Surveillance Capitalism: How Google and Facebook Use Your Data to Exploit Your Inner Demons

Soshona Zuboff on Surveillance Capitalism

VPRO (2019)

Film Review

This documentary features Harvard Business School Professor Shoshona Zuboff, author of the popular book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

Zuboff begins by emphasizing that most of the data tech behemoths like Facebook and Google collect on us is unrelated to what we actively post on their sites. They and the companies they sell our data to are far more interested in the information we reveal inadvertently (ie our online contacts and purchases, the games we play, our geographic location, and the time we spend on specific sites).

By making their Android operating system available free to smartphone manufacturers, Google successfully captured 90% of the mobile phone market. This, in turn, enables them to capture phenomenal amounts of location-based data (linked to the phone’s GPS function) from Android-based smartphones. Google also collects personal information from the hidden microphones (that were never disclosed to users) on Google Nest, an Internet-based security system.

Collecting this type of metadata on hundreds of thousands of individuals enables complex algorithms to make surprisingly accurate predictions about our psychological state. Tech companies use these predictions to create what Zuboff refers to as “lure modules” – which they sell to a range of online and offline businesses. Their purpose is to increase “click-throughs” for on-line merchants and “footfalls” for brick and mortar outlets.

The Pokemon Go game is the best known experiment using a popular game to lure players to offline locations to spend money. Although marketed by a so-called startup called Niantic, Pokemon Go was developed over many years using Keyhole, a software program created by the CIA that Google purchased to create Google Earth.

Employing similar algorithms, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg flaunts his company’s capacity to monitor-moment to-moment mood shifts in more than six million Australian teenagers. This, in turn, enables advertisers to predict when they need a confidence boost (eg by buying your product).

Zuboff also cites the case of Cambridge Analytica, which purchased Facebook data depicting the “the inner demons” of 80 million Americans in 2016. The British company would use this data to develop targeted messaging to trigger Facebook users, where to click, what to read, and who to vote for.

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