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.

Breaking Point: The 1979 Iranian Revolution

Breaking Point

Press TV (2019)

Film Review

Since Google (which owns Youtube) has banned Press TV’s YouTube channel, Iran’s national broadcaster has started their own documentary channel.

I’ve just watched an excellent two-hour documentary on the Iranian Revolution. Up to this point, my only exposure to the 1979 revolution overthrowing Shah Reza Pahlavi came from a handful of CIA-scripted Hollywood films and a book by former Israeli agent Ronen Bergman.

The documentary begins with the 1953 US/UK coup against democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh, following his nationalization of Iran’s oil industry. Four years after the CIA  reinstated Pahlavi as Shah, they worked with Israel to help him create the Savak, a massive intelligence/police force that was even more intrusive and brutal than the East German Stasi.

In 1963, fearful of growing popular discontent, the US pressured the Shah to undertake a series of reforms, including land reform, forest nationalization, electoral reform (including voting rights for women), and and a scheme granting company shares to factory workers. His error was putting corrupt family members and military officers in charge, who pocketing most of the funding allocations for their personal use.

As of 1975, 60% of Iranians still lived in rural villages, where only 1% had access to electricity or clean drinking water. In fact, extreme rural poverty led to the steady migration of landless farmworkers to Iran’s cities, where they became peddlers, beggars, and prostitutes.

The Shah’s decision not to participate in the 1973 oil embargo* led to a massive increase in Iran’s oil export income – from $4 billion to $20 billion. The Shah would use a substantial portion of these funds to industrialize Iran and create an educated Iranian middle class. However he squandered most of it on a network of nuclear power plants and advanced military hardware that even European NATO members couldn’t afford.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the so-called Gandhi of the Iranian Revolution, first came to prominence in June 1963, when he was arrested for a speech publicly denouncing the Shah, the US, and Israel. The mass uprising following his arrest was quashed after the Shah declared martial law. Fearful of further unrest, the Shah, who originally intended to execute Khomeini, merely exiled him (first to Turkey, then Iraq).

For years, tapes of Khomeini’s speeches were smuggled into Iran, where they became extremely popular among students. In 1969, Khomeini (from Iraq) called for the Shah’s overthrow and establishment of an Islamic Republic. By the mid-1970s, nearly all Iranian opposition groups had united behind Khomeini,** including many ex-communists and the secular National Front (founded by Mosaddegh supporters).

When Carter became president in 1977, he again pressured Iran to undertake political and social reforms. The filmmakers believe the reforms (including greater press freedoms, release of political prisoners, and withdrawal of troops from the universities) merely emboldened the resistance movement, resulting in a wave of mass protests and general strikes. By late December, a prolonged general strike brought the economy to a standstill, with Iranian troops refusing orders to fire on strikers or protestors.

In January 1979, the Shah fled the country, and on February 1, three million Iranians turned out to hail Khomeini’s triumphant return from Paris (he was expelled from Iraq in October 1978).


*The embargo instituted by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries was aimed at nations supporting Israel is the 1973 Yum Kippur War.

**Unlike Sunni Islam, the Shi’a religion has a long history of rebellion against authority.

Although the video can’t be embedded, it can be view free at Breaking Point or at Press TV’s Facebook page (for now): https://www.facebook.com/PressTVdocumentaries

 

Hidden History: The Close Link Between Silicon Valley, the Pentagon and US Intelligence

The Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Big Tech Doesn’t Want You to Know

Directed by James Corbett (2019)

Film Review

This documentary explores the hidden Pentagon and US intelligence role in the development of of Silicon Valley, the Internet and tech giants like Google and Facebook.

Corbett traces the rise of Silicon Valley to the 1946 appointment of Frederick Terman as the dean of Stanford engineering school. During World War II, Terman ran the top secret radio research lab at Harvard. There he supervised 800 scientists in researching microwaves, radar detection and jamming and other forms of electronics warfare. Eleven of these scientists accompanied him to Standford, where they immediately received Pentagon contracts for military projects.

