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Privacy and Surveillance Capitalism: Debord’s Reality in 2020

The concept of privacy has been through a long process of development throughout history; it is in some ways as old as humanity. Although what is considered to be private differs according to the era, the society, and the individual in that particular context. Even in the Bible, we see that Adam and Eve started covering their bodies with fig leaves in order to protect or preserve their privacy. Privacy as a legal right that we observe today in most parts of the world came about much later. The importance of privacy can be related to the fact that privacy has a very close connection to human dignity, freedom, and independence of the individual, and it is more and more challenged in the age of the rapid technological development of the information society. In this digital epoch, we witness that privacy that was up until recently considered as a legal right — transcending into the domain of a commodity under modern capitalistic society. The process has rapidly become a part of our everyday life, and most of us are unaware of the same. The pervasive integration of technology into our lives has led to a novel construction of social, economic and political power relations. This transcends privacy from a state of existence to a commodity.

Technology, in its various manifestations, has become a central part of our life both voluntarily  and involuntarily. Voluntarily — by merely choosing to interact through digital media and involuntarily by existing in the age of surveillance capitalism. According to Shoshana Zuboff, a new economic order has emerged that claims human experience as free raw material for concealed commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales resulting in large-scale behavioral modification. She terms this phenomenon as Surveillance Capitalism. In recent times we see that every action in one’s daily life is tracked and the data of the same is collected. Every search on Google, the content we like on Facebook, the book we buy on Amazon, the preferences on Netflix or YouTube, the credit card swipes, and even the commands we give to virtual home assistants like Alexa are all tracked. The data is collected through strategic mechanisms and algorithmic methods. All the data collected is then scanned, analyzed, and monetized by these tech companies. Here we see that human beings are used as raw material or assets to extract the data. This process results in a multi-billion-dollar data industry that simply functions on mining data from various data points..

In simple words, a commodity is something that can be purchased and sold in a market. Therefore, when we say that in this epoch privacy has transformed into a commodity, then the question arises, what is the value one gets in exchange for their privacy? There is no such thing as a free lunch; the social media websites we use, the email addresses we all have, the blogs we read, and the YouTube videos we watch, may on the face of it seem free of cost. However, in reality, we give away some of our private identifiable information (PII) in exchange for these resources. This private information or privacy that we give away as a commodity in exchange for these “free” resources is then monetized in various ways. One of the most common examples of this is targeted advertisement. These tech giants track, assess, and analyze the interactions and behavior of each individual and collect the data in the form of personally identifiable information. This data is then simply used to figure out our buying habits and then bombard the browser and applications with a steady stream of advertisements curated for each individual. The key to this technique is that machine learning and AI technologies are capable of influencing and predicting the behavior and personality of the users. Statistics show us that there is plenty of revenue generated through the mode of targeted advertisements. For instance, Google, whose revenues surged by a whopping 3,600 percent in four years after introducing its advertising platform — from $86 million in 2001 to over $3 billion by 2004. 

According to Shoshana Zuboff, “Privacy, they said, was the price one must pay for the abundant rewards of information, connection, and other digital goods” seems to be the fundamental model these tech companies operate in the capitalist system. This demonstrates that there is a trade-off between privacy and the benefits of the digital world. Although it may seem like a fair trade, the implications are far worse than we think.

Firstly, there is an inherent philosophical problem in this system. It  almost seems  problematic to operate in a system where human experiences and interactions are extracted as raw materials. Until now, human beings were the consumers and producers of commodities using raw materials available in nature. Humans are considered the most excellent resource simply because human beings seemingly create more resources and are intrinsic to the growth and development of the world. Therefore, it seems wrong to treat them as resources from a philosophical perspective. Moreover, the process of using human beings as raw material leads to an opening for various forms of ethical violations. For instance, an experiment performed by Facebook on its users in which Facebook’s data scientists manipulated the news feeds of 689,003 users, changing the emotional quotient of a post. Adam Kramer, the lead researcher was motivated to understand how emotional content affected users and their emotional expression. The study concluded that emotional content affected our own expression and people who were not exposed to extreme emotional content were less likely to be expressive on online platforms. Since the revenue models of social media platforms are based on interaction by the users, concerns of being exposed to tailored content to prolong usage become valid. Such fears are often aggravated by the fact that we are at a time in the digital epoch, where a company can get away with manipulating more than half a million users without consent. This is where the user remains vulnerable because social media platforms possess control of how and what content is shown to you. Kramer’s research depicts how extensive the collection and analysis of user data is and how it is. Hence, we see the ethical perils of using human beings as raw material.

