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  • Lou Killeffer

Lifting the veil on Surveillance Capitalism?

Updated: Feb 22, 2020

I’ve been speaking variously with clients and colleagues about surveillance capitalism since I stumbled upon it three years ago in Ken Auletta’s fascinating Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else).

Originally introduced by Harvard professor emerita Shoshana Zuboff, and developed through her 2018 book,  The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, surveillance capitalism is “the accumulation of data to predict future behavior.”

“The game,” Zuboff writes, “is no longer about sending you a mail-order catalogue or even about targeting online advertising. The game is selling access to the real-time flow of your daily life - your reality - in order to directly influence and modify your behavior for profit.”

She distills the issues inherent in information gathered by invading our personal privacy to three fundamental questions: “Who knows? Who decides who knows? And, who decides who decides who knows?”

Professor Zuboff’s January 24th Op-ed in The New York Times, “You Are Now Remotely Controlled”, expands on her concern with how blissfully ignorant we all are that - while living our digital lives - our personal information is relentlessly harvested, stored in bulk, and then sliced and diced into predictive products for sale to the highest bidder. How our unique individual behavior, our lives if you will, are aggressively appropriated for profit. (And oh, by the way, the people doing the appropriating have been repeatedly caught lying to you.)

“Me want cookie!”

Her January essay was particularly timely given the rise we’ve all witnessed in online cookie alerts over the past eighteen months. Cookies of course are the small files containing bits of information about us as we travel online that track us as we browse. The information they gather can enhance our online experience, like storing your zip code when you return to a site for tomorrow’s weather forecast.

Cookie alerts began in earnest across the European Union in 2018 under their General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and they moved into high gear here on January 1st when California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which has been likened to the GDPR, went into effect.

Net, cookie alerts warn us that we’re being tracked and ask for permission to do so by allowing us to opt-in or out of data collection - the centerpiece of the digital business model. Most everyone just clicks through the alerts and ignores reading a website’s vapid “cookie policy” because we’re obviously all in a hurry to get whatever we’re after.

But the simple presence of these annoying alerts is also a signal, an SOS of sorts, for the unresolved debate we can’t seem to hold about digital privacy; which could ultimately be a Mayday for online marketers.

Indeed, it seems something’s finally afoot. Because somehow the broad and busy ad/tech/media/marketing news feed has changed since New Year’s. Now nestled among my daily diet of minute by minute, breaking, must read “news”, like….

…are more and more pieces about privacy on the web and, well, surveillance. It’s clear the level of concern and the nature of the conversation within the community of buyers and sellers of information has changed. Just consider tonight's cache…

And my personal favorite:

Can you hear me now?

While I’m not talented enough to parse everything Professor Zuboff says, from my perch here in the marketing mezzanine, some of what she’s written strikes me as simply overwrought. However, that and my interpretive skills aside, every thinking adult knows we’re all experiencing something no one’s ever seen before - delivered on demand through our 24/7 interface with the global tentacles of a very few key players.

The unprecedented power of the Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft platforms is undeniable and to date largely unfettered. Truly their technologies have brought extraordinary, emancipating benefits to us all. No question; appreciate it.

But not only isn’t free, free, the common currency and its exchange rate are proving far more complex and conflicted than we’d imagined. And the myriad of voices taking note, from Alexa to Zuboff, are justifiably getting louder…

No doubt a calm, well-informed, and honest discussion of the operative business models will be difficult but it’s long overdue. At some point the pros and cons of safeguards that can respect privacy, secure data, and enable trust must be addressed. Perhaps that dialogue’s finally beginning to take shape.


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