The Surveillance Economy
Season 4: Episode 5
In her new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Harvard Business School’s Shoshana Zuboff argues that tech companies — like Google and Facebook — collect so much personal data for profit, that they’re changing the fundamentals of our economy and way of life. And now these companies are learning to shape our behavior to better serve their business goals. Shoshana joins Manoush Zomorodi to explain what this all means for us.
We then explore whether or not it’s time to end our relationship with corporate spies. OG advice columnist Dear Abby gives us some tips to start with. We chat with philosopher S. Matthew Liao. He asks if we have a moral duty to quit Facebook. Alice Marwick explains why most people won’t leave the social network. And journalist Nithin Coca tells us what it was like for him to quit both Facebook and Google. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t easy, but he has no regrets.
Read Professor S. Matthew Liao’s Op-Ed Do You Have a Moral Duty to Leave Facebook? in the New York Times.
Here is Nithin Coca’s story on fully quitting Google.
Mozilla is on your side. Firefox has never — and will never — sell your data. And, we make things that give you more control over your life online. If you love Facebook but hate their data collection practices, reduce what they can track about you. Try Firefox’s Facebook Container extension, which makes it harder for Facebook to track you on the web outside of Facebook.
Want more? Mozilla has teamed up with 826 Valencia to bring you perspectives written by students on IRL topics this season. Gisele C. from De Marillac Academy wrote this piece on the importance of diversity in tech.
And, check out this article from Common Sense Media, on the science behind kids’ tech obsessions.
Manoush Z.: Do you know the advice column, Dear Abby? People have spilled their guts to this namesake newspaper advice columnist since 1956. Millions of people have enjoyed reading the sharing of secrets and confessions, and the no-nonsense advice Abby offers in return.
Jeanne Phillips: Hi everyone, this is Dear Abby. Actually I’m Jeanne Phillips, but I’m better known as Dear Abby.
Manoush Z.: Jeanne Phillips inherited the job from her mother, Pauline Phillips. We reached out to Jeanne, or Abby, because because we could use some relationship advice ourselves. It’s about our relationship with this friend we spend most of our time with: the Internet. Maybe this is a friend we can longer trust?
Speaker 3: Dear Abby. I think my friend the Internet is spying on me. I share everything with her. She knows what I like and don’t like. What I buy and where I shop. Where I’ve been and where I want to go. Who I might vote for and what issues I believe in. Everything. It turns out, my friend the Internet is taking my information and sharing it with other friends. They even pay her for it! It sucks because she is a huge part of my life. But it’s like she’s spying on me! What do I do? Signed, it’s Complicated.
Jeanne Phillips: To It’s Complicated, A close friend does not disclose the private chats that you’re having. You can’t trust a person like this. You can’t take back what’s out there. A person who mistreats you isn’t a friend. Somebody who uses you is not a friend. In the future, be careful what you reveal to this so-called friend, who doesn’t seem like much a friend to me at all.
Manoush Z.: Dear Abby’s tough love makes it obvious: on the internet, we let tech companies get away with more bad behavior than we’d ever let our real life friends get away with. The Big Tech companies especially - like Google, Facebook, Amazon and so on.And the relationships we all have with these companies have fueled an entire digital economy. An economy where companies watch everything we say and do, and then turn that knowledge into profit. This online data economy is so pervasive - and so lucrative - that author Shoshana Zuboff has coined a new word for it: Surveillance Capitalism.
In a moment, Shoshana explains what Surveillance Capitalism is and how it is shaping, and modifying our online and offline behavior. And then, we’ll explore if we should cut ties with these companies… or if we even could cut those ties if we wanted to.
I’m Manoush Zomorodi. This is IRL: Online Life is Real Life. An original podcast from Mozilla.
Mozilla fights for a safe and open Internet that everyone can enjoy. You can support that mission, by trying out the Firefox browser. Firefox never sells your data. Download it at firefox dot com.
Manoush Z.: Shoshana Zuboff doesn’t think Google, Facebook, or the others are our friends. She believes the online world they’ve created doesn’t leave much room for pleasantries. I mean, it’s right there in the title of her book.
