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‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ Review (wsj.com)
92 points by Jerry2 on Jan 15, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 53 comments



The depressing thing about all this is that it is getting harder to opt-out of being surveiled.

Even if you ditch your phone and computers, there are still way to track you.

Just look at some of the crazy stuff happening in retail where facial recognition is used in some stores and malls to track where you go and what you look at in order to manipulate you in to buying more. It may be niche right now, but as the tech develops and gets cheaper it's use will become more widespread.


I've commented on their before, but my concern is more with the government having my data than companies. I hate both, but government is worse. Case study China.

Please. I don't care if it's left, right, or center. Next election, support someone who won't turn America into a technologically-enabled police state.


> my concern is more with the government having my data than companies

If the data exists then companies and governments alike will exploit it regardless of who collected it. Your internet usage, your phone records, even your DNA profile if you used a DNA profiling service can all be accessed at will without your knowledge or consent:

https://www.purevpn.com/blog/data-retention-laws-by-countrie...

In an age when your own data can be weaponized against your best interests I think the only sensible strategy is to minimize your data footprint as much as possible. Do not join "loyalty" programs, do not sign up to surveillance platforms like Facebook, do not submit your DNA to DNA databases, pay in cash whenever possible, etc.

You will inevitably be undermined by other people forking over your data to surveillance platforms but you can only do the best you can and hope to persuade as many people as possible to do similarly.


> Do not join "loyalty" programs, do not sign up to surveillance platforms like Facebook, do not submit your DNA to DNA databases, pay in cash whenever possible, etc.

I'm doing most of that already but even if you do all of these things, there's still the "friends" problem. The friends who use one of those apps that upload all of their contacts to the central server. The friends who use facebook. The family members who submit DNA to DNA databases. Very likely your friends are similar to you, so they serve as good predictors for your own data. As is for your family members, they usually have very similar DNA to yours :).

E.g. if your friends all live in one certain city, then you likely are to live there as well. If you have a suspiciously high amount of medical doctors in your friend circle, you are most likely one yourself. If 50% of your contacts are LGBT community members, you are likely to be one, too.

The data hoarders of this world don't need you to submit your data yourself in order to have your data.


> The data hoarders of this world don't need you to submit your data yourself in order to have your data.

It's the vaccination problem (not that one) — if enough people get vaccinated you can prevent a flu outbreak; if they don't, vaccinating yourself will only have limited effectiveness.


The solution is radical transparency, make all of this transparent, including people in government.


Wasn't this the plot of The Circle, by Dave Eggers?


My (big metropolitan) supermarket chain got rid of their loyalty card program.

One explanation I've heard, is that so many people are purchasing with credit/debit cards, that most purchasers are readily identified and purchase history tracking continues unaffected.

And if you purchase with a credit card, one way those businesses bolster their bottom lines is by selling your transaction history -- down to individual items purchased.

It's enough to make one want to go back to cash...


>...pay in cash whenever possible...

This isn't as easy in some places. For example, in Sweden, we have our own mobile pay system called Swish[1]. Since most people enjoy the convenience of mobile pay and businesses are adverse to getting robbed, just because they have cash, there are many shops that are now 'kontantfritt' (cash free).

Using this example, paying in cash whenever possible may not be as practical in some locales as it is in others; so, instead, it should be that the underlying problem is adressed, rather than always looking for alternatives. Eventually, you're going to run out of alternatives - unless you start making your own but, then, your problem is getting others to adopt it.

[1] - https://www.getswish.se/frontpage/


I live in Sweden and do not use - nor even have - Swish. The only occasions where this has been 'inconvenient' thus far was at markets and fairs where they only took Swish payments. In nearly all cases simply stating that I do not have Swish has been sufficient for them to accept cash payments. Those few cases which did not want to accept such did not get my business - the way things are supposed to work in a free market.

Now if the state of Sweden abolishes cash - there is this talk of moving to the 'e-Krona' (the Swedish currency is called krona (crown)) - this will become more problematic. One way out is to pay with Euros, Danish or Norwegian crowns or any other well-known and respected currency. Just going with the game is not an option I'm going to consider.



