Discourse 02 Apr 2019 Surveillance Capital ...

Surveillance Capitalism: The definition

Published Apr 2, 2019, 3:44 am IST
Updated Apr 2, 2019, 3:44 am IST
The original, single closed loop of the aware home would never keep information-hungry firms like Google at bay.
Edward Snowden. (Photo: AP)
 Edward Snowden. (Photo: AP)

A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales; a parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioural modification; a rogue mutation of capitalism marked by concentrations of wealth, knowledge, and power unprecedented in human history; 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; the origin of a new instrumentarian power that asserts dominance over society and presents startling challenges to market democracy; a movement that aims to impose a new collective order based on total certainty; an expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty.

Technosurveillance by China is nothing compared to ultra sophisticated surveillance by tech giants.



Surveillance capitalism, as typified by Google, Facebook and Twitter, makes profits by seducing us onto various platforms, and monitoring our behaviour. That information is sold to advertisers, who target us ever more precisely with products and services. This much we think we know. But ‘this relentless new form of capitalism will stop at nothing to gather data on all human behaviour.’”

But Zuboff’s challenge to this thinking is deep — and threefold. First, she wants to alert us to how relentless this form of capitalism is. Industrial capitalism works by generating surpluses. Zuboff’s surveillance capitalism, however, generates its surpluses from human behaviour, public and private, and the more it understands about us the better it can sell its predictions about our desires and next moves. This surplus was created accidentally, but has now become a secret resource — as much about subtle coercion as about making money.

Second, she emphasises that it doesn’t need to be this way. When “aware homes” were first mooted in 2000, it was assumed that the data they gathered on health, fitness, security and the like would be in a “closed loop” under the control of the people generating that data, says Zuboff.

Fast forward to 2017, when two academics at the University of London analysed a thermostat made by Nest, by then part of the empire that included Google. Nest’s apps can gather data from other connected devices, including cars, ovens and beds. To keep the data private and stop the predictions made from it being sold on by Google to third parties, the researchers concluded that a consumer would have to study a minimum of 1,000 privacy, end-user and terms-of-service contracts. The original, single closed loop of the aware home would never keep information-hungry firms like Google at bay.

Originally, Google’s founders weren’t keen to rely on advertising for income, knowing that it would corrupt the search process, she says. But in 2001, the dot-com financial crisis in Silicon Valley pushed some in the industry in a wholly new direction, towards something that could only be successful if done secretly: surveillance’s one-way mirror.

That secrecy undermined human rights, which is Zuboff’s third passion. She is determined to alert us to the need to assert those rights against this slippery, pervasive new regime. But when it seems so natural to communicate with friends and family via our digital devices, what could shock us out of our complacency?

Shoshana ZuboffShoshana Zuboff


Familiar politics are upside down. In place of totalitarianism, there is another coinage, “instrumentarianism”. Zuboff uses this word to describe the logic of, and power that comes from, recording and anticipating human behaviour, when the elites of surveillance capitalism quietly harvest the raw material of human actions and steadily shape our sense of the future without us realizing it.

The weird thing, Zuboff writes in her book, is how this is beginning to unite the political cultures of East and West, of democracy, dictatorship and one-party states. We tut at China’s Social Credit System, which lets the state use all manner of technosurveillance to reward and punish its citizens, while the Western version seems to be heading in the same direction.

(Pat Cain, The New Scientist)

The documents released by Edward Snowden in 2013 have revealed the surveillance mechanism employed by the US National Security Agency (NSA). According to an article in the US Journal Monthly Review by John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, the NSA has the capability to break into any encryption “using super computers could crack algorithms, the building blocks of encryption, thus hacking into nearly all messages”.

The article also showed that the NSA need not infiltrate the server databases anymore. The NSA and GCHQ [Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters] do not break into user accounts that are stored on Yahoo and Google computers. They intercept the information as it travels over fiber optic cables from one data centre to another. The NSA is also working with its British counterpart, GCHQ to intercept the private clouds of Yahoo and Google, the article stated.