Business In The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism

In the age of surveillance capitalism, knowledge is power

Instead of making money entirely from production, today’s businesses harvest vast amounts of user data to make capital gains. As profit shifts from product to data, information capitalism is replacing the traditional, production based economy. Problems arise, however, when companies fail to consider the privacy rights of consumers and monitor them constantly through automated systems. This data driven evolution presents a much darker economic phase: surveillance capitalism.

Data as a commodity

In 2014, business theorist Shoshana Zuboff published an essay on surveillance capitalism. Zuboff described the economic model as one which commodifies reality, but in a way that is singularly beneficial for organisations. While capitalist economies could be described as exploitative, Zuboff argues that surveillance capitalism takes extortion to another level. In surveillance capitalist economies, businesses collect mass data, usually through automated systems. Herein lies the problem… These systems meticulously and relentlessly track user behaviour to the point that it becomes ethically questionable, especially when users don’t know why or what for.

Facebook and Google are two obvious examples of companies who have pioneered surveillance capitalism. Their algorithms shape customer behaviours, opinions, decisions, and access to products and services, but they aren’t beholden to any external standards of approval. This has led to another worrying concept – corporatocracies. If corporations have unprecedented access to information, then they have unprecedented power. There is already tension between companies and governments, and the fear that corporations could exercise a level of control over politics is not unfounded. Case in point: Cambridge Analytica.

The anti-big tech movement

Data hungry companies have not been left unscathed. Facebook, for example, has faced serious pressure to refine its privacy settings and be more transparent about what data is collected and why. Google was fined $57m for failing to comply with GDPR, and Ring, a smart home business which Amazon acquired last year, has reportedly accessed its customers’ live camera feeds. Despite the backlash against big tech, the Silicon Valley gang remain hugely influential.

In their defence, businesses are under immense economic strain. If they don’t collect huge amounts of data, then they miss out on opportunities to get closer to consumers. They will fail to understand their customers’ journeys, and lose insight into what users really want. In a sense, in today’s economic landscape, surveillance capitalism is integral to their survival.

Solving surveillance capitalism

For Zuboff, surveillance capitalism poses a threat to democracy, freedom, and privacy. The obvious remedy is data sovereignty – giving people control over their own data. Data sovereignty upholds that companies would need to ask permission and perhaps even offer some kind of payment before using consumer data. This would redefine data from a commodity into an owned asset. In terms of practical change, GDPR went some way to actualising greater consumer control, and some companies have shifted the playing field by giving people more, rather than less, data autonomy.

In truth, the onus is on major businesses to recognise that surveillance capitalism is not conducive to positive relationships with customers. Lobbying governments to deliver more data regulations, or approaching businesses themselves, requires cooperation between consumers and organisations.

Theory, or reality?

Today’s data driven economy has positively impacted businesses in many ways, but the development of surveillance capitalism suggests that companies have gone too far. It’s not an easy path to tread – businesses need to use consumer data to improve the customer experience, but not to the extent that they lose trust and transparency.

Either way, it’s in organisations’ best interests to do all they can to challenge the perception that we live in a surveillance economy. If they don’t, they will completely lose the trust of consumers and face harsh regulatory demands.

Follow the evolution of different economic models in our free weekly newsletter.