Less Surveillance, More Privacy – Jasmine, Grade 12

Less Surveillance, More Privacy – Jasmine, Grade 12

Less Surveillance, More Privacy

“It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen” (Orwell 65). Telescreens in 1984 observe citizens’ actions, speech, and facial expressions, reminding people that Big Brother and the Party are always watching. In our modern world, the Big Brother has been replaced by Big Tech, and their surveillance technology serves the same purpose as the telescreens in 1984. They are both used to spy on people and collect their private information. In fact, dependence on the technological ecosystem is benefiting such giant companies by feeding surveillance capitalism. Surveillance of citizens and collection of their private information is an invasion of their privacy and a breach of their human rights. Surveillance capitalism, which is fed by dependence on the technological ecosystem, is a threat to people’s security and privacy and can result in manipulation and deception of the general public, and therefore should be stopped.

In surveillance capitalism, companies can take advantage of the personal data they have collected on their consumers to manipulate them. Current technology allows giant companies to gather information on their targets through the target’s internet use. Surveillance capitalism allows apps to control the advertisements that appear on people’s devices by understanding a person’s interests based on their Internet searches. Companies can target consumers based on the articles that they read online. For instance, diaper vendors “can target you based on whether you’re reading articles about child-rearing, diapers, or a host of other subjects and data mining can suggest unobvious keywords to advertise against” (Doctorow 7). Giant companies can generate big profit based on the data collected on the interests of each individual. “The more data they have, the more precisely they can profile you and target you with specific messages” (Doctorow 12). The directed advertisements can manipulate consumers to purchase the products that are advertised to them. For instance, “think of how a [company] would sell a fridge if [they] knew that the warranty on [their] prospect’s fridge just expired and that they were expecting a tax rebate in April” (Doctorow 12). With access to such precise information on their prospective clients, it is simple to direct the consumer to purchase the company’s products even when the consumers were not planning to purchase a fridge in the first place. Through collected data on prospects, giant companies can manipulate consumers into purchases, therefore generating profit to their company.

Surveillance capitalists collect their data through social media users’ interactions. From every click, like or comment made by a user, companies can track the user. A company can view the interactions a user has with certain videos or stories, gathering information based on their interests. Social media such as TikTok and Instagram have pages called an explore page or for you page. The Instagram explore page creates a page of reels, videos and pictures based on posts that users seem interested in through their likes, views and searches. The TikTok “For You” page similarly creates an endless scroll of videos based on videos that users seem interested in through their views, likes, and follows. Some social media platforms, such as Instagram, include a shopping page that consists of online stores. The information gathered based on a user’s interests can affect the products that appear on a user’s Instagram shop page. For instance, a user who has an interest in shoes and clothing may follow many Instagram shoes and clothing accounts. A single search on the Instagram shop for shoes can generate an entire page advertising shoes from different companies. Surveillance capitalism makes it simple for companies and platforms to generate profit through collecting data on the users of social media platforms. 

Deception is often a strategy used in surveillance capitalism for financial gain. Prospects are victims of lies and frauds, a major part of surveillance capitalism (Doctorow 8). Surveillance capitalism can assist companies in finding desperate, unsophisticated people to be targets of their fraudulent sales (Doctorow 8). For instance, “if you want to sell a fraudulent payday loan or subprime mortgage,” surveillance capitalism is fundamental in finding people receptive to these deceiving sales (Doctorow 8). Therefore, companies are not selling products that consumers truly need, but are deceiving consumers into believing that they need or want it. Furthermore, surveillance capitalism can generate fraudulent sales by “making it easy to locate other people who have been similarly deceived, forming a community of people who reinforce one another’s false beliefs” (Doctorow 8). It is challenging for consumers to avoid being targets of these fraudulent sales since many are unaware that tech platforms are stealing and using their personal data to deceive them. Prospects are often targeted for the financial gain of companies through surveillance capitalism.