Shoshana Zuboff: My new book is called “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power”.
Manoush Z.: Shoshana says these companies are not the democratizing and empowering tools they claim to be. And surveillance capitalism is spreading across our entire economy. A market economy where our private lives are what’s for sale.
Shoshana Zuboff: This is a new era of capitalism in which it is now private, human experience that lives outside the marketplace, that has been unilaterally claimed for the market, dragged into the market, renamed as “behavioral data”, and now traded and exchanged in a new kind of marketplace that is founded and operated by surveillance capitalism.
Manoush Z.: How did you come up with the term “surveillance capitalism”?
Shoshana Zuboff: Well, I think it comes down to this: you know, reading early documents, and listening to many early speeches, and reading some of the early patents, and at this point I’m talking largely about Google, right at the beginning here. Once they discovered that they could extract more behavioral data than they needed to improve, for example, their search products and services, this extra data, that was just at that point sort of stuffed into their data logs, sitting on their servers and not being used, and through a series of events they realized that they could use those data to predict who was most likely to click on which ad.
These extra data are what I call “behavioral surplus”, because it was more than they needed just to improve their products and services. Their desire to hunt and capture these behavioral surplus data was so intense, because it was going to finally be the road that cracked the code to how to monetize this young internet business. So their desire for these data was so intense that they began to explicitly formulate the idea that they were willing to hunt and capture that data while bypassing the user’s awareness.
Therefore, surveillance capitalism is essentially the only thing that you can call it, because it represents the social reality, as well as the economic imperative.
Manoush Z.: It is very, very poetic, and quite sinister actually, when you describe it. Can we make clear how Facebook fits into surveillance capitalism?
Shoshana Zuboff: Sheryl Sandberg, she’s a very brilliant and talented woman, and she was an extremely successful executive at Google, where she was involved in these very early phases of developing the logic of surveillance capitalism. In my book I describe Sheryl Sandberg as the “Typhoid Mary” of surveillance capitalism, because she’s really the one who began the process of dispersing … bringing the germs from one institution to another, where it gradually began to infect all internet businesses, all start-ups, all apps, all developers, and then as we now know, has moved out from Silicon Valley across the entire economy, really to found a new surveillance-based economic order.
Manoush Z.: Right. So it’s not just Facebook, all the companies … majority of the companies, are part of this surveillance capitalism. Why is it so irresistible, Shoshana?
Shoshana Zuboff: I think one reason that it’s irresistible, Manoush, is that in our globalized economy where prices have been driven down to the lowest common denominator, and people can shop online and easily find the lowest price, everyone in our very modern economy is chasing margins. We’ve had relatively low inflation, and so now this data surplus, this behavioral surplus, which we can sell into these new markets that trade explicitly in bets on the future of human behavior, I call these “behavioral futures markets”, now we see these same behavioral futures markets thriving in the retail sector, and the insurance sector, and the healthcare sector, in the entertainment sector, in the automotive sector.
Just recently the CEO of Ford Motor saying, “Hey, you know what? Our vehicles really are surveillance operations. We have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people in our vehicles, we can collect so much data about their behavior, and then we can monetize that data.” So maybe that should be Ford’s new business.
Manoush Z.: Can I just ask you, is there proof that surveillance capitalism does indeed work, that it increases the margins of these companies who are doing the ad targeting, or selling their wares based on the information they’re getting from the big tech companies?
Shoshana Zuboff: We see that Google has shot up in record time in market capitalization, Facebook has followed that same path. Amazon, a ruthless capitalist, but for many years not a surveillance capitalist, but now we see with its Alexa and this whole push toward ubiquitous sensing and recording and so forth, with it’s personalization effort, it has now swerved into the surveillance capitalist domain. And as these companies move into this domain, we see their bottom line, their revenues and their profit, are increasing.
And slowly, what the competitive pressures have forced these companies to realize, is that the most predictive data of all is the data that comes from my actually intervening in your behavior and shaping it toward those courses of action that are going to be most profitable for me because they’re most profitable for my business customers.
