What is surveillance capitalism and how does it affect me?

What is surveillance capitalism and how does it affect me?

Personal data is the new currency and we are paying the price, all while big tech is cashing in.

It’s your niece’s birthday and you decide to get her a LEGO set. It does not take much more than a few clicks to find what you are looking for online. Add to basket. Select quick pay. Poof! It’s on your doorstep. Ah, the wonders of the modern day! But soon, LEGO ads in fluorescent colors call out for your attention on Facebook, Google and Amazon. It seems surveillance capitalism has played one of its tricks on you. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. 

Enter, surveillance capitalism 

Even if you are yet to understand what it means, you have already fallen victim to surveillance capitalism, assuming that you are reading this on your laptop, smartphone, tablet or likewise. The term was coined by Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard Business School professor and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and it refers to how social media platforms and search engines profit off selling the data you deposit online. 

These platforms monitor your every move. Your social circles and how you interact with them. Your likes and dislikes. What you search for, what stays in your shopping cart and what you purchase. As they gather more information, they analyze your behavior and habits in order to build a profile of you that understands what grabs your attention and what triggers certain reactions. Being able to predict your behavior means these corporations can sell your information to advertisers looking to target you with their products and services. Advertisers who are desperate to convince you that you need another LEGO set. 

“That all sounds a bit creepy but does it really matter if it means I get access to free services?” you may ask. You are not alone in thinking this way, though a big part of the problem is that most of us do not understand the full extent of how our information is being exploited. Therefore, the big tech industry continues to get away with it. Selling users’ personal information has become a dependable source of monetization for major online platforms and, as a result, they continue to grow more powerful. Meantime, the scope is changing as smart watches and smart homes give further insight in areas such as health and habits. Imagine what could be next. 

50 shades of grey

The truly murky areas of big tech already exist. Collecting your data is not only limited to repeating LEGO ads based on recent searches. Oftentimes, data about an individual or a certain demographic is sold to third-party data brokers that collate this information into neat and revealing packages, supported by data from various sources. When taken a step further, this kind of personal data can be sold to organizations with a political agenda. Let’s say you want to shape people’s behavior in relation to an upcoming election or policy change, or even destabilize a democracy, this kind of information is precious. 

The Facebook – Cambridge Analytica scandal is often used as a shocking example. If you are not familiar with the scandal, it refers to how the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica unlawfully collected personal data from 87 million Facebook users. The data was harvested under the pretense of academic research when, in reality, it informed for advertising during elections. Despite Facebook being fined and brought to court as a result of failing to protect its users, they are yet to face consequences that deter them from similar behavior. The truth is that this case is only special because it reached the public eye.

As you can see, using services such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp is far from free. We live in the age of surveillance capitalism, where the internet has become the land of the lawless and where grey areas are sought after. The days where an app was just an app are long gone. Scrolling is not merely a mindless time-killer. And a personalised ad is only the tip of the iceberg. 

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