Yes, they can get it. However, government can get more data to start with. Or at least, that has been the case: I'm incredibly worried about self-driving cars. This is not for the usual reasons (safety etc.): I am concerned that they record everything they see in neighborhoods and areas not under surveillance normally. This is seriously, seriously bad.

We don't want private companies watching everything we do. They photograph license plates, and can use it to track who we are and where we go.

How long until recaptcha involves transcribing a license plate number?


> I hate both, but government is worse.

And governments have the power to order companies to share their data, e.g. CLOUD Act (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CLOUD_Act), so all personal data collectied by corporations automatically becomes data owned by the governments.


> And governments have the power to order companies to share their data, e.g. CLOUD Act (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CLOUD_Act), so all personal data collectied by corporations automatically becomes data owned by the governments.

Not exactly, the CLOUD Act is an amendment to the Stored Communications Act which removes the stipulation that the data requested in a subpoena or warranted search under the SCA be located in the U.S.

The SCA does not authorize mass collection, unless companies are too lazy to limit disclosures to communications content related to the specific person under investigation.


There is a good chance that government and companies will be the same at some point. We should be concerned about any kind of entity having these surveillance powers.


> There is a good chance that government and companies will be the same at some point.

Naval Ravikant had a good tweet about this:

The distant future is small free cities with drone armies and skill-based immigration policies, surrounded by a sea of failed socialist states.[1]

Guess which kinds of states have massive surveillance powers? Socialist ones. By definition you need to surveil your entire population in order to keep track of who gets what payment/government dole. How else would you keep track of it?

[1]https://twitter.com/naval/status/1084724006626840576?s=21


> Guess which kinds of states have massive surveillance powers?

The United States?

Last that I checked, it wasn't the socialist states trying to surveil everyone in the known world, with their own citizens chirping, "You have nothing to fear, if you have nothing to hide."


Correct. Government surveillance is associated with authoritarianism. The axis between that and democracy is orthogonal to the one between left/communist and right/capitalist. Of the three largest economies, it's the most democratic one that has passed privacy-preserving laws like GDPR while the other two pass surveillance-enabling ones depite being at opposite ends of the left/right spectrum.


Countries in the EU are the most heavily surveilled in the world. Not sure what your point is. GDPR has nothing to do with to government surveillance, it just regulates commerce between private entities that exchange data on the Internet.


Companies that collect your data will sell it, or sell services based on that data.

Governments can act like just another customer.


Usually candidates that don't support the status quo are labelled loony bin candidates. US is and probably always has been to the extent allowed by tech a technologically-enabled police state. It's just that it usually leaves most of its citizens alone often enough that they can pretend that this is not the case. I mean just see the levels of common harassment by the police while attempting to travel whether on the road or any other mode. It's common, it's routine, and it's banal. It's not the same type of police state as other police states like China or Russia, but it's a type of police state that relies on soft power backed by hard power only when necessary. It's a very sophisticated police state while others are crude police states.


I feel like scraping my bank transaction data to be the most violating breach of my privacy (more so than my likes), and yet companies like Plaid are thriving because people are willing to give up access to years of bank transaction history to use apps like Robinhood.


For this reason I have been experimenting with going cash only. Its actually not so bad and I can easily give money to those in need on the street.


I generally use cash for everything. The exceptions being large purchases or where I need a secondary proof of purchase.

I was once asked by my bank why I wasn't taking advantage of of the convenience my contactless debit card offered. I said because I didn't want them knowing what I spent my money on.

This led on to me being advised that I would struggle to get loan or mortgage facilities because the bank would be unable to see if I was spending my money responsibly.

I can live with that.


