What it is the Surveillance Economy
How do you feel about the fact that Facebook knows your weight, your height, your blood pressure, the dates of your menstrual cycle, when you have sex and maybe even whether you got pregnant? Even when you’re not on Facebook, the company is still tracking you as you move across the internet. It knows what shape you’re in from the exercise patterns on your fitness device, when you open your Ring doorbell app and which articles you check out on YouTube — or more salacious sites.
Welcome to the surveillance economy — where our personal data and online activity are not only tracked but sold and used to manipulate us. As Shoshana Zuboff, who coined the term surveillance capitalism, recently wrote, “Surveillance capitalism begins by unilaterally staking a claim to private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Our lives are rendered as data flows.” In other words, in the vast world of internet commerce, we are the producers and our digital exhaust is the product.
It didn’t have to be this way. Back when the internet was in its infancy, the government could have regulated the tech companies but instead trusted them to regulate themselves. Over two decades later, we’re just learning about the massive amounts of personal data these tech giants have amassed, but it’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle.
The game is rigged. We can’t live and compete and communicate without the technology, yet we forfeit all our rights to privacy if we take part. It’s a false choice. In fact, it’s no choice at all. You may delete Facebook and shop at the local mall instead of Amazon, but your TV, fridge, car and even your bed may still be sharing your private data.
As for self-regulation, companies may pay lip service to a public that is increasingly fed up with the intrusiveness, but big tech and corporate America continue to quietly mine our data. And they have no incentive to reveal how much they’re learning about us. In fact, the more they share the knowledge, the lower their profits go.
This is one of those distasteful situations where legislation and regulation are the only effective ways to balance the power. Because as individuals, we can’t compete with the knowledge and wallet of Google, Facebook and Amazon. David versus Goliath situations like this were the genesis of government in the first place. But in 2020, can we rely on the government to protect us?
Unlikely. At least for now. For starters, federal government agencies and local law enforcement use the same technology (including facial recognition software) for collecting data and to track our every move. And unfortunately, those who make up the government are generally among the new knowledge class whose 401Ks directly benefit by keeping quiet while the tech giants grow. Plus, there are some real benefits to ethical uses of the technology (think tracking terrorists), making regulation a difficult beast to tackle. But it’s well worth tackling anyway, just as we’ve done with nuclear submarines and airline safety.
In a recent Pew study, 62% of Americans said it was impossible to go through daily life without companies collecting data about them, and 81% said the risks of companies collecting data outweigh the benefits. The same number said they have little or no control over the data companies collect.
At some stage, consumers will get fed up and want to take back control from the surveillance economy, and the pendulum will swing, as it already has in Europe, where citizens have a toolbox full of privacy tools to prevent internet tracking, including the right to be forgotten by businesses. Europe’s General Data Protection Rule (GDPR) is a clear reminder that consumers do retain the power, but only if they choose to. It’s not inevitable that our every move and personal data are sold to the highest bidder. We’ve happily signed on, logged in and digitized our way to this point.
When consumers (that means you) are outraged enough, the government will be forced to step in. Unfortunately, at that point, the regulation is likely to be overly restrictive, and both sides will wish we’d come to some compromise before we wrecked the system.
In the meantime, you have three basic choices:
- Decrease your digital exhaust by eliminating or limiting the number of social media sites, devices and apps you use. (I know, I know. Not likely.)
- Change your privacy and security defaults on each device, app and website that collects your personal information. (More likely. But it takes a time investment and doesn’t fully solve privacy leakage.)
- Give in. Some people are willing to bet that a loss of privacy will never come back to haunt them. That’s exactly the level of complacency big tech companies have instilled in us using neuroscience for the past decade.
Loss of privacy is a slippery slope, and it’s important to take the issue seriously before things get worse. Left unchecked, the private eyes watching your every move could go from tracking your exercise habits and sex life (as if that’s not creepy enough) to meddling with your ability to get health insurance or a mortgage. And suddenly it won’t seem so harmless anymore.
About Cybersecurity Keynote Speaker John Sileo
John Sileo is the founder and CEO of The Sileo Group, a privacy and cybersecurity think tank, in Lakewood, Colorado, and an award-winning author, keynote speaker, and expert on technology, surveillance economy, cybersecurity and tech/life balance.