Facebook under fire, but it’s just part of ‘surveillance economy’

Google, Amazon, and social media platforms track and analyze people's personal data so they can predict what they'll buy and even how they'll vote. Privacy advocates want Congress to set limits on the practice. 

Stephen Lam/Reuters/File
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, seen here at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., in 2015, is at the center of a controversy over how a strategic campaign firm gained access to Facebook data about 50 million users.

In 2007, over lunch with Google officials at a conference, Shoshana Zuboff asked a question: How could she get her house removed from Google Earth, the company’s mapping program.

The whole room fell silent. “It was like I had just announced that I was going to murder somebody,” the Harvard social scientist recalls. The executives responded by asking why she would want to stand in the way of its mission to organize the world’s information and make it accessible to people.

That moment contributed to her growing realization that the digital economy – about which she had once had so much hope – had a hidden side, something she would come to call “surveillance capitalism.”

Although Facebook is currently at the center of a backlash against its sale of users’ personal data, the trend is much larger than that. It involves Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and a growing number of firms with nondigital roots, who are building tools to track and analyze how people act and where they go in the physical world as well as online.

The reason? If they can predict what consumers will do – what they’ll buy, where they’ll travel, even how they’ll vote – their data becomes extremely valuable.

These predictive insights “have been magnetic for offline businesses: insurance, retail, finance, a whole variety of services that are tapping into this,” says Professor Zuboff, whose new book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power,” comes out in September.

Suppose, for example, that Amazon or Google put their voice-activated digital assistant into a car dashboard, she says. “Then the assistant tells you: ‘Hey, there’s a McDonald's on the next corner’ or ‘I know you’re hungry, why don’t you go to McDonald's?’ ”

Such notions of surveillance can quickly conjure up fears of sci-fi dystopias, like “1984” or “The Matrix,” where governments or machines track people to control them. But the reality is at once more mundane and more subtle: Companies aim to understand you so they can make money by capitalizing on your behavior or influencing it.

Tech’s big benefits

So far in the digital era, consumers have focused largely on the substantial benefits of services that are often free. Imagine driving to a new location without Google’s maps or keeping up with friends without Facebook? This story would have taken far longer to research without Google search.

The tradeoff is that people give away tons of personal information with little idea of where it goes, how it’s used, or how long it’s stored. Researchers are asking: Are the benefits worth the costs to society and democracy? And what does it say about the role of people? They’re no longer consumers in the 20th century conception of the word: people who are catered to by companies selling products and services. You might say that, to surveillance capitalists, people aren’t even the product. They are the providers of raw materials – the data to be mined, analyzed, and sold. “We’re the stuff that’s left behind after the excavation equipment has moved on,” Zuboff says.

The internet companies “are making the market more efficient,” says Vibhanshu Abhishek, an information systems expert at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “There’s a strong economic rationale for doing this” digital tracking. But “it should be done with transparency so that consumers can know what personal data is being made available.”

The current flashpoint is Facebook. Recent revelations that the social media giant gave access to sensitive user data to an outside researcher, who then gave it to a political consulting firm hired by the Trump campaign, have rocked the company. Its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has reportedly agreed to testify on privacy before Congress while turning down a similar request by Britain’s Parliament (which is investigating the same firm for its role in the Brexit campaign).

The Facebook backlash

Facebook has come in for specific criticism because of its loose data security. “I’m surprised by the fact that they allowed third-party applications to collect that information,” says Mr. Abhishek. “Companies like Google and Amazon don’t do that. They’re very secretive.”

Attorneys general in at least 37 US states and territories are investigating Facebook, as is the Federal Trade Commission. That probe could prove costly to the social media giant, because in 2011, it signed an FTC order and promised to give consumers clear and prominent notice and obtain their express consent before sharing their personal information beyond the consumers’ privacy settings. In the current scandal, the political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, appears to have gotten access to records on up to 50 million Facebook users without their consent.

On Wednesday, the company announced new steps to make it easier for users to control the use of their data or even delete it.

A wider trend of surveillance

But if Facebook is the biggest target for criticism now, it's just part of a vast industry that deals in consumer data. The firms that track and use personal data range from makers of smartphone apps and cable-TV companies to large data brokers that scoop up or buy information from a variety of sources and resell it.

Among the results: customized or almost personalized online ads, based on consumers' recent digital history. A 2013 congressional report highlighted how data can be used to target consumer segments with precise profiles. Examples of such marketing segments, given in the report, included financially vulnerable populations labeled "retiring on empty," "rural and barely making it," or "rolling the dice."

Often the lines can blur between loss of privacy and a gains of safety or convenience.

Last year, for example, the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America wrote a House subcommittee asking for “reasonable” access to data from cars with automated driving systems. The issue is: If an accident happens, who was in control of the car: the system or the driver? And already, insurance companies like Progressive and General Motors Assurance Company (GMAC) have introduced usage-based insurance, which monitors car and GPS data to offer the best rates to the safest drivers.

New rules needed?

Many privacy advocates say government oversight is needed. 

“There’s a lack of control of your personal data,” says Jeramie Scott, a surveillance expert at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy advocacy group in Washington. “There’s a lack of understanding of how that info is used…. There needs to be some rules and protections in place that allow the market to innovate with those protections in place.”

Typically, privacy is a bipartisan issue. Mr. Scott hopes the Facebook fiasco along with last fall’s breach of credit agency Equifax will be enough of a tipping point to get privacy advocates on both sides of the aisle to take action.

But it’s complicated, because consumers are conflicted, especially over social media. Seven in 10 Americans say they use some kind of social media, according to Pew Research. And while roughly half of Americans don’t trust social media sites to protect their data, according to a 2016 Pew survey, a nearly identical share don’t trust the federal government either.

Politicians are conflicted, too, because data from Facebook and Google are transforming election campaigns.

“They have a huge conflict of interest,” says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, which advocates new privacy safeguards. “They all know that they won their most recent campaign ... using these very tools and techniques.”

Developing the rules of the road for surveillance capitalism will take some time, Zuboff says, just as it took time to develop protections such as collective bargaining and limits on working hours to rein in the industrial capitalism of a century ago.

“There’s no one silver bullet,” she says. “Ultimately, we’re dealing with a new situation and my view is that this will take new forms of collective action that will be 21st century solutions.”

Staff writer Mark Trumbull contributed to this story from Washington.

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