The opt-out illusion

Katrina Gulliver:

The film The Life of Others (2006) is set in East Germany in the early 1980s and features a government agent who spends his days wearing a headset, listening to private conversations in the homes of suspected dissidents. He feels sympathy for his subjects – and guilt for his actions. He knows that if he reports any sign of subversion that person could be arrested.

Today we are all under similar surveillance, this time by Silicon Valley capitalists. They are not watching us for political dissent but for our “behavioral surplus”, the crumbs of data about what we do, where we go, what we look at, what we buy. This surplus is used for the purposes of targeted advertising. It has made them billions, and left many of us wondering how we got into this situation.

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff explains how. She is scathing about many of the main players. The executive Sheryl Sandberg is described as the “Typhoid Mary” of the practice, carrying it from Google to Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg, in Zuboff’s telling, seems temperamentally attuned to surveillance capitalism – either disinclined philosophically to believe in privacy as a value, or so bent on power he simply doesn’t care. (Zuckerberg suggested at the Crunchie Awards in 2013 that privacy was no longer a “social norm”.) In its lifetime, Facebook has faced a series of privacy scandals, starting with the Beacon project in 2007, which, to much outrage, shared the details of a given user’s purchases from stores that advertised on the platform with their entire list of contacts. Zuboff provides the account of one user whose purchase of an engagement ring was shared with his girlfriend (and everyone he knew) before he had the chance to propose. Zuckerberg apologized for the misstep, but the thinking behind Beacon remains central to Facebook’s business model.