Manoush Z.: Right. So not just collecting behavior, but shaping behavior.
Shoshana Zuboff: So one example of this is Pokemon Go. It was peddled to us as all fun and games for the family, out having an adventure in the city or across the parks of your suburban town. But in fact Pokemon Go was, as I argue, was a kind of experiment in population scale behavior modification for the purposes of serving … the company behind Pokemon Go is called Niantic Labs … for serving Niantic Labs’ behavioral futures markets. Where it had restaurants and retailers and bars and pizza joints that paid to play. They said, “Yeah, we’ll have a Pokemon gym in our place, and you herd people to my bar, to my restaurant, to my establishment, and I’ll pay you per visit.”
Manoush Z.: Can I just ask you, what … Where does … Where do we … Let’s say someone’s like, “Pokemon Go, that’s annoying. But it’s really fun, and I get outside and I run around, and it’s a great time.” How do you recommend people sort of weigh the enjoyment or convenience that they get out of these services, versus the huge trade-offs that you have outlined?
Shoshana Zuboff: The first thing is that we all need to better grasp what the trade-offs really are, because once you learn how to modify human behavior at scale, we’re talking about a kind of power now invested in these private companies. This is a really big deal, because it bodes for a future kind of society that I don’t think any of us would choose, because it’s a deeply anti-democratic kind of future that we’re on the road to here.
The second thing is that, it is entirely illegitimate and unjust for individuals to have to bare the brunt of this situation. What has been created under the regime of surveillance capitalism is a situation where our means of social participation have been conflated with the means through which surveillance capitalists collect their data and seek to modify our behavior, we are simply the source of raw material for a vibrant dynamic market process that serves others and does not serve us. This is a deep pathological injustice, a new source of inequality, that is now institutionalized in our societies, that we don’t really know anything about, and this is simply not okay.
Manoush Z.: Shoshana Zuboff’s book is “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”. And look, if we lived in a world where the big tech companies actually told us what they do with all of our data, where they keep it, how they use it in their algorithms, maybe we wouldn’t have to be as worried as Shoshana says. Maybe if we had some transparency, there’d be more of a working relationship that we could have with these companies.
But they don’t tell us, and we don’t know, and so when Shoshana argues that big tech companies data mining practices turns people, us, into little more than data points to be manipulated and commodified, well, it rings pretty true, and it doesn’t sound so friendly.
Shoshana says that Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, is the Typhoid Mary of surveillance capitalism. Facebook is a master of this new economy.
In the past year, Facebook has drawn the most fire for this practice. The spread of propaganda and misinformation on the platform? The Cambridge Analytica scandal? And how that may have influenced an election? All thesE controversies, and the others, it’s all a result of how Surveillance Economy mines and sells our data.
If we followed Dear Abby’s advice to the letter… would we break up with Facebook for being an untrustworthy friend? The New York Times wrote that Facebook feels like, quote, and I love this quote, “a cheating romantic partner who was caught betraying us and apologized — only to be caught again weeks later.”
Last year, the hashtag #deletefacebook made the rounds, and some people did that very thing. They quit Facebook. And for a moment there, the blowback even cost the company money. $37 billion dollars of its market value.
So a lot of us in some circles are fed up with how Facebook is spying on us and adding us into the behavioral data market that Shoshana described. It won’t surprise you to learn that she is not on Facebook:
Shoshana: Of all the surveillance capitalists, Facebook is the most intimate. I have never had an account on Facebook. I don’t operate on Facebook. I caution all those who are close to me, friends and family, to do the same, but I also recognize that that’s not a viable solution for many people.
Manoush Z.: Unlike Shoshana, though, well over two billion people are still on the platform. The company still rakes in billions in earnings every quarter. Users don’t seem ready or willing to leave. So why not? Matthew Liao has been wrestling with that question.
Matthew Liao: I’m the Director of the Center for Bioethics at New York University.
Manoush Z.: Matthew is a philosopher, and in November he wrote an article asking if users should quit Facebook.
Matthew Liao: The title of my article is called “Do You Have a Moral Duty to Leave Facebook?”.