ARPANET, initially funded by the Department of Defense, became known as the Internet in 1991 when it was officially privatized.

Over the years, other technologies that began as Stanford graduate student projects were spun off as private ventures. Examples include Oracle Integrated Cloud Applications and Platform Services, derived from Project Oracle, a vast CIA database project; SunSystems Financial Management Software, also based based on Pentagon-funded research; and Google, which started as a project funded by DARPA, the CIA and the NSA.

In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA, initially owned 5,000 shares in Google, which they sold in 2005. On their webpage, the CIA describes Google Earth as a CIA-assisted technology. A 2014 Freedom of Information Act Request indicates Google was (is?) part of a secret government project called Enduring Security Framework Initiative. The latter paid (pays?) the company to share data they collect on search engine users with US intelligence and the Pentagon.

Google’s founder and former CEO Eric Schmidt is now the chair of the Defense Efficiency Initiative. He’s also a member of the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderberg Group’s steering committee.

Facebook has a similar history of Pentagon and US intelligence backing. By a remarkable coincidence, Facebook was launched the same day (Feb 4 2004) that DARPA scrapped a proposed study to predict behavior by collecting massive amounts of data on subjects’ daily interests and activities.

Facebook received most of its startup funding from venture capitalists closely linked to the Department of Defense and US intelligence – including $12.7 million from Accel Partners, whose managing director previously served on the board of In-Q-Tel.


*ARPA – Advanced Research Projects Agency – has since been renamed DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Agency).

 

 

If It’s Free, You’re the Product

Digital Dissidents Part 2

Al Jazeera (2016)

Film Review

“If It’s Free You’re the Product”

In Part 2, Digital Dissidents reminds us that Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple daily collect and “monetize” (ie sell) millions of data points about us (including records of financial transactions).

The documentary also features rare commentary by Julian Assange on Sweden’s attempts* to charge him with sexual assault. These charges mysteriously surfaced exactly two weeks after Anonymous hacker Jeremy Hammonds released hacked emails between intelligence contractor Stratfor and the US government about potential charges against Assange under the 2017 Espionage Act. Was this mere coincidence? It seems unlikely.

NSA whistleblowers Thomas Drake and William Binney also talk candidly about the devastating effects of whistleblowing on their personal lives. His career in software systems management ruined, Drake presently clerks in an Apple retail outlet.

Binney, who refers to the NSA as “the Stasi** on super steroids, calls for the total dissolution of NSA. He maintains it has too much power to be reformed.


*Sweden dropped the sexual assault charges against Assange in Sept 2017. As Assange points out in the film, neither woman filed a police complaint and one accuses the police of inventing the crimes she supposedly accused him of.

**As the intelligence/security service for the former East German Republic, the Stasi was one of the most viciously repressive secret police agencies ever.

The video, which can’t be embedded for copyright reasons, can be viewed for free at the Al Jazeera website: Digital Dissidents

Working Class Reality TV: The Final Episodes

Hard Earned – Episodes 5 and 6

Al Jazeera (2015)

Film Review

The final episodes of Hard Earned (“Fight for Fifteen” and “New Beginnings”) reveal mostly positive outcomes for the five families – in part due to their resourcefulness and in part (in my view) to extremely good luck.

Chicago: DJ loses his union job because it requires a car and he can’t afford the expense and upkeep. He finds a new job as field director for a voter mobilization campaign.

Montgomery: The couple finally find a house and mortgage they can afford and refurbish it to enable Elizabeth’s parents to move into their basement. They have been paying the $1700 mortgage on her parents’ home since her father developed cancer. Jose finally passes his math class and starts a part-time internship at a radio station to supplement his full time job at the courthouse.

Silicon valley: Hilton quits his Google job after he learns enough English to pass a food handlers exam. However he is forced to take a second job as a busboy to pay their medical bills and higher housing expenses (they have moved out of the garage into a house they share with another couple). His girlfriend takes a minimum wage job at a market.

Milwaukee: Percy finally lands a full time maintenance job that pays $11.25 and hour, and his wife, who has severe arthritis in her knees, is finally able to retire.

