Surveillance Capitalism thinks it won, but there's still time to unplug it

We gave up privacy for convenience, and 2018's the time to win both of them back


On a walk across the show floor at January's Consumer Electronics Show, a friend working in technology for nearly thirty years expressed unease at where it all seemed to be headed.

As I pulled my head away from a consumer door lock containing an embedded retinal scanner, I replied. “I don’t know what you’re talking about."

But I did. I could feel it in my gut and heard it from everyone else who’d spent a career working in technology. It isn’t just that a few megacorporations nearing trillion-dollar valuations have sucked all of the oxygen out of the room, it’s that they’ve become so big they’ve started to warp the fabric of reality.

Facebook got caught out in May using real-time emotional profiling to target vulnerable teenagers with commercial offers.

Google was caught out last week tracking Android users even when they’re not supposed to.

Amazon wants access to your home.

Apple developed a next-generation smartphone that provides a real-time stream of facial gestures to any app that wants to measure your emotional reactions. Hardly anyone cares because it also offers - so cute! - a poo animoji!

In any previous year, any one of these incidents might have have seen a massive outpouring of outrage, a pushback that would get these firms to amend their ways. In 2017, they just feel like a few more outrages in a year crowded with them.

Along with outrage fatigue we seem to be experiencing surveillance fatigue: it’s not creepy that Amazon wants inside your home or Apple wants to scan your face or Google wants to know where you are every single moment. Not creepy at all.

How did we get to this normalisation of pervasive surveillance?

Like the frog in the pot, it happened slowly. Over the course of my thirty-five year career, we’ve seen a steady shift from selling people things (hardware and software) to selling people to things - surveillance capitalism.

That all accelerated when the Web came along, funded by ads that capture data and let marketers to precisely identify, track, and profile viewers.

Google and Facebook took that technology to the next level, using artificial intelligence to build systems that continuously “grow” user profiles, harvesting every interaction for useable “behavioural metrics”.

Those profiles have become us, and they’re used to watch us.

The upside looks like what I’ve been calling “surveillance utopianism”: Amazon knows you so well they know exactly when the drone should stop by with the evening’s bottle of whatever wine you prefer, either nicely chilled or allowed to breathe. That’s the promise of a world where we’re so completely under surveillance. It’s a consumer paradise of products and needs satisfied before they even come to mind, because the profiling grows that smart.

But in that world you can’t trust anything at all. You’ll never know if a day’s worth of subtle manipulations embedded within every digital interaction hadn’t planted that desire for that bottle of wine.

If this sounds paranoid, remember that Facebook’s already been caught with their hand in this cookie jar. We are under surveillance, there’s no way to sugar-coat that.

There’s no easy answer to the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. It’s taken decades to dig ourselves into this hole, and it’s going to take some time to climb out.

But at least we can stop digging.

We can stop complying with the services that ask us to trade on our privacy. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: Those who give up privacy for convenience deserve neither.

We can make demands. We can demand transparency that doesn’t hide itself behind a 50 page terms-and-conditions document written to be as opaque as a sheet of lead. We can demand accountability for executives who make the decisions to enrich themselves and their firms and their shareholders at the expense of the public’s right to privacy. We can refuse to do any business with those firms that can not be transparent about their business and will not be accountable to their users.

Yes, that’s hard. Deleting the Uber app from my smartphone this year cost me convenience and dollars - but I felt better knowing I wasn’t helping to support a incredibly virulent strain of startup culture. Many others have done the same thing, and Uber has been hurt by that.

But boycotts alone will not clean up the mess we’ve made. That, dear Reg readers, starts with us. We’re the folks who made this world. We’re the folks who keep it ticking over. Surveillance capitalism, that’s on us. It’s our legacy.

Is that really what we want to leave behind? Or can we make an effort to do better in 2018? ®

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