Surveillance capitalism

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Surveillance capitalism is an economic system centred around the commodification of personal data with the core purpose of profit-making. The concept of surveillance capitalism, as described by Shoshana Zuboff, arose as advertising companies, led by Google's AdWords, saw the possibilities of using personal data to target consumers more precisely.[1] While industrial capitalism exploited and controlled nature with devastating consequences, surveillance capitalism exploits and controls human nature with a totalitarian order as the endpoint of the development.[2]

Increased data collection may have various advantages for individuals and society such as self-optimization (Quantified Self),[3] societal optimizations (such as by smart cities) and optimized services (including various web applications). However, collecting and processing data in the context of capitalism's core profit-making motive might present a danger to human liberty, autonomy, and wellbeing. Capitalism has become focused on expanding the proportion of social life that is open to data collection and data processing.[3] This may come with significant implications for vulnerability and control of society as well as for privacy.

Economic pressures of capitalism are driving the intensification of connection and monitoring online with spaces of social life becoming open to saturation by corporate actors, directed at the making of profit and/or the regulation of action. Therefore, personal data points increased in value after the possibilities of targeted advertising were known.[4] Consequently, the increasing price of data has limited accessibility to the purchase of personal data points to the richest in society.[5]


Shoshana Zuboff writes that "analysing massive data sets began as a way to reduce uncertainty by discovering the probabilities of future patterns in the behavior of people and systems".[6] In 2014 Vincent Mosco referred to the marketing of information about customers and subscribers to advertisers as surveillance capitalism and makes note of the surveillance state alongside it.[7] Christian Fuchs found that the surveillance state fuses with surveillance capitalism.[8] Similarly, Zuboff informs that the issue is further complicated by highly invisible collaborative arrangements with state security apparatuses. According to Trebor Scholz, companies recruit people as informants for this type of capitalism.[9] Zuboff contrasts mass production of industrial capitalism with surveillance capitalism with the former being interdependent with its populations who were its consumers and employees and the latter preying on dependent populations who are neither its consumers nor its employees and largely ignorant of its procedures.[10] Their research is demonstrating that the capitalist addition to analysing massive data sets has given its beginning purpose an unexpected turn.[1] Surveillance has been changing power structures in the information economy, potentially shifting the balance of power further from nation-states and towards large corporations employing the surveillance capitalist logic[11]

Zuboff notes that surveillance capitalism reaches beyond the conventional institutional terrain of the private firm and accumulates not only surveillance assets and capital, but also rights and operates without meaningful mechanisms of consent.[10] In other words, analysing massive data sets was at some point not only executed by the state apparatuses but also companies. In Zuboff's research she claims that the two companies; Google and Facebook invented and transferred surveillance capitalism into "a new logic of accumulation".[1][12][13] This mutation entailed both companies gathering very large numbers of data points about their users, with the core purpose of making profit. By selling these data points to external users (particularly advertisers) it has become an economic mechanism. The combination of the analysis of massive data sets and using those data sets as a market mechanism, has shaped the concept of surveillance capitalism. Surveillance capitalism has been heralded the successor to neoliberalism. [14] [15]

Oliver Stone, creator of the film Snowden, pointed to the location-based game Pokémon Go as the "latest sign of the emerging phenomenon and demonstration of surveillance capitalism". Stone criticised the game on the grounds that the location of its users was used not only for game purposes, but also to retrieve more information about its players. By tracking users' locations, the game collected far more information than just users' names and locations: "it can access the contents of your USB storage, your accounts, photographs, network connections, and phone activities, and can even activate your phone, when it is in standby mode". This data can then be analysed and commodified by companies such as Google (who significantly invested in the game's development) to improve the effectiveness of targeted advertisement.[16][17]

Another aspect of surveillance capitalism relates to the influence it has had on political campaigning. Personal data retrieved by data miners can enable various companies (most notoriously, Cambridge Analytica) to improve the targeting of political advertising, a step beyond the commercial ends of previous Surveillance Capitalist operations. In this way, it is possible that political parties will be able to produce far more finely targeted political advertising, to maximise its impact on the electorate. However, Doctorow writes that misuse of these data sets "will lead us towards totalitarianism".[18] This may resemble a corporatocracy, and Turow writes that "centrality of corporate power is a direct reality at the very heart of the digital age".[3][19]:17


Shoshana Zuboff[edit]

In Zuboff's theory, surveillance capitalism is a novel market form and a specific logic of capitalist accumulation. In her 2014 essay A Digital Declaration: Big Data as Surveillance Capitalism, she characterized it as a "radically disembedded and extractive variant of information capitalism" based on the commodification of "reality" and its transformation into behavioral data for analysis and sales.[20][21][22][23] To further understand this term, Donell Holloway of Edith Cowan University in Australia says "surveillance capitalism describes a market driven process where the commodity for sale is your personal data, and the capture and production of this data relies on mass surveillance of the internet."[24]

In a subsequent 2015 article, Zuboff analyzed the societal implications of this mutation of capitalism. She differentiated surveillance assets, surveillance capital, and surveillance capitalism, along with their dependence on a global architecture of computer mediation that she calls "Big Other", a distributed and largely uncontested new expression of power which constitutes hidden mechanisms of extraction, commodification, and control that threatens core values such as freedom, democracy, and privacy.[25][3] According to Donell Holloway (2019), "currently, the biggest “Big Other” actors are Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple...together, they collect and control unparalleled quantities of data about our behaviors, which they turn into products and services.[24]

Shoshana Zuboff believes, surveillance capitalism was pioneered at Google and later Facebook, in much the same way that mass-production and managerial capitalism were pioneered at Ford and General Motors a century earlier, and has now become the dominant form of information capitalism.[10]

In her Oxford University lecture published in 2016, Zuboff identified surveillance capitalism's mechanisms and practices, including the manufacture of "prediction products" for sale in new "behavioral futures markets". She introduced the concept "dispossession by surveillance" and argued that it challenges the psychological and political bases of self-determination as it concentrates rights in the surveillance regime. This is described as a "coup from above".[26]

During an interview with The Harvard Gazette in March 2019, Zuboff states her concern for this issue began all the way back in 2007. Zuboff defines 'surveillance capitalism' as "the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data...these data are then computed and packaged as prediction products and sold into behavioral futures markets — business customers with a commercial interest in knowing what we will do now, soon, and later."[27] She goes on to say part of the initial problem was "we rushed to the internet expecting empowerment, the democratization of knowledge, and help with real problems, but surveillance capitalism really was just too lucrative to resist."[27]

Key features[edit]

Shoshana Zuboff's book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism[28] was published on January 15, 2019. It is a detailed examination of the unprecedented power of surveillance capitalism and the quest by powerful corporations to predict and control our behavior.[29] Zuboff identifies four key features in the logic of surveillance capitalism and explicitly follows the four key features identified by Google's chief economist, Hal Varian:[30]

  1. The drive toward more and more data extraction and analysis.
  2. The development of new contractual forms using computer-monitoring and automation.
  3. The desire to personalize and customize the services offered to users of digital platforms.
  4. The use of the technological infrastructure to carry out continual experiments on its users and consumers.


Zuboff compares demanding privacy from surveillance capitalists or lobbying for an end to commercial surveillance on the Internet to asking Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand and states that such demands are existential threats that violate the basic mechanisms of the entity's survival.[10]

Zuboff warns that principles of self-determination might be forfeited due to "ignorance, learned helplessness, inattention, inconvenience, habituation, or drift" and states that "we tend to rely on mental models, vocabularies, and tools distilled from past catastrophes," referring to the twentieth century's totalitarian nightmares or the monopolistic predations of Gilded Age capitalism, with countermeasures that have been developed to fight those earlier threats not being sufficient or even appropriate to meet the novel challenges.[10]

She also poses the question: "will we be the masters of information, or will we be its slaves?" and states that "if the digital future is to be our home, then it is we who must make it so".[31]

In her book, Zuboff discusses the differences between industrial capitalism and surveillance capitalism. Zuboff writes industrial capitalism exploited the nature, surveillance capitalism exploits human nature.[32]

John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney[edit]

The term "surveillance capitalism" has also been used by political economists John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, although with a different meaning. In an article published in Monthly Review in 2014, they apply it to describe the manifestation of the "insatiable need for data" of financialization, which they explain is "the long-term growth speculation on financial assets relative to GDP" introduced in the United States by industry and government in the 1980s that evolved out of the military-industrial complex and the advertising industry.[33]


Numerous organizations have been working towards free speech and privacy rights in the new surveillance capitalism[34] and various national governments have enacted privacy laws. Government attention towards the dangers of surveillance capitalism were exposed after the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal that occurred in early 2018.[5] In response to the misuse of mass-surveillance multiple states have taken preventive measures. The European Union, for example, has reacted to these events and restricted its rules and regulations on misusing big data.[35] Surveillance-Capitalism has become a lot harder under these rules, known as the General Data Protection Regulations.[35] However, implementing preventative measures against misuse of mass-surveillance is hard for many countries as it requires structural change of the system.[36] [37]

Bruce Sterling's 2014 lecture at Strelka Institute "The epic struggle of the internet of things"[38] explained how consumer products could become surveillance objects that track people's everyday life. In his talk, Sterling highlights the alliances between multinational corporations who develop Internet of Things-based surveillance systems which feeds surveillance capitalism.[38][39][40]

In 2015, Tega Brain and Surya Mattu's satirical artwork Unfit Bits encourages users to subvert fitness data collected by Fitbits. They suggested ways to fake datasets by attaching the device, for example to a metronome or on a bicycle wheel.[41][42] In 2018, Brain created a project with Sam Lavigne called New Organs which collect people's stories of being monitored online and offline.[43][44]

The 2019 documentary film, The Great Hack, tells the story of how a company named Cambridge Analytica used Facebook to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Extensive profiling of users and news feeds that are ordered by black box algorithms were presented as the main source of the problem, which is also mentioned in Zuboff's book.[45]

Also in 2020, the COVID pandemic presented a new avenue for surveillance capitalism through electronic and biometric contact tracing, particularly in the Global South. The Centers for Disease Control Prevention (CDC)[46] developed guidelines for digital contact tracing processes and mobile applications. Apple and Google partnered to develop a Privacy-Preserving Contact Tracing[47] statement to provide guidance for individual developers, public health departments, and others who may be utilizing their technologies to create apps and processes for tracing the spread and existence of COVID-19 in communities and regions.

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ "The new tech totalitarianism". Retrieved 2021-02-21.
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  5. ^ a b Cadwalladr, Carole (20 June 2019). "The Great Hack". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 4 February 2020. Retrieved 6 February 2020.
  6. ^ Zuboff, Shoshana; Möllers, Norma; Murakami Wood, David; Lyon, David (2019-03-31). "Surveillance Capitalism: An Interview with Shoshana Zuboff". Surveillance & Society. 17 (1/2): 257–266. doi:10.24908/ss.v17i1/2.13238. ISSN 1477-7487.
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  8. ^ Fuchs, Christian (2017-02-20). Social Media: A Critical Introduction. SAGE. ISBN 9781473987494. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
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  11. ^ Galič, Maša; Timan, Tjerk; Koops, Bert-Jaap (13 May 2016). "Bentham, Deleuze and Beyond: An Overview of Surveillance Theories from the Panopticon to Participation". Philosophy & Technology. 30: 9–37. doi:10.1007/s13347-016-0219-1.
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  15. ^ Sandberg, Roy (May 2020) Archived 2020-07-01 at the Wayback Machine University of Helsinki. p. 33, 39, 87.
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  21. ^ Powles, Julia (2 May 2016). "Google and Microsoft have made a pact to protect surveillance capitalism". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 30 May 2020. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
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  29. ^ Zuboff 2019
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Further reading[edit]

  • Zuboff, Shoshana (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: PublicAffairs. ISBN 9781610395694. OCLC 1049577294.
  • Zuboff, Shoshana (2018). Das Zeitalter des Überwachungskapitalismus. Berlin: Campus Verlag. ISBN 9783593509303.

External links[edit]