Manoush Z.: Matthew joined Facebook in 2009, and he says it’s been useful for him both professionally and personally. He’s always felt pretty good about it.
Matthew Liao: That is, until recently. When I started to get worried about it, when I learned that … it was about the Cambridge Analytica and how Facebook might have been involved in being used to influence a political election, and that got me worried about my complicity, like whether I am contributing to that too, the demise of democracy.
Manoush Z.: What did you decide? Are you complicit with the demise of democracy?
Matthew Liao: I started to realize that the situation’s a lot more complex. As I learned about how Facebook was involved in being used to perpetrate genocide in Myanmar, or the hate crimes, and also the fake news that’s rampant on social media generally.
Manoush Z.: What you’ve just said would, I think, make anyone want to quit Facebook. Does this mean that you have quit Facebook?
Matthew Liao: So I haven’t yet quit Facebook. I was thinking, what would Facebook have to do for me to quit it? It seems that Facebook didn’t know that Cambridge Analytica was using the data to try to influence a political election, I think they were just a bit too loose with their regulations regarding data privacy, but they weren’t intentionally trying to influence the election.
Manoush Z.: So you’re arguing that it’s not Facebook’s fault that Facebook has been used for the kind of stuff that you just described?
Matthew Liao: Yeah. Yeah, so I think that’s right. It’s not their fault directly, but given that it’s sort of taking place on their platform I do think that they have a responsibility. At the same time, I am giving Facebook the benefit of the doubt, and partly the reason is that there are about 2 billion users on Facebook at the moment, and I think we just … we’ve never had a technology with that many users, so I can see from their perspective that try as they might they … it’s just very hard for them to be everywhere.
Manoush Z.: You sound “Oh, god. This one friend, They just need to get their act together or else I cannot hang out with them anymore.”
Matthew Liao: That’s exactly it, that’s exactly how I feel.
Manoush Z.: You can read Matthew’s full argument online, we’ll put a link to it in the show notes to this episode at irlpodcast.org.
Moral duty or not… surveillance economy or not… plenty of us are sticking with Facebook for now.
Alice Marwick: I think without a service to jump to, a lot of the current users are not going to give up the benefits that it provides.
Manoush Z.: Alice Marwick is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Alice Marwick: I talk to a lot of people who hate the way that Facebook targets advertising, and they feel that Facebook knows things about them that they don’t necessarily want Facebook to know. But at the same time, they … a lot of people feel that they’re addicted to Facebook, or that they need to check Facebook every day or they are going to miss out on what their friends and family are doing.
So there’s this kind of sense that there’s nothing better to use, they’re stuck using it, all their friends use it.
Manoush Z.: This is essentially the secret to Facebook’s success. If you love it, it can feel irreplaceable.
Alice Marwick: We know that when people go through big life transitions, like when they have a baby for example or when they retire, they often need a lot of social support during those time periods, and Facebook is often where people who don’t necessarily have a lot of other social support in their day-to-day life can go to get that.
Manoush Z.: So if you depend on it to stay connected, why would you let that go?
Alice Marwick: So when you have a technology where there’s this benefit to you right in front of you, and the harms are this … kind of negligible, I don’t really know what this is, that is a trade-off that most people aren’t gonna make. Only the most vocipherous privacy advocates, and not even all of them, are going to opt out of using a technology simply because it violates privacy.
Manoush Z.: Ok, so… Matthew isn’t ready to break up … Alice explains why a lot of people will never quit. Even Dear Abby admits she’s hooked!
Dear Abby: Oh my god, you really want to know what my relationship with Facebook is? I spend too much time on it. It’s the darndest thing. I start looking at the feed that I’m getting, and it’s on and on and on and all of a sudden an hour has gone by and I’m going, “What happened?”
Manoush Z.: If you really do worry about where all this is headed, and you want to minimize your part in this game, you can opt out. People have been known to quit Facebook and go on living happy lives. Freelance journalist Nithin Coca did so many years ago. He opted out of the surveillance economy - at least, as much as he could. He admits it was hard. At first.
