My good friend Aaron the Seneca is sceptical.
‘Who would have thought I was so important?’ he asks, with gentle irony.
‘I know, right?’ I say.
I know what he means. He’s not talking about himself: he means all of us.
Who would want to spy on nobodies like us?
It’s called surveillance capitalism. The best source I’ve come across for an explanation of the phenomenon is Professor Shoshona Zuboff of Harvard University, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, who also features in a compelling VPRO documentary based on her work.
She explains (and I paraphrase) that all internet communications and transactions carry a lot of residual data. It took a while, but eventually it dawned on internet companies that what was originally dismissed as waste — ‘data exhaust’ — actually harboured rich predictive signals, a behavioural surplus far beyond anything required to improve services and products. This data could be analysed to train models and develop patterns of human behaviour; predictions of human behaviour could be sold, and not just to businesses but authoritarian regimes. This is the ‘surveillance dividend’ — and it turned out to be so profitable that it started attracting all the investment. A whole surveillance economy rapidly evolved, above and beyond the primary economy.
It’s not just about online targeted ads. These are ‘stealth processes being conducted at a level inaccessible to us,’ says Zuboff. ‘Our ignorance is their bliss. Operations are engineered as undetectable, indecipherable — cloaked in rhetoric that aims to misdirect, obfuscate and bamboozle all of us all the time. The information we provide is the least important part of the information they collect about us.’
Facebook uses your photographs to train models for facial recognition. It has also conducted large scale ‘contagion’ experiments, using subliminal cues to influence emotion and behaviour, while bypassing user awareness. The Pokémon Go augmented reality game was an experiment ‘incubated inside Google’, using the start-up Niantic Labs as a front. There was a massively profitable shadow game behind the game, which ‘precisely emulates the logic of surveillance capitalism’. Clients were offered ‘lure modules’: not ‘click-through’ but ‘footfall’, as the Pokémon game brought customers physically to their establishments. ‘Getting you into a place that we have predicted you will be means to automate behaviour to fulfil others’ commercial ends — third party to unlimited.’ Thus the surveillance economy spawned an economy of action.
The dominance of Android means that Google holds the key to 90% of mobile phone data. The company experimented with network balloons to extend internet access, while Facebook flew drones and offered free internet in combination with the Facebook ap. There are hidden microphones in Google Nest home security systems. Before installing you would need to review a minimum of 1,000 privacy contracts to exert any control over the sanctity of your home. Ford repurposed its cars as surveillance vectors; Toyota is doing the same.
Google knows where you are all the time, and what you think.
I know, right?
Who’d have thought we were so important?
NEXT: 5 — THE AI MODEL