Earlier work by Shoshana Zuboff, on corporations who see humans as a source of data, not even as customers.

https://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/the-digital-... (2016) & https://vimeo.com/110222526 (2014)

> While advertisers have been the dominant buyers in the early history of this new kind of marketplace, there is no substantive reason why such markets should be limited to this group. The already visible trend is that any actor with an interest in monetizing probabilistic information about our behavior and/or influencing future behavior can pay to play in a marketplace where the behavioral fortunes of individuals, groups, bodies, and things are told and sold. This is how in our own lifetimes we observe capitalism shifting under our gaze: once profits from products and services, then profits from speculation, and now profits from surveillance.

> The bare facts of surveillance capitalism necessarily arouse my indignation because they demean human dignity. The future of this narrative will depend upon the indignant scholars and journalists drawn to this frontier project, indignant elected officials and policy makers who understand that their authority originates in the foundational values of democratic communities, and indignant citizens who act in the knowledge that effectiveness without autonomy is not effective, dependency-induced compliance is no social contract, and freedom from uncertainty is no freedom.


> ...influencing future behavior...

This is insightful (to me at least) — the next step after surveillance capitalism is coercion capitalism.

I think the “nothing to hide / nothing to fear” people won't like being coerced. (Also, by their logic, GAFAM should be unafraid of publishing their algorithms — right?)


Is that rewards programs, coupons, black friday deals, amazon prime and rebates? I buy something a thrift books and Chase sends me a coupon for abe books. Who knows how much data Chase is selling to whom?


Real-time phone location can be purchased for a few hundred dollars.


This already exists... it's called advertisement. The people who have no problem with advertising will be the same people who have no problem with "coercion capitalism". Most people don't have the energy or will to care, while many people are too ignorant and egotistical to believe that they can be influenced, as if every decision they makes comes out of a vacuum.



I understand the discomfort that comes with having vast corporate entities in possession of private personal information but as a user I'm somewhat confused about not exactly it affects my day to day life, especially since I insist on using adblock on every Internet connected device.

Perhap this book will reveal to me some dangers that I am not currently aware of. I'll try to keep an eye out for it and read it if it can.


Let's say you want to change things one day in your country: you get into politics or unionize. Too bad, your opponent has a back-channel access to data about you which could be used against you if made public. Or some law is passed and suddenly some of your old activity is made illegal: you're now on a watchlist, let's hope you can stop your cinnamon addiction.

Let's be more day-to-day: all your data is sold to insurance companies. Where you go, how fast you go, what kind of food you eat, your gym attendance etc.


That's a hypothetical situation, we could talk about those all day. And history shows us the government doesn't really need access to my browsing history to oppress me if that's what they want to do.

Re: insurance: Is that happening right now? I am not aware of any reports that indicate that is currently occurring.


>Let's say you want to change things one day in your country: you get into politics or unionize

Not day to day situation

>Or some law is passed and suddenly some of your old activity is made illegal

Then the law need to be changed so that past activity that is now illegal shouldn't affect you.

>all your data is sold to insurance companies

Ok so what's the danger? If anything I could get maybe cheaper insurance.


Adblock only helps a little. For example, unless you use a VPN, your ISP knows every site you visit. If you have a debit card your bank knows where you spend your money. Retailers can figure out a lot about you from your spending habits e.g. Target figuring out when someone was pregnant. Facial recognition is growing in use to track people in stores and malls.

We are still in the early days of commercial data analysis. Online retailers and ad brokers (e.g. Google) have been the trailblazers. But it will spread. Imagine a combination of facial recognition and data analysis being used in the real world to serve you custom billboard ads or to allow sales people to remind you that you probably need to buy new shoes.

Lets move beyond sales in to really creepy territory. Want to intimidate someone? Get hold as much of their marketing data as you can, it'll probably be on sale from some data broker. If its not on sale, bribing someone will probably get you what you want. Now let your target know that you know where they shop, what they buy, what websites they visit and maybe they have a drink problem they want to keep hidden. If you think that what legitimate businesses can do with your data is bad, imagine what criminals could do.


Sure, Amazon likely knows an enormous amount about me just through analysis of my purchase history. This is certainly creepy and off-putting but as I mentioned above, I'm not sure how it affects me. How is my life being made worse by this collection of data points?