Evergreen Park: Emilia finally finds a good-paying waitress job and receives additional income from speaking tours about her struggle with drug and alcohol recovery.


For earlier episodes see Fighting Homelessness: Reality TV That Depicts Reality and  Reality TV: More Truth About the American Working Class

Offline is the New Luxury

Offline is the New Luxury

VPRO (2017)

Film Review

This documentary is about taking back control of our Internet connectivity. Ironically it starts by recommending a new app that allows you to identify increasingly rare “white spots” – areas of the earth that aren’t blanketed with WiFi signals. One MIT psychology professor, who bans cellphones, laptops and tablets in her classes, is part of a movement to create sacred spaces in these white spots – areas where people fully engage with each other instead of their electronic devices.

The filmmakers also talk about the late Steve Jobs and other prominent Silicon Valley moguls not allowing their kids to have cellphones and tablets and sending them to low tech Montessori and Waldorf schools. Increasingly the well-to-do are seeking out expensive retreats and detox facilities to cure their Internet addiction. While growing numbers of law firms and security agencies patronize a highly successful Dutch firm selling Faraday cages and microwave shields to protect clients from electronic snooping and damaging microwave radiation.

The Amish, of course, have a cheap low-tech solution to Internet addiction – namely a value system that rejects most advanced electronic technology.

The video concludes by explaining the concept of “surveillance capitalism,” in which our personal information is “monetized,” ie in which the data Google, Facebook and Amazon collect on us is sold to advertisers.

A key strategy of surveillance capitalism is to use drones, satellites and giant balloons to expand connectivity to remote areas of the developing world. At the time of filming, Facebook was pressuring the Indian government to allow the introduction of Free Basics (free Internet connectivity) to all Indian residents, with Facebook retaining control of their Internet access. Google, meanwhile, is pushing to extend 100% connectivity to Sri Lanka by launching giant WiFi balloons.

According to one analyst, the drive to acquire massive troves of Indian personal data is a ploy to placate shareholders. The latter are understandably concerned about a drop-off in Facebook users in the developing world – due to privacy concerns and the recognition that most Facebook content is meaningless drivel.

The Myth of Internet Freedom

Stare Into the Lights My Pretties

Jordan Brown (2017)

Film Review

This documentary takes an honest look at the dark side of what they call “screen culture.” The notion that the Internet is “free” is a total myth propagated by the corporate PR industry. The Internet has maximized corporate power more than any other technology, while significantly accelerating globalization.  It also enables government and corporations to spy on virtually every aspect of our lives

The overall premise of the film is that technology never arises in a vacuum. Although falsely portrayed as fulfilling our needs and desires., it ALWAYS serves the ideology and interests of ruling elites who pay for its development. Moreover once people allow new technology into their lives, it changes the way they think.

In Stare Into the Lights My Pretties, neuroscientists express concern about the harmful effect of six-plus hours a day of screen time on concentration, memory, problem solving, empathy and collective awareness.

Far more alarming, though, are the social control aspects of screen culture, all the while masquerading as Internet freedom.

Previously I had no idea of the absolute gatekeeping function of giant monopolies like Google and Facebook in filtering information that reaches individual Internet users. Despite the apparent wealth of information that bombards us via the Internet, the average American is less knowledgeable about US foreign and domestic affairs than prior to the 1990s Internet explosion. This mainly relates to sophisticated algorithms used by Google, Facebook, Yahoo News and even the Huffington Post, Washington Post and New York Times to selectively show us information they think we want to see (based on our clicking behavior).

I suddenly understand why climate deniers are so unshakable in their beliefs. When they search for the term, “climate change,” they end up with a totally different set of articles than I do – thus strongly reinforcing their existing beliefs.

Other more sinister elements of this social control relate to sophisticated behavioral modification techniques that addict us to our screens and to get us to click on specific sites and remain there as long as possible. When we use the Internet, we get confused what the real product is. The real product isn’t the web content we are offered – the real product is us and the massive amount of data collected every time we go online. This, in turn, is sold on to corporate advertisers who use it to entice us to buy their products.