Extending from the previous idea, tech giants have vast amounts of our private information, much more than we think. In most other forms of commodifiable exchanges, both parties are well aware of the terms of the transaction. In the case of privacy, the terms of the transaction are embedded in the fine print under a privacy policy. Moreover, the privacy policy for any digital service is generally overlooked or incomprehensible, or a person may simply be unaware of the implications of giving away private information. The information that these companies have can be used to manipulate us as we have seen in the past. In the aftermath of the US presidential election in 2016, the company Cambridge Analytica boasted that its techniques were instrumental in identifying supporters, persuading undecided voters, and driving turnout to the polls on Donald Trump’s behalf. Our digital dossiers extend well beyond the individual pieces of information we know are online somewhere; they now include stuff about us that can be surmised only through studying our patterns of behavior. All these little actions we think of as our “private” business are actually data points that can be aggregated and wielded to manipulate our world. This form of the system also feeds into the concept of authoritarian power structures.

Another critical issue with treating privacy as a commodity is that privacy costs often become evident after they have been paid. When we sign up for a particular service in exchange for our private information, in most scenarios, we are entirely unaware of the implication or how the information is going to be utilized. This leaves us at the mercy of the tech companies harnessing our data. For instance, is a service that would protect your email from spam and sort the inbox into separate categories email, creating an efficient model. The service received a good rating and was even tweeted highly about in 2014. It had millions of users who had provided the company access to their email accounts. In 2017 it was revealed that while is cleaning up users’ inboxes, it is also rifling through their trash. The service would look through digital receipts of its users and sell them to other rival companies; for example, receipts of Lyft were sold to Uber. A class-action lawsuit was filed by one of its users after that. Therefore, we see that when we cash our privacy as currency for petty conveniences, we are mostly unaware of the costs of the same.

Those who defend the system of surveillance capitalism tend to make a futile argument saying “nothing to hide, nothing to fear”. The main impact of this phrase is to encourage complete trust in state powers. It assures you that you will never face wrongful suspicion or misuse of powers, for only the guilty are affected by mass surveillance. But the reality is that the state and its constituents have misused their power time and again and used surveillance as weapons to do the same. For instance, automatic license plate recognition is  a technology that the traffic police have started using as a means to track traffic violations. But since thousands of cameras of the same are installed in a city, it has been misused by several police officers to track people for personal reasons. Revolutions often bring about drastic alterations to the social-economic conditions of any period. However, during the period of a revolution, it is impossible to  predict the changes that it will bring. The information revolution that is taking place at the moment is seminal; it is the most influential transformation since Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing in circa 1439. The printing press dramatically changed the trajectory of our future; however, no one, not even Johannes Gutenberg himself would have been able to imagine how his technology would influence the entire modern world. The printing press sparked, directly and indirectly, numerous landmark events and led to the Renaissance, helped fuel the Reformation and challenge the authority of the influential Catholic church; sparked an industrial and a technological revolution, created the conditions for the manifestation of space exploration. Just like the residents of Mainz (Gutenberg’s hometown) were going through a revolution, we are amidst another epochal socio-economic transformational, an informational revolution: surveillance capitalism. And like the residents of Mainz, we cannot fathom how it will affect our socio-economic and political institutions in the future. Because of the unforeseeable consequences that it will manifest, commerce-driven capitalism gets away with hoarding our data without our explicit consent. We cannot perform a cost-benefit analysis on costs that we have not incurred yet since we are unaware of the long-term issues in autonomy, politics and human rights. We allow the system to continue its blasphemous exploits. This in part is results from the fact that the networked sphere has penetrated into our lives and the internet is a space that has become necessary for social participation and validation; it has become integral to our daily functioning and living. The same space is now saturated with commerce, education, politics and has also become fundamental for surveillance capitalist operations.They exploit our dependency on the internet and its services, leaving us in a lurch where the only two options are complete isolation or guilty indulgence. Shifting the burden of responsibly deciding, on us, a decision that in reality is premade by social and institutional factors, this numbs us into denial, complacency, and resignation to the fact that we are being monitored continuously, manipulated, and modified. Hiding under the guise of inevitability and convenience, it sends us running to futile defenses like “I have nothing to hide” or “This is inevitable”, this economic logic gets normalized and internalized in our lives. These strategic mechanisms become ever so pervasive that  we subconsciously obey its decrees and become part and parcel of its sustenance. Therefore, surveillance capitalism exploits our need for speed, efficiency, and convenience, clawing away at our peace of mind, autonomy, and future.

Vedaansh Kaushik is a sophomore at Ashoka University studying Economics and International Relations. 

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