Aside from financial gain, surveillance capitalism assists in political gain. In the 2010s, a political scandal occurred where the “personal data belonging to millions of Facebook users was collected without their consent by a British consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, predominantly to be used for political advertising” (Wikipedia). Cambridge Analytica used the personal data harvested from 87 million Facebook profiles through the app, This Is Your Digital Life, to assist the 2016 political campaigns of Donalds Trump and Ted Cruz (Wikipedia). Ted Cruz used the data harvested from Facebook profiles “to create tailored advertisements for each person to sway them into voting for Cruz” (Wikipedia). Donald Trump’s data was used to “build psychographic profiles, determining user’s personality traits based on their Facebook activity” (Wikipedia). As a result, the information was used to build personalized campaign messages about Trump to different people (Wikipedia). Facebook’s role in data harvesting resulted in a $5 billion fine for violating privacy (Wikipedia). A single social media profile of a person can provide companies and platforms with enough information to directly target the person, which reveals the awfulness in how a person’s personal data can be handled. Surveillance capitalism plays a major role in the process of political gain. 

Although governments hold the responsibility in stopping surveillance capitalism, they continue to disregard the problem and permit privacy violations. Governments have proven their ability to respond to urgent matters, so why are people still victims of surveillance capitalism? Since the Covid-19 pandemic, governments have been rigorously enforcing regulations upon citizens to ensure safety and limit the spread of the virus. For instance, indoor diners must show proof of vaccination with two doses and identification. Governments have enforced gathering limits, travel restrictions, retail capacity limits, and many more regulations to prevent the spread of Covid-19. If governments can enforce Covid-19 regulations in under two years, then they can enforce privacy measures to ensure a safe environment. But according to Doctorow, the tech sector works with authorities and they “rotate its key employees in and out of government service” (Doctorow). The government and Big Tech’s interdependence is preventing governments from regulating surveillance capitalism and privacy violations. Governments need to be less dependent on the services of Big Tech so that they can ensure security of the general public rather than disregard the threat of their privacy. Users are unable to decide how companies handle their information, and governments should enforce laws to enable users to make those decisions. Many students are mandated to consent to remote exam invigilation software platforms to write their exams (Deibert 1). By being forced to consent to these software platforms, students are “[installing] spyware that tracks everything from their keystrokes to retina movements, sending that data down a mysterious black hole” (Deibert 1). Students are impelled to allow spyware to invade their privacy and take their data in order to write their exams. If it is mandatory for students to consent to spyware, then it should be mandatory for students to decide how these tech companies handle their personal data. Users of exam softwares are only a fraction of the population who are subject to surveillance capitalism and privacy violation. Authorities need to be less dependent on Big Tech and ensure security of their citizens by enforcing laws that allow citizens to decide how companies handle their personal information (Deibert 5).

Tech platforms should be required to reveal their algorithm to the outside and public interest audits (Deibert 5). By revealing their algorithm, they can allow people to understand how these platforms handle their personal information and it should give users an option in deciding how their information is handled. Users should be able to decide how their data is used, rather than suffer the effects of surveillance capitalism. Because of their desire for profits, companies threaten their target’s security and privacy. Many users are oblivious to being targets of manipulation and deception through surveillance capitalism and fall into companies’ traps. Companies may be required to apply certain marketing strategies to generate profit, but it should not result in the violation of people’s privacy. Furthermore, public interest audits should have access to tech platforms’ algorithms to ensure that they are considering the welfare of the general public, rather than exploiting it. Public interest audits can assist tech platforms in improving their platform and profit strategies, while verifying that platforms are following regulations and requirements. Tech platforms should not conceal their secret algorithms from the general public for any longer, but instead, reveal them. Great point.

Rather than completely relying on tech companies to resolve the issue of surveillance capitalism, users can respond to their problems in more traditional and enriching ways (Deibert 5). Society has become a technological ecosystem and people’s high dependency on it is becoming the norm. Since the pandemic, technology use has risen more than ever with schools and workplaces being transferred online to platforms such as Zoom and Google Meets. However, Covid-19 regulations must be complied with to prevent Covid-19 cases. Depending on technology because of Covid-19 may not be controllable, but many normal practices that do not require technology can be controlled. For instance, schools are relying much more on technology. Years ago, teachers would at most have a mini projector to display their lesson. Today, students would rather bring their laptops, tablets, or phones to the classroom instead of handwritten notes. Childhood is no longer hide and seek, hopscotch, Barbies, and Lego, but instead, it is Roblox, television, Netflix, and Youtube. Although it is the tech company and platform’