Surveillance Capitalism: Why Ethical Data Analytics Matters to Preserve Human Experience

Chibili Mugala
6 min readOct 20, 2020

“Having purchased the Surveillance Capitalism book by Professor Emerita Shoshana Zuboff in early 2019, barely months after launch, I found myself between a rock and a hard place having just began data science graduate school. Now that I have completed, I can say that I deliberately avoided image recognition machine learning projects.”

Picture courtesy of forkfast

The term surveillance capitalism was coined by Prof. Shoshana Zuboff which is explicitly defined in her book. Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims our private human experience as a free source of raw materials for its own production processes. It translates our experiences into behavioural data, this data is combined with computational abilities such as AI to predict our behaviours.

Surveillance capitalism is a further evolution of capitalism of taking things that life outside the market subordinating them into their operations for profit gain. Voluntary exchange of data some of which is personally identifying is all done through the heavily imbedded and unread data privacy policies. Many digital service providers, including social media platforms and operating systems openly disguise data usage policies from users. This article explores the artefacts that have propelled surveillance capitalism and brings forth implications on the human experience which societies are being robbed of. The driving forces behind data analytics have grown from business centric to behavioural analysis on the unaware masses. This has both moral and ethical aspects as big data technologies are purposefully used in shifting the tendencies and unconscious behaviour of people.

Behavioural future trading is now the new wave in modern businesses. Think of it as having the ability to read someone’s mind, only this person is a potential client for your service offerings. Your ability to preemptively lure them with what your service features before they head out to the mall is imperative in gaining a competitive advantage. As disturbing as this may sound, it is the reality of many industries which hoard large amount of user data from plethora of platforms and sources. The cliche of data being the new oil is the leverage that has been exploited by ignoring ethics and morals. The focus is money-making above all things. The big pioneers of this logic have been Google, Amazon, Alibaba and Facebook have become so wealthy from selling predictions based on user data to online targeted adverts and other businesses.

In the 21st century there is a thin line between data democracy and security. Frankly speaking, there is no such thing as security. Data security to a large extent a placebo; a service sold by data security companies to give users a piece of mind about the safety of their private data. In hind sight, users all agree to terms and conditions, privacy policies that are never read. Privacy policies are seldom ignored by many of us largely due to it size. Most of it would take a considerable amount of time to read through. This is the catch, if the policy started with…

“by signing up to our service, you will give us permission to spy on you, send you targeted advertisements and sale your behavioural data to third parties for their profit. After this point, our control over your data cannot be guaranteed.“

With this we would all have to think twice about clicking that next button during the lengthy end user license agreements that no one seems to read.

It is an infringement of individual sovereignty; it invades our privacy and demeans the essence of the human experience. While we browse, post on social media or simply by just turning your smartphone to a cellular or WiFi network. Data is being collected and used to infer personal details such as habits and emotions to predict future behaviours. Societies are being redirected to suite business needs. Artificial intelligence has with the help of readily available datasets being able to envisage user patterns with great accuracy all for the benefit of businesses through sentiment analysis and affective computing.

Surveillance capitalism is a dark side of technology that has turned users into puppets. Data hoarders control societies in ways that could not be imagined only two decades ago. From collecting your health statistics from your online activity, a highly accurate prediction on a possible health problem can be produced before that dreaded visit to the doctor. This is a great leap but the ethics and morals in this are questionable. When used for the greater good, big data analytics can be a fruitful undertaking providing cues and conclusions.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four novel explicitly confirms the extent at which the Big Brother effect and surveillance on masses of people. While data is the new oil, it should be mined with caution. And we should be given the ability to close the mine shaft as and when required.

Data brokers are making millions from selling data to multiple business clients. The drive behind businesses in the 21st century is data, without it means a fatal failure in marketing and reading future trends. As the world awakens from tragedies such as Cambridge Analytica, BREXIT and several social data leaks, it can be deduced that data equals power.

Picture courtesy of EEP Group

Why did we NOT learn from history?

Understanding data in populations is a very sensitive issue, when abused this data can be used to place and marginalise societies. A classic example of how the NAZIs collected data about Jewish people and used it to persecute them. This gave the ruling class the ability to abuse their power by having the means to identify and track Jews. In todays technological advancements, data and information continues to exponentially grow. As such, the mass destruction that can result from the abuse of data is catastrophic. The Uyghur muslim people from China have been held captive in concentration camps, deprived of human dignity while the world turns its back on them and pretends its not happening in 2020. The so-called Xinjiang re-education camps have advanced data analytics that aims at identifying a Uyghur person based on behavioural traits, facial features and cultural/religious practices. This forms the social-credit score of Uyghurs which ultimately predicts who should be taken to concentration camps.

CONCLUSION

The private human experience is essential for a democratic society, it cannot be turned into a commodity. There needs to be a functional and sturdier barricade between data collection, and usage. Digital minimalist movements have the potential to pressure governments into making fitting regulations and legislations that will interrupt surveillance capitalism to give back meaning to data ownership to the masses. The EU General Data Protection Regulation in Europe is shaping data security of big tech companies. Thought national and continental data protection laws may differ, they should be enforced with an iron fist.

Regulations on how data is collected and used by digital service providers, retail companies and governments should be standardised in Asia, Africa and the Americas where such laws are not in effect. This should have been done before the boom in big data analytics and AI technologies that are profiting many industries. This can ultimately lead to a win-win situation for both society and the industry. However, this one-way profit is not a necessary evil that should be ignored any longer. Controls should exist to protect societies from authorities that want to benefit at the cost of humanity as we have known it to be. We all have a digital footprint, some more pronounced than others so perhaps minimising what we put out there is a deterrent from being targeted.

Surveillance capitalism is in effect an authoritarian robbing humanity the ability to have a real human experience without being polluted by customised influences. Professor Zuboff says” Big Tech companies are elephant poachers and our data is the ivory.” In this data-driven world, data is a commodity which is vastly used for business insights when appropriate mining and analytics are used. Simply put surveillance capitalism is a man-made problem which has now reduced people to self-policing and hiding behind firewalls, VPNs, proxies and other sophisticated technologies just to feel safe.

Picture courtesy of techwireasia

At the time of writing, the world has been through a tough 10 months as the covid pandemic affected livelihoods and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands the world over. This has not stopped facial recognition software from adapting to achieve high predictions despite someone wearing a mask.

As a data scientist, I pledge to use my skills for the good of humanity.

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Chibili Mugala

A nerdy data scientist with a passion for explainable artificial intelligence, computer vision & autonomous vehicles. https://linktr.ee/chibili