Nithin Coca: I remember that there was several weeks where I would reflexively type in Facebook on my browser without even thinking about it, and then the page would show up, I’d be like, “Oh, yeah. I don’t have an account anymore.”
Manoush Z.: And then, well, things got better.
Nithin Coca: I remember I felt like I had more time to do other things online that I didn’t before, because Facebook did take up so much time. I felt like the communication that I was having with my close friends was like a lot better, and more meaningful and more in person than it was before. There was definitely some people that were not inviting me to events, and there were some … I felt like I had less idea what was going on socially in graduate school. I didn’t know who was seeing who, I didn’t have the same level of access to gossip as before, but actually that was … I found that I don’t really need that.
Manoush Z.: Nithin didn’t miss Facebook, then in 2016 he took things a step further. He tried to quit Google.
Nithin Coca: Quitting Google took me over a year because there’s just so many different Google services I was using, and I had to find alternatives for every single service and like move my information over from those different services to an alternative. It was far, far more challenging than Facebook ever was and required, I can’t imagine, how many hours of just testing and trying different tools, and just trying to find a … figure out ways to move information.
Manoush Z.: And Nithin’s pulled it off, mostly. He lives an online life without the biggest social media site, and without the biggest internet services company. He is proof that if you really wanna quit, it is possible.
Nithin Coca: I think the benefit is, now I control all my data, I know where all my information is. I’ve been able to learn a lot about how challenging it is for these other alternatives to compete with Google because they have such huge market share, and it kinda shows how the internet is no longer this open space for people to develop different tools and ideas, it’s really being monopolized by a few big giants.
Manoush Z.: Throughout this episode, I have called out the big tech companies, and Facebook in particular, for their data practices. Why? Well because they’re the biggest, but the surveillance economy as Shoshana Zuboff calls it, it spreads wider than that. For more on how our data trail is harvested, go back to the first episode of this season. The episode is called “Checking Out Online Shopping”, it’s a good one. That’s where you can hear about how brick and mortar stores, offline stores, are actually also playing the data game.
Change seems to be coming, if slowly. France just fined Google nearly $57 million US dollars for violating Europe’s sweeping privacy law, the GDPR. Chump change for Google, but it’s also a warning.
And the US Federal Trade Commission has been investigating if Facebook has broken privacy rules. So, on the regulatory front, it’s looking like companies may start to pay - literally - for their rampant collection and usage of our data.
Apple CEO Tim Cook is saying it’s time to stand up for privacy. And, of course, he’s saying that because it’s good for Apple’s core business. But it’s also true. It is time to stand up for privacy.
It might also be time for these companies to follow our lead… maybe reach out to Dear Abby for advice on how to they can do better.
Saving Face: Dear Abby, Last year, a bunch of my users - sorry, uh, “friends” - confronted me. They accused me of taking their personal information and sharing it with strangers for my own personal gain. I’ve admitted that I’ve made mistakes. I said I’m sorry many many many many times. How can I prove to them that I can be a good friend? Signed, Saving Face
Jeanne Phillips: To Saving Face. Treat them as you would want to be treated. Let your actions from now on speak for themselves. That’s how you’ll be judged.
Manoush Z.: Mozilla is with you. Instead of asking what we can do with technology, their asking what we should do with tech. Their Firefox browser is safe, includes private browsing and tracking protection. You can also install an extension called “Facebook Container”, it can limit some of the data Facebook collects about you, and even reduce micro targeting. Get it for free at mozilla.org/firefox/facebookcontainer, or just find the link in the show notes.
In our next episode, bold alternatives to big tech’s internet dominance. We’re checking out the decentralized web, which I promise you, is way more interesting than it sounds. We’re gonna find out if, as it’s proponents say, it really is the future of a more secure internet, one that gives you control over your data and your life.
For now, this is “IRL: Online Life is Real Life”, an original podcast from Mozilla. I’m Manoush Zomorodi.
I’m gonna … I hope you’re okay with this. I’m gonna label your behavior as “Leader of the Rebellion.”
Shoshana Zuboff: I’d be very proud. I’d be very proud to carry that banner, Manoush.