Meet the scholar who diagnosed ‘surveillance capitalism’

Frank Bajak
Associated Press

Until the Cambridge Analytica scandal turned what had been a slowly gestating backlash against the technology industry’s intrusive trajectory into a torrent, people struggled to articulate what underlay the societal damage it was exacting.

They did not include Shoshana Zuboff.

Tech industry allies reject Shoshana Zuboff’s thesis, arguing that consumers willingly trade their personal data for access to valuable services that don’t cost them a cent.

The Harvard business professor emerita had already spent years developing a damning theory. It found a big audience with U.S. publication her 700-page “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” which skewers tech giants led by Facebook and Google.

Her unflattering indictment of Big Tech evokes how they harvest the details of our lives and make billions from that data, all the while glueing our attention more firmly to their platforms.

She offered input on several pending U.S. privacy bills and wrote a 34-page policy paper for the House Judiciary Committee, whose antitrust panel is studying Big Tech’s potential abuse of its market dominance.

Zuboff has “put the language of economics around the experience that we all know we’re having,” says Beeban Kidron, a film director and U.K. House of Lords member who spearheaded child-protection rules limiting how apps gather data and tempt kids to linger online. “She’s a rock star.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Early on, Zuboff realized researchers had missed the importance of the ambient data that digital services collect — where we use them, for how long, what we like, what we linger on and with whom we associate. They were calling it “digital exhaust.”

But Zuboff saw that this data wasn’t just an unexpected byproduct, says Chris Hoofnagle, a University of California-Berkeley privacy expert. “It is the product.”

Tech industry allies denounce Zuboff’s thesis as conspiracy-minded hyperbole. Consumers willingly trade their personal data for access to valuable services that don’t cost them a cent, they argue. Google and Facebook declined to discuss Zuboff or her book.

But after more than a year of tech-related privacy scandals, malign election-interference and online platform-fueled extremism, investigations opened by state attorneys general and the U.S. government’s first tentative steps toward reining in its technology titans, it’s become clear that Zuboff helped crystallize previously vague apprehensions about the tech industry.

Zuboff’s indictment is straightforward: Tech companies suck up our data trails, then use those insights to steer us toward commercial interactions, develop their next addictive apps and predict our future behavior — effectively molding individual behavior.

Worse, she says, these invasive business practices are spreading. “By now this is a virus that has infected every economic sector,” Zuboff told a meeting of international parliamentarians in May.

Zuboff traces the origin of surveillance capitalism to 2001 as Google, then little more than a search engine, considered going public. Faced with the need to generate revenue, its founders decided to mine the data Google amasses when people make searches.

That helped Google improve search results but also informed it about users’ family lives, religious beliefs, ethnicity, political or sexual persuasion and more. Google fed those clues into a personalized advertising machine and became a global juggernaut.

Zuboff traces the origin of surveillance capitalism to 2001, when Google, then little more than a search engine, decided to mine the data it amasses to generate revenue.

Following Google’s example, Facebook and other tech companies offered an irresistible bargain. People could connect to long-lost friends, search the world’s information and watch endless streams of video at no cost. Before long, smartphones launched an explosion of “free” apps with a hearty appetite for your data.

Nowadays, your movements, conversations, facial expressions and more are snatched by smart TVs, thermostats, refrigerators, doorbell cameras and connected cars. Dossiers are compiled on each of us.

In the name of personalization, she says, “it defiles, ignores, overrides and displaces everything about you and me that is personal.”

Not everyone agrees, to put it mildly. Vice President Carl Szabo of the e-commerce trade group NetChoice, whose members include Facebook and Google, said her book “paints a typical dystopian picture of technology, dismissing the remarkable benefits of online platforms and data analysis.”

In response, Zuboff cites consumer surveys that indicate increasing unease with the prevailing, invasive business model.