The same goes for your hypotheticals about billboards and facial recognition. Very creepy and I certainly don't want to live in that world but at the end of the day, I'm not being harmed by it.

Invoking fear of criminals and underworld behavior is an unconvincing argument. If someone with those resources seeks to harm me, they're always going to be able to find a way to do it. We can stand about and talk about "what if's" all day, I'm interested in how my life is being affected today.


Surely a company using the analysis of your behaviour to effectively manipulate and trick you in to making decisions that might not be in your best interests is in itself harmful?

These companies that do this do not care about your interests, they care only about their bottom line.


I use Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends only. I have never posted a photo of myself on Facebook. I have adblock and noscript running. I use an alias and not my real name.

But Facebook suggested I tagged some faces on some photos my family shared. They were all of me. Not my brothers or other people also in the photos. But me.

Of course there is a lot of context shared by family and friends, but how Facebook could get the right faces baffles me.

How does it affect my daily life? I don't know yet.


Technical solutions at scale to combat this is to poison the well with the aim for actors to spend more and more of their resources on separating signal from noise.


There’s no surveillance capitalism.

In capitalism you have property rights. That being so, your private information can be protected and hence “capitalized” upon (pun intended) by the owner because in free market you would be able to sell it (should you want to do that) at a price that makes you willing to share your info.

So what we have is rather fascism, or extreme statism. And it’s more prevalent in countries where the government controls more GDP (so, socialist-like countries).


Property rights are something created by the government. If they have not defined, by law, something as property, then it isn't, and therefore capitalism has unrestricted access to that thing's exploitation. If you want this to be protected from capitalism then we need a new bill of rights, and we needed it 30 years ago.


socialism != fascism

they're completely opposite on the spectrum. socialism is people's democratic ownership of property and government.


Going into semantics! Has there even been a 'true socialism' by your definition?


Would you be saying the same thing if someone said North Korea was democratic and then dismiss any arguments that it isn't democratic as 'semantics'? Simplistic generalizations on complex, broad, and especially controversial topics pretty much always results in ignorance based conclusions.


Socialism is the unconditional surrender of all property (including the person) to the state, through whatever legal fiction provides for that. The "demos" in your "democratic ownership" is "The People", not the people.

And frankly, if you ever try to impose that on me, I will treat it just as any other form of assault (as will many with me across North America).


Socialism does not argue for taking your personal property, only property that is used for making profit which will then be taken by the working class to earn their full labor value instead of having a boss steal the surplus value.

A lot feel the same way about the system you impose on them.


If I'm employing you, you're also employing me. I have the currency or in-kind value provided by others I business with, and you have some form of value to provide to me. Whether you provide that or not is up to you, but I'm not "stealing" anything.

No "employer" imposes any system on anyone, they can only negotiate.

People can feel whatever they'd like, that doesn't entitle them to property which is as much theirs as the neighbour's dog.


And what if my property includes part ownership of a business? Stocks, maybe? Including in my IRA or 401k? Then you're taking my property.


Actually they were not that far away.

Mr Mussolini was a member of the Communist Party in Italy before creating its own version.

The main difference between socialism and fascism(also called national socialism) is that instead of accepting the International Socialist agreement(that was supported[paid by] and controlled by Russia by the way), they decided to be on their own, that is nation interest are a priority over international agreements.

The other important difference is that fascist were completely defeated, while communist won the WWII. That has made "fascist" an insult while "communist" is not.

You can make films about Hitler or Mussolini being terrible, but you can not about Mao big leap and cultural revolution for example. Most documentation on Russia's atrocities has been destroyed.


the difference between socialism and fascism is that fascism is largely protective of private property while socialism is for common ownership (on a wide spectrum of ideas around that).

NSDAP went around privatizing industries and the government was deeply in-bed with private entities


The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is going to be a seminal book. I am looking forward to receiving my personal copy tomorrow (release is January 15).


What is the significance of this book? I'm not familiar with the author.


This entire HN post is a share of a review of the book by Shoshana Zuboff: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism Published 01.15.2019




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