The 21st Century has not been known for its efforts to protect Americans’ privacy. The new millennium didn’t start out that way, but within its first few years two events changed the game: the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks (with their subsequent passing of the Patriot Act and commencement of the War on Terror) and the rise of Google and its competitors such as Facebook.
For more than 20 years, it’s become increasingly unlikely that we can venture into any public space—including many commercial and residential neighborhoods—without being quietly observed through the lens of a camera. The government’s proliferation in spying has become very familiar to us through both news accounts and popular culture, and has been begrudgingly accepted as a necessary evil for keeping us safe from future attacks.
In addition, most of us have been inundated for 10-20 years with very specific ads, emails, texts, prompts, social media posts, and “nudges” across multiple online and wireless platforms. Our collective loss of privacy and addiction to technology shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who lives and works “on the grid.” We’ve been disgusted by scandals such as Facebook’s partnership with Cambridge Analytical. We’re being manipulated by Big Data companies, and we know it—but feel powerless to stop it.
Until recently, however, there’s not been a lot of collective, comprehensive insights toward how these dynamics arose in the first place—in part, because of their speed and unprecedented market creation—and what we can do to fight back.
“Surveillance capitalism” is defined by Shoshana Zuboff, professor emerita at Harvard Business School, as “the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data.” A practice pioneered by Google, adopted by Facebook and other Big Data companies, and largely unregulated because of its unprecedented nature, data is “packaged as prediction products and sold into behavioral futures markets—business customers with a commercial interest in knowing what we will do now, soon, and later,” Zuboff says.
Zuboff’s research reveals that the federal government was leaning toward regulating Google’s behavioral data activities until 9/11, when the focus abruptly shifted to security. In the years following the terrorist attacks, numerous government agencies sought consultation and expertise from Silicon Valley, paying out billions to private companies in order to help the government gain similar levels of surveillance depth and breadth while also gaining access to these firms’ endless tributaries of data.
Therefore, it’s a not to stretch to say that we not only live under surveillance capitalism but surveillance governance—and there’s little reason to believe that each won’t continue to strengthen and expand the other, which does not portend well for our democracy. (And that’s not even accounting for the nefarious activities of third-party hackers, both domestic and abroad, and hate groups that manipulate data to spread disinformation, chaos, economic disruption, and antagonist behavior.)
How to fight back
First, vote for leaders who will embrace the moral courage of enacting new laws that curb surveillance activities by both the private sector and the government. It’s time to outgrow the “either-or” thinking that claims we can have safety or liberty but not both.
In addition, systematically reduce the amount of time you spend on social media—and online in general—in order to give the tech giants and the government less of your private information. Even if you make scarcely a dent in these companies’ profits or the government’s ability to keeps its eyes on you, you’ll feel more focused, less anxious, and more present with the people and pets in your life.
For a much deeper dive into this topic, check out Zuboff’s devastating book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, as well the popular Netflix documentary that features her, The Social Dilemma. This documentary was made by The Center for Humane Technology, and the non-profit’s website has a wealth of tips that can help you minimize your online time. Another fantastic book with practical, easy-to-implement strategies is Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.