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The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power

By Shoshana Zuboff
15-minute read
Audio available
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019) provides a revealing look at just how committed companies like Google and Facebook are to tracking every one of your actions and selling that data to advertisers. Over the past few years, this business practice has become one of the most prominent worldwide, and the harmful effects it has on personal liberty and democracy are becoming more apparent.

Listed on The Guardian’s Best 100 Books of the 21st Century

  • Users of Google or Facebook
  • People who value privacy and free will
  • Anyone curious about how much personal data is being collected

Shoshana Zuboff has a PhD in social psychology from Harvard University, as well as BA in philosophy from the University of Chicago. She is currently the Charles Edward Wilson Professor emerita at Harvard Business School. Her previous books include In the Age of the Smart Machine.

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The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power

By Shoshana Zuboff
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff
Synopsis

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019) provides a revealing look at just how committed companies like Google and Facebook are to tracking every one of your actions and selling that data to advertisers. Over the past few years, this business practice has become one of the most prominent worldwide, and the harmful effects it has on personal liberty and democracy are becoming more apparent.

Listed on The Guardian’s Best 100 Books of the 21st Century

Key idea 1 of 9

In surveillance capitalism, all aspects of the human experience are turned into data and sold to a variety of businesses for a variety of reasons.

Do you know to what degree your movements, speech, actions, experiences, and behaviors are being processed and sold by businesses like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon? Few of us do, and that’s just how the purveyors of surveillance capitalism would like to keep it.

The key message here is: In surveillance capitalism, all aspects of the human experience are turned into data and sold to a variety of businesses for a variety of reasons.

First and foremost, your personal data can help businesses better target their advertising efforts. Are you getting close to a McDonald’s? Here’s an ad for a Big Mac.

But it can also help to create predictive products, such as virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, which are then used to collect more profitable data.

Google was the trailblazer in surveillance capitalism and it remains the frontrunner. But it wasn’t long before other companies recognized the value of this new personal data market. After all, once Google began using the data to improve the accuracy of targeted ads, the company went from bleeding money to seeing a 3,590-percent increase in revenue – in just four years!

Facebook was the first to follow in Google’s footsteps, and they’re the only ones who rival Google in the sheer amount of accumulated data. In a 2015 study at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers looked at the top one million most popular websites. They found that 90 percent of them leak personal data to an average of nine outside domains where this information is tracked and used for commercial purposes. Of the websites that leak data, 78 percent send information to Google-owned outside domains, while 34 percent send to Facebook-owned domains.

Like Google, Facebook sells advertisers targeting data that includes email addresses, contact information, phone numbers, and website visits from across the internet. In 2012, Facebook added a brief mention of this new tracking policy to a new terms-of-service agreement that was so lengthy that few people were likely to read every word. This kind of unreadable contract is a typical surveillance capitalism tactic. 

Such tracking is not limited to internet browsing, however. Other studies have found that many apps sold for Google Android devices contain trackers that leak personal information even when they’re not actively being used. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Google Android devices themselves, like most “smart” devices being sold these days, provide a constant stream of location and behavior data.

How did we get here? Why does using the internet or digital products now essentially mean opening the door to aggressive monitoring by unknown parties? In the next couple of blinks, we’ll look at how surveillance capitalism came to be.

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