This article in the NYT Bits section discusses Shoshana Zuboff’s book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” an interesting look at how companies pivoted from serving customers to establishing a surveillance data marketplace:
“ ‘Surveillance capitalism has taken human experience, specifically private human experience, and unilaterally claimed it as something to be bought and sold in the marketplace,’ Dr. Zuboff told me during a visit to The Times’s office.’This new kind of marketplace trades in behavioral futures. It’s like a form of derivative. But it’s about us.’
Yet most of us are not aware that platforms like Google and Facebook may track and analyze our every search, location, like, video, photo, post and punctuation mark the better to try to sway us, she said.
In fact, a new study on Facebook from the Pew Research Centerillustrates how opaque this behavior marketplace can be to consumers.
The study, my colleague Sapna Masheswari writes, reported that about three-fourths of Facebook users were unaware that the social network maintained lists of their personal interests, such as their political leanings, for advertisers. And about half of users who looked at their “ad preferences” — the Facebook pages displaying these details — said they were uncomfortable with the company’s creating lists of categories about them.
The technologies that power the behavior speculation market, of course, have spread far beyond online ads.
They enable auto insurers to surveil drivers and offer discounts based on their driving performance. They allow workplace wellness programs to charge higher health insurance premiums to employees who decline to wear fitness trackers. They helped Kremlin-linked groups mount political influence campaigns on Facebook (although, as my colleague John Herrman pointed out this past week, we have yet to learn how effective those campaigns were).
The flash-trading in human behavioral data was not inevitable.
In her book, Dr. Zuboff describes how Google, in its early days, used the keywords that people typed in to improve its search engine even as it paid scant attention to the collateral data — like users’ keyword phrasing, click patterns and spellings — that came with it. Pretty soon, however, Google began harvesting this surplus information, along with other details like users’ web-browsing activities, to infer their interests and target them with ads.
The model was later adopted by Facebook.
The companies’ pivot — from serving to surveilling their users — pushed Google and Facebook to harvest more and more data, Dr. Zuboff writes. In doing so, the companies sometimes bypassed privacy settings or made it difficult for users to opt out of data-sharing.”
There are new technologies available that could in theory harness this beast, but I suspect that the genie is now too far out of the bottle with the surveillance market so large and profitable that it won’t be shut down. So where do we go from here?
Overview by Tim Sloane, VP, Payments Innovation at Mercator Advisory Group