Privacy in a Modern Technological Capitalist System

13 minute read

The Internet spawned the digital age and completely changed the world. Just about everything is affected by technology: books, education, news, communication, transportation, games, and everything else in between. Most crucially, the Internet changed surveillance and advertising in enormous ways. In the past two decades, these changes have produced surveillance capitalism. In a world of surveillance capitalism, privacy is under constant threat. In this essay, I will discuss how artificial intelligence is being used as a tool for mass surveillance and how privacy is incompatible with capitalism in the digital age.

Often, individuals trade their privacy for convenience. Modern cars include GPS to map directions from place to place. Smartphones use GPS to provide directions, swipe on local people, and track bike rides. These are useful services, but they require people to send their location data to companies – often numerous times throughout the day. Rettberg wrote, “We live in a time that is teaching each of us that constantly being monitored is normal and even to our benefit”. Indeed, these services have become normal enough that one can use these services without giving a second though to their privacy or how companies could be using their data. Further, not using these services for the sake of privacy not only puts someone at a disadvantage to their peers, it is also viewed by society as an irrational choice. Consider this: if a privacy conscious individual only stopped using a cell phone to avoid being tracked by the cell phone provider and other entities, that individual would be at a disadvantage in making plans with friends, unaware of recent news, not have access to directions, unable to pay with his phone if he forgot his wallet, etc. Trying to resist and preserve one’s privacy results in missing out on the advantages, putting oneself in an economic disadvantage. Marcuse talks about this dilemma of an irrational choice in Social Implications of Technology.

In a capitalist system, corporations compete for market share and customers. It essentially comes down to which company can compete better. In her article “The Inverse Relationship between Secrecy and Privacy” Cohen wrote, “In the emerging networked information economy, access to personal information about current and potential customers is considered the key ingredient in market success”. For a corporation, market success is critical to compete, satisfy shareholders and increase profits. It is in the company’s best interest to collect personal data to increase their effectiveness in marketing to and targeting potential customers. Companies can use current customer’s information to identify which marketing elements work and learn how to retain the customer. This data can also be sold to the government or other corporations. Companies that don’t collect personal information will be at a disadvantage when marketing and will be outcompeted by companies that are. Therefore, companies must surveil on consumers to survive in the long term. Personal data may not solely be used for marketing purposes. Companies are using personal data to market and target advertising to consumers. This means individual privacy hinders capitalism. Without access to personal data, companies cannot target consumers efficiently. Thus, surveillance capitalism emerged to solve this problem. Personal data has become essential in the tech economy: companies use the data to generate revenue and increase profits. When a company gets large enough and has amplitudes of personal data, a new strategy develops: instead of selling user data, these multinational corporations can sell access to these users in the form of advertisements. Modern examples of multinational corporations are Google and Facebook, who serve as an effective duopoly in the advertising space. These corporations exhibit how privacy prevents profit: people voluntarily provide their data to the company to use their services, and the more data the company collects, the more they know about the people behind the accounts, allowing them to better sell advertisements to target them.

Yet, this does not get to the heart of surveillance capitalism. The greatest use of data is not in what the corporation collects but in how they use that information. When a large amount of personal information is provided to corporations, they gain power and responsibility. Knowledge means power, but information means social control. As reported by The Verge, Microsoft has been working with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to help the agency “process data on edge devices or utilize deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification”. Microsoft isn’t working with ICE because they are separating children from their families1, they are simply following the money as required to compete in a capitalist system and do what’s best for their shareholders. Due to the capitalist system it is a part of, Microsoft is better off not considering the morals or ethics of their work with the state. The more important question for them to consider is how much the state is willing to pay.

Prior to the rise of tech companies, fears of surveillance were largely based on George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. What’s seen today is slightly different: instead of homes with TV’s that have direct links to the government, people are more than happy to buy Amazon Alexa’s, Google Home’s and other smart devices to place in their homes. These devices are advertised to the consumer, while at the same time collecting bountiful information they can sell to the government. Companies create devices or provide services, collect information on their users, then hand the data to the government. This method works out to be quite effective: most people in the United States carry cell phones all day, every day. Facebook has more than two billion active monthly users. Big Brother gets to remain in the background, unseen, and allow companies to handle the data collection. Corporations and governments benefit from this system; citizens receive convenience and services for the price of privacy and surveillance.

Through this system, the Internet has become the perfect tool of control. Data collection constricts the individual, resulting in a world without privacy to a world of conformity. As Cohen wrote, “Their purpose is to make human behaviors and preferences calculable, predictable, and profitable in aggregate.” Essentially, individualism is harder to predict; corporations push consumers towards conformity so they are more predictable and, thus, easier to extract money from. To do this, “wants [are] manufactured” (Cohen). Consider Spotify’s music recommendations: until one hears a song, they do not know they will like it. Spotify controls the music, and thus, the choices of what the one can listen to. Because Spotify controls the choices, they also control the actions. How often do listeners of Spotify ask what songs aren’t in the catalog, or why one song is suggested versus another? Often, consumers are left out in the making of these decisions and increasingly left out on decision process in what algorithms provide to them, or rather, what they leave out.

While consumers are left out of the decision process, that doesn’t mean they are ignorant to how these services work. There are memes circulating regarding how the FBI is carefully watching what we do and say on our phones and how something said around Alexa or a smartphone can result in ads following one everywhere online. Yet, these memes only serve as jokes; they are liked and shared, then people move on. Vaidhyanathan writes, “we don’t know all the ways in which we are being watched or profiled – we simply know that we are. And we don’t regulate our behavior under the gaze of surveillance. Instead, we don’t seem to care”. The convenience and services offered by surveillant services are too great for many to resist the loss of privacy. To escape surveillance capitalism, the economic model must fundamentally change. Rettberg wrote, “to not be tracked you have to have very sophisticated technical knowledge or have a lot of money.” The economic system of surveillance capitalism allows the wealthy and powerful to obfuscate themselves while citizens lives become more and more transparent. As we continue to be governed by a surveillance state that’s captured by the economic model, we will continue to head down the path of dystopia – until we are living in one.

The Internet has spawned so many different technologies and each deserve analysis. For the focus of this paper, I will focus on artificial intelligence. In their article “The Trouble With Trusting AI to Interpret Police Body-Cam Video”, Dan Greene and Genevieve Patterson detail how a company, Axon, is using AI to interpret police body-cam video. When considering the usage of AI in real-world applications, it is important to consider how this tool will be trained. Not just any data can be fed into the AI: the automated image-classification system can only learn from the data it is given. If there is incorrect or biased data, the result is an AI that will be incorrect and have a bias. If the dataset is incomplete, more problems can arise because there will be situations the AI hasn’t learned yet. All of this is further exacerbated by the mere fact that any AI system is error prone because it cannot be 100% accurate in all instances. The authors note that even if police know of these possible errors, “they might suffer from ‘automation bias,’ a tendency for people to accept a computer’s judgments over their own because of the perceived objectivity of machines.” Unfortunately, machines cannot be objective: they are created and maintained by humans, who have unconscious biases. In academia and research, AI experts deal with these problems by their work open to the public, so it can be scrutinized by other experts and improved upon. Unfortunately, Axon and other companies have no obligation to do that. These kind of closed AI systems can further “rapidly degenerate” because mistakes that are not corrected can be used to train the system, further amplifying biases and creating unreliable results.

Essentially, it appears the body-cameras police wear are a black box: the camera provides input, and certain events may be flagged that can result in police action. Since this technology is proprietary, it causes issues of accountability and transparency. It is a given that the software will make errors that could result in mistakes in the policing process. –CHANGE– There are other implications of using AI-powered body-cams as well. Axon is actively developing facial recognition for the body-cams. This means in the not-so-distant future, these body-cams can identify people in public, then record the time and location they were spotted. The government would have access to a database with information on where and when they can find individuals of interest. On the other hand, when the facial recognition makes a mistake, it could lead police to arresting the wrong individual. If the technology remains proprietary and the police do not publish detailed records of how the technology impacts their decisions, the public would be faced against a surveillance system that lies outside of their control. Except, the government would not be in control of this system: the technology is Axon’s. Axon’s technology could lead to the arrests of innocent individuals, or worse. As discussed earlier, the database of people’s locations could be sold to advertisers. In the event the database is leaked or hacked, people’s location information would be exposed. This information cannot be changed like a password or credit card; location information contains human behaviors and habits.

Earlier in the essay I mentioned how the wealthy could obfuscate themselves while citizens lives become more transparent. To elaborate, I want to consider how privacy can be commodified in a capitalist system. Apple is one of the only popular consumer brands that bases their brand and products around consumer’s privacy. They proclaim on their website, “Apple products are designed to protect your privacy.” Other companies that promote consumer privacy are ProtonVPN and NordVPN. These virtual private networks encrypt internet traffic and keep data private from governments and ISPs, often claiming to remove records of internet traffic data. These examples of commodifying privacy illustrate how data can be protected from corporate and government surveillance, for a price. Yet, there is not guarantee. Apple’s hardware and software is not open source. Despite their claims, they could be collecting data on consumers. Or, at any time this privacy practice becomes inconvenient to their business model, they can change their practice. Hypothetically, Apple could declare tomorrow that they are transitioning into the advertising business. What would happen to their customer’s data then? Alternatively, a situation could exist where ProtonVPN is hacked. If nefarious actors installed loggers on their services, their entire business model is sidestepped. People who use these services specifically to circumvent government overreach and surveillance would be the most at risk. Essentially, privacy of individuals rests in the hands of corporations who publicly proclaim they are on their customers’ side but do not give evidence to protect the corporation’s property. Thus, individual privacy is at the mercy of corporations.

Surveillance capitalism relies upon technology and more specifically, artificial intelligence. Could surveillance capitalism exist without the Internet and artificial intelligence? Artificial intelligence primarily relies upon data. The Internet has enabled data collection at a scale never seen before, and interactions from buying and selling good to personal communication take place on the web. Certainly, fewer data would be recorded without these technologies. However, record keeping was common before the Internet. Today’s tools allow the centralization and easy exchange of these records. This is what makes modern surveillance so powerful and effective. But, surveillance existed before these technologies were developed. The idea of the panopticon prison system has existed since the 18th century2. Radio transmissions could be tapped by anyone close enough. Police offers could wait outside houses in unmarked cars to record the occupants’ comings and goings. Mail package characteristics can be inspected. The difference between these surveillance techniques and surveillance using today’s technology is the sheer scale and invisibility. Millions of messages are sent on Facebook each day, and each message can be scanned and searched very quickly and without notice. By combining message contents with message metadata, such as who the message was sent to, who sent it, the timestamp, IP address of sender and receiver, and the sender and receiver’s device information, observations can be made without the consumer’s knowledge. With all that information, a map of sender and receiver’s locations through the day as they communication could be created. Marketing departments can infer socio-economic status of consumers can by the metadata of the devices they used, their location, and details in their messages. Combine this with the other two billion people using Facebook, and you now have very detailed information about the population at an unprecedented scale. Consumers do not have access to all the information Facebook has on them, and Facebook does not tell consumers how they use the information they collect. This kind of surveillance is unlike earlier examples listed because of how well data can be aggregated and used for a variety of purposes in a manner that is invisible to the people using the services every single day.

The Internet frames our thinking, knowledge, and behavior. The internet gave birth to artificial intelligence, which is primarily used to target people and maximize profits. Despite its great potential, artificial intelligence and the Internet have become tools of mass surveillance, advanced intrusive advertising technology and a means of social control. Privacy is becoming eroded at an astonishingly fast pace far beyond what any historic authoritarian state could’ve accomplished. If we want to avoid creating a real-world dystopia, surveillance capitalism must be abolished and replaced.

  1. Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella made a public statement regarding their ICE contract: “I want to be clear: Microsoft is not working with the U.S. government on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border. Our current cloud engagement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is supporting legacy mail, calendar, messaging and document management workloads.” 

  2. Bentham, Jeremy (1798), Proposal for a New and Less Expensive mode of Employing and Reforming Convicts; quoted in Evans 1982, p. 195.