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What is wrong with surveillance capitalism

by
11 September 2020

In the first of two articles, Mark Ireland argues that the digital revolution has brought dangers as well as benefits

THE lockdown has brought to light our dependence on technology, as many congregations have discovered the benefits of Zoom, YouTube, and Facebook. Two events in the news recently, however, have shown that the digital revolution has dangers as well as benefits, in a world in which knowledge is power.

In the UK, the exams fiasco has shown the danger of making life-changing decisions about people on the basis of computer algorithms (News, 21 August). Algorithms, which have the aura of impartiality, will always be unfair for some because they are based on probabilities. They also tend to have biases embedded within them because of the limited world-views of those (predominantly white males) who develop them. Distortions also creep in when the data are themselves flawed, having been inputted by poorly paid, isolated workers in the gig economy (Comment, 7 August).

In the United States, a congressional committee has interviewed the CEOs of the four big tech companies (Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook) and concluded that too much power has been concentrated into the hands of too few, and that regulation is needed. The chairman of the committee commented that Google had evolved from being a turnstile giving access to the internet into a walled garden designed to keep competitors out, either putting competitors out of business or taking them over.

 

DURING the past few weeks, I have been reading Shoshana Zuboff’s timely and prophetic book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile Books, 2019). She shows how Google and Facebook acquire knowledge about the most intimate details of our lives, gleaned from our internet search histories, the emails we write, the things we “like” on Facebook, and the fitbits and health apps that we use. This knowledge is used not only to predict our behaviour and sell advertising that is individually targeted at us, but also to sell that information to those who mould and change our beliefs and behaviour.

This financial model has brought huge profits, but it incentivises companies to increase the knowledge that they have about us, by whatever means. The concepts of personalisation and the connected home, in which machines anticipate our every need before we realise it, extends surveillance into ever more intimate spaces, as we let computers record and screen our conversations via gadgets such as Alexa and Echo.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 transformed the attitude of big government to the big tech companies. Having previously attempted to regulate them in the name of privacy, suddenly the US government and others realised that the best way to prevent future global terror attacks was to harness the tech companies’ knowledge, and to monitor the world’s population on a much more sustained and intrusive level, to detect behaviour and personality types before a crime was ever committed.

Google and Facebook have cunningly made privacy a duty of the individual to protect rather than an obligation of the companies to respect. An instrument of this is the misleadingly named Privacy Policy, which most of us fail to read several times a day. Zuboff argues that it would be more accurate to describe these as “surveillance policies”, because they have been impenetrably drafted so that we unwittingly cede all rights over our personal information to the company to sell on to whomever they choose.

 

THE big tech companies would like us to think that the digital revolution is unstoppable, and that their activities are benign and do not need to be regulated. Yet, we are seeing many harmful outcomes:

  • for the planet and the depletion of non-renewables, as people are manipulated by ever more targeted advertising to buy things that they do not need, and the internet itself is becoming voracious in its demand for electricity;
  • for democracy, as fake news and millions of individually targeted ads have been credited with changing the outcome of both the Brexit referendum and US presidential elections;
  • for the weak and vulnerable, for whom the massive rise of online gambling has led an estimated two adults per week to take their own lives in the UK, the most vulnerable people being specifically targeted by advertisers; and
  • for the mental health of children and young people, who are pressured by cyber-bullying and dogged for ever by past indiscretions.

Christians should be concerned about this. If we are made in the image of God, then all lives matter equally, and our personalities are not mere commodities to be bought and sold for profit. Human autonomy is infinitely precious to God, who does not manipulate us, but leaves us free to choose. God longs for relationship, but only out of free will, not compulsion, even though he knows from the beginning that the decision to make humans free will cost the agony of the cross.

The Church is called to speak truth to power, to make a prophetic witness in speaking out against the accumulation of power and profit in the hands of the few, and the exploitation of the poor.

 

The Ven. Mark Ireland is the Archdeacon of Blackburn.

Next week: how surveillance capitalism can be put right

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