And you wouldn’t be the only one crazy about Pokemon Go. In 2016, when Pokemon Go showed up in app stores, it became insanely popular because it forayed into the realm of augmented reality.
The game placed Pokemon characters in your local area and you had to capture them by physically visiting that place.
With its community-building power and health benefits, it became a hot topic around the world. Apart from this, Pokemon Go also collected a LOT of data from millions of people and monetized it according to user behavior patterns.
Here are some excerpts of the policy.
“We cooperate with government and law enforcement officials or private parties to enforce and comply with the law. We only share information about you to government or law enforcement officials or private parties when we reasonably believe necessary or appropriate.”
“We may share Personal Data with our third-party publishing partners for their direct marketing purposes only if we have your express permission. (You gave permission when you signed up.)”
“If we are acquired by a third party… all of our assets, including your Personal Data, will be disclosed or transferred to a third party.”
So while you might enjoy catching Pokemons, your location and other data is being shared by big corporations.
Speaking of big corporations, Google recently announced its Nest Secure home security device with voice-activated Google Assistant. What it didn’t tell was that Nest came with a hidden microphone. While Google claims that the microphone has never been turned on, it’s unsettling that there was an undisclosed microphone in the first place.
These episodes reveal a digital threat that is captured in a book by Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.
She defines surveillance capitalism in her book as:
“A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales…”
“The foundational framework of a surveillance economy…”
“As significant a threat to human nature in the twenty-first century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world in the nineteenth and twentieth.”
“An expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty.”
The book says that the big techies don’t just read your data but also affect your decisions.
According to Dr. Zuboff, “Surveillance capitalism has taken human experience, specifically private human experience, and unilaterally claimed it as something to be bought and sold in the marketplace. This new kind of marketplace trades in behavioral futures. It’s like a form of derivative. But it’s about us.”
How it All Started
Surveillance capitalism took several years to evolve to its current form. Companies used the trial and error method to master it. It was invented in 2001 as Google tried to find a solution to financial emergency during the dotcom bust.
As Google struggled to hold onto investor confidence, the leaders of the company decided to boost ad revenue by letting companies have access to user logs.
This meant that Google had to repurpose its expanding cache of user behavioral data and aggressively search for sources that could use this cache.
So Google developed methods to uncover data that users want to keep private and extract sensitive information that users wouldn’t want to reveal.
Special algorithms were used to find behavioral patterns in the way users click on things. This gave rise to what we now know as targeted advertising.
Targeted advertising further gave rise to surveillance capitalism. It uses a concoction of algorithmic systems, computational power, and user behavior data. As user click-through rates went through the roof, advertising gained momentum.
The success of this new model became visible only in 2004 when Google went public and revealed that its revenues increased by 3,590% from 2001 to 2004.
Google was the Harbinger of Surveillance, but Not the Only Culprit
In 2015, a story was published on Forbes where the names, addresses, phone numbers, and voting habits of millions of Americans were accumulated in a file by a research firm. And this file was leaked to the internet by mistake. Whoopsie.
Well, thank goodness the leak didn’t reveal user annual income. Oh wait, it was revealed by the Equifax dataset breach.
So the internet knows what now?
Your name, address, phone number, political affiliation, people you stalk online, your presence on Grindr, and the doohickeys you’ve bought.
And let’s not even discuss the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica case. We all know what happened there.
So yeah, Google isn’t the only offender. Let’s come to the next party – Facebook.
Facebook has been studying human behavior for the last 15 years. Facebook knows who you are, what you like, what you think, and where you go.
Mark Zuckerberg knows what you like and since you buy stuff from Amazon, Jeff Bezos also knows what you desire. Your neighbors know who you’ve been inviting over the weekend. Everyone knows everything.
And no, Facebook and Amazon aren’t the only culprits either.
There are several others that accumulate your data and learn about your friends. And they don’t keep this data to themselves. Basically, every app on the Google and Apple app stores that has some social features accumulates data about your friends too. And they use this data to drive engagement and referrals. Once they’re done with that, they might think about protecting your data.
Tech giants make money by studying our behavior, secrets, lusts, and passions.
Google came up with the idea, they’re all cashing in on it. All these companies invest more in this technology to get more data and in turn drive more profits.
Self-driving cars, messaging, artificial intelligence, delivery services – there are a number of things that are oh so convenient for us and help the industrialists gain huge profits.
We are addicted to this convenience and have given up our free will without even realizing it. We hand over our data to them willingly.
They are the surveillance capitalists.
The Internet of Things Is Trying to Invade More into Your Personal Space
Perhaps More Personal Than You Expected.
This is where we live now – a world in which every product comes with the “smart” tag. Everything is connected to the internet – your vehicle, your home, and even your refrigerator. There are digital assistants in your home that “smartly” create your shopping lists.
Capitalism will sell anything it can. With surveillance capitalism, it will sell private human experiences to parties that can profit from them.
The human experiences you have – the heartbreaks, the tears, the joy of having a baby, the secrets your kids share with their teddies, your sleeping habits, the dinnertime conversations, the bedroom temperature you prefer, your anxieties, your social awkwardness, your inability to take compliments, the way you blush when someone gives you flowers – this all is combined in one user map, ready to be sold to whoever bids the highest for it.
You might feel really connected when you live in a smart home, drive a smart car, take out a bottle of smart vodka from the smart fridge and make a cocktail.
And when you use a smart rectal thermometer, you know there isn’t any place left for the internet of things to go now.
Ah now this is the future.
When companies can even invade your fleshy insides, you know you’re really living the smart life. Somehow, the act of measuring your temperature has to be connected to the internet. Because of reasons.
Many of us buy smart things because we love how they offer convenience to us. But we don’t realize the data that they siphon from us is actually very private and something we wouldn’t share with everyone so openly. And yet, if a smart device is taking that data, we turn a blind eye to it.
People suffering from sleep apnea often use breathing machines. There are smart sleep apnea trackers that keep a log of your breathing patterns. You might think who would be interested in this data… your health insurance company, that’s who. If they monitor your health conditions actively, they might decide they don’t want to continue your policy or maybe even refuse a payment.
Everything that’s tracking you is doing it so it can sell your data. And no matter how insignificant you might think a piece of data is, it will have takers.
Tech companies started surveillance capitalism by snatching your data in the virtual world. They have now moved to the real world and grab data from your microphones, smart TVs, digital home assistants, and several other smart things.
Even your child’s innocent-looking toys are spying on you. My Friend Cayla dolls were banned by Germany as these dolls heard everything that was being said around them and transmitted the information to a company in the US.
They were suspected of espionage and were banned in Germany. Tech companies also use wearable devices that monitor people’s movements and record their everyday data.
While there are encryption software such as VPNs that will help you go anonymous, there are several other steps you’ll need to take if you want to stop being tracked by so many entities.
While a lot of us use VPNs to secure our online presence, the question arises why do we have to hide from surveillance? Why do we have to rely on tools such as VPNs to stay private? Why isn’t privacy our right?
But since we aren’t demanding privacy as a basic right, we need to continue using encryption tools to escape the prying eyes that follow us everywhere.
Your Feelings are Being Mined for Profit by Surveillance Capitalists
Today, there are digital assistants that hear everything. Tomorrow there might be mind trackers. They have already made something that goes in our rectums, what’s stopping them from getting inside our brains?
Maybe in a few years, we’ll have wearable emotion trackers that have inbuilt sensors to check for the user’s biometric signs such as heart rate, blood pressure, and skin temperature, etc.
And this isn’t impossible.
Last year, Amazon patented a labor-saving wristband to be worn by warehouse workers. These bands would deliver vibrations to nudge workers into working more efficiently. So if you’re an Amazon warehouse employee, pretty soon you might get buzzed if you walked into the wrong aisle by mistake. What a way to reduce mistakes.
Amazon is the same company that gives impossible targets and timed toilet breaks to its employees. I guess Jeff Bezos needs to save all this money so he can pump more resources into the research on a way to gain immortality. After all, you need to be rich when you plan to live forever.
If we look back 20-30 years ago, people would’ve been outraged by the idea of a wristband that nudges you when you make a mistake and call it a privacy violation. But it’s all acceptable today.
We have been tuned to accept constant surveillance. We are being influenced and ordered around, and we don’t even know.
How Surveillance Changes Us
Surveillance isn’t just limited to monitoring but also includes behavior modifications such as influencing users to purchase products from a certain company.
Let’s go back to Pokemon Go. The game made people visit several locations in the real world – shops, restaurants, cafes, etc. And the restaurants offered discounts to people who came to their restaurants trying to catch a Pokemon.
One can’t help but think maybe the restaurant owners paid a small amount to the game developers to place a Pokemon in their place.
And it might be a small trick to make some money. Get a coffee – you’ll get a Pokemon, the restaurant will get profits, and the game will get money from the restaurant owner. It’s a win-win.
But all surveillance isn’t harmless. If the app company sells your data to third parties, you don’t know where your data can land.
While small companies also compete for your data, the big companies are the main actors here.
According to the book by Zuboff, Google and Amazon contend for the rights to car dashboards. What could be the consequences? Maybe if you have a smart car with an online dashboard and you miss on a car payment, the computer might shut down the engine (?)
It will start only once you pay up the due amount. If it’s not paid, an instruction will be sent to the repossession agent who will come and collect the car.
Of course, it’s not ethical. But if everyone does this, who’s to stop them?
Zuboff quoted a software developer in her book, “We can tell the fridge, ‘Hey, lock up, because he shouldn’t be eating,’ or we can tell the TV to shut off and make you get some sleep, or the chair to start shaking, because you shouldn’t be sitting so long, or the faucet to turn on, because you need to drink more water.”
While this might be seemingly for our own good – a water reminder, a diet planner, an exercise motivator, but it takes away our free will.
Companies want to get more profits by mining more data. This will be achieved by 25 billion smart devices that will be ready for installation by 2020.
Are we mere objects that are being typecasted?
That’s the main problem of surveillance capitalism – it treats us as profit making objects. By analyzing all our life experiences and intimate details, companies are making billions and we are letting them get away with this.
Surveillance capitalism threatens human nature and twists our inner self by taking away our free will. Companies affect our thinking to herd us into mindless sheep that follow their orders and buy whatever they suggest.
Alright so, Google tracks what I search and Facebook tracks what I post. I will post less often. That will keep me safe, right?
Not exactly, Facebook checks not just for your posts or the data you’ve entered in your about me (interests, beliefs etc.) but also for minute details such as which videos you click on, how long you watch them, how you phrase questions, predictive emotional patterns, how you react to certain posts, and a lot more.
All this information lets advertisers target you in just the right way and influence your decisions. The more you interact, the more refined your user map is. Each individual is classified into some types and their behaviors are predicted with high accuracy.
The Ever Increasing Invasion and Its Shocking Consequences
Facebook reading what teenagers do
A confidential document that was leaked in 2017 revealed that Facebook boasted of its skill to know exactly when a teenager felt anxious, low, and insecure.
This report by Facebook executives states that the company monitors photos and posts in real time to find when a teenager was stressed or nervous or felt stupid.
According to Facebook, this research was done to help marketers understand how young people express themselves. When asked if Facebook has conducted such research on people outside Australia, they declined to dismiss it.
So if your child is feeling blue, you might not know but Facebook will know. And they will try to manipulate this feeling. There’s only so much you can do to protect your children from creeps.
Do what this privacy invading app tells you or you’ll be fined
In another incident, teachers of West Virginia united against a workplace program called Go365. This program forced employees to download an app to monitor their health. Exercise would get them reward points and if someone didn’t collect 3,000 points towards the end of the year, they would be fined with a monthly fee of $25 and high deductibles.
This was against the privacy of employees and thus ignited a huge outcry.
Surveillance can change your government
And of course, there have been scandals such as Facebook-Cambridge Analytica that used personality tests and memes to affect voter behavior. It was all fun and games until it affected the results and we saw a megalomaniac become the president of the US.
Government tracking the behavior of citizens
The Communist Party of China is bringing a social credit system to track citizen behavior and assign them some points depending on how a person behaves according to the standards set by the government.
There will be several factors to consider including online browsing behavior, driving behavior, and personal associations. This score will determine the schooling, employment, and housing of the person. According to the government, it allows the worthy people to roam freely while the discredited people will find it difficult to get employment and housing.
While many people are okay with this decision, surveillance to this degree, and that too by a dictatorial government can be a threat to liberty and even life.
But We Can Always Opt Out of Surveillance, Can’t We?
If you as much as search a term or check your email, you are being surveilled. Going completely offline can be a solution, although not practical.
When you Google something or check a friend’s Facebook profile, Google and Facebook know what you want.
You might see ads on coffee makers if you searched for a coffee recipe. Or you might notice ads on reduction in prices of airlines if you’re stressed at your office. There might be gardening videos because you searched about a plant.
How much of your actions are your own and not because the big techs wanted you to do something?
Maybe you pruned the rose bush because Google wanted you to.
Of course, you can decide not to click on a particular video. After all, Google and Facebook cannot force you to click on whatever they throw your way.
But not clicking on a video also tells the corporations about you. Now they know you even better as they know what you DON’T want.
You are carefully watched and are influenced by surveillance capitalists.
The algorithms used by big tech companies are intricate and are made to dilute our free will. They relieve us from the burden of decision making, nudging us in the “right” direction. Our behaviors are being altered without us knowing about it, as mentioned in the book World Without Mind by Franklin Foer.
Hiding Behind Terms of Service
The mass collection of data is very opaque by nature. For people who believe that the service they get in return for their data is worth it, they do not know the long term consequences of their data being stolen.
Of course, these companies have their terms of services or user agreements. These documents are often long enough to discourage reading. And since all technologies are interconnected, one company takes services from another that has its own agreements.
Check out the legal documents of Nest Thermostat and there are easily a thousand pages to read. Of course, you won’t read that. Nobody would.
Why We Don’t Care About Surveillance
If surveillance was actually so bad for us, why don’t many of us care about it?
How’s it possible that a big infrastructure dedicated to surveillance has suddenly become so acceptable?
People just don’t care who is reading their behavior. Are we just carefree, unaware, or just lazy?
In a study, ten households volunteered for ubiquitous surveillance. The subjects knew exactly who was looking at them so they were pretty comfortable with the situation. The study also showed that in a duration of six months, surveillance did change their behavior, though not to a large degree.
While they had agreed to be watched, they did not want their data to be released to the public, government, criminals, friends, employers, and insurance companies.
Apart from this, they were okay being surveilled.
Why are people casual about surveillance?
They don’t exactly know what is being watched and by whom.
Christopher Burr, a researcher at the University of Oxford, believes that people do not understand that online surveillance captures a lot of their data.
Burr studied the kind of information that can be derived from computer interactions. He was surprised to find the type of data that can be retrieved.
Programmers can use your facial recognition to measure your job satisfaction.
Your Facebook post can be parsed to find signs of depression.
Your webcam can let someone detect your heart rate, though not accurately.
We put convenience over privacy and this is why we willingly accept surveillance.
Different people accept different levels of surveillance. You might already know that Netflix tracks users’ viewing patterns and recommends new shows to them. But this surveillance seems acceptable because what we’re getting in return seems worth it.
If we don’t think that the trade-off between the conveniences we’re getting and the data they are collecting, we might decide to revolt, no matter how mildly.
Are There Any Limits to Surveillance Capitalism?
While there are still many people who think the convenience they get outweighs the risks of surveillance, others are beginning to awaken to the capitalists’ game.
What if there is an app that tells you how much you love someone. Or an app that measures the creativity in the piece of art you made? Or something that finds the depth of your feelings when you’re grieving for someone?
When will technology reach a threshold when we finally decide that something is really “our own” and shouldn’t go in the hands of surveillance capitalists?
How to Avoid Surveillance Capitalism
If you’re thinking about going to the Himalayas and starting your life over, you’re not alone. A lot of us want to run away from responsibilities and surveillance. But it’s not always possible.
If you’re living your regular life, you cannot escape all surveillance.
Sure you can unplug your device and this might relieve some anxieties but this is short lived. Instead, the feeling of being unsafe should be harnessed so that we rise and make changes.
We should elect transparent officials who are privacy advocates. Government officials who question big companies and limit their surveillance techniques.
While we have already invited a lot of surveillance in our lives, it doesn’t mean we have to live with it.
Together, we should spread awareness so more people understand how important it is to be anonymous and not be tracked.