michele Kipiel stands for Open Source, Videogames, Philosophy, Cooperatives, P2P, History, Sci-Fi, RPGs, Socialism, Memes, Anarchy. Not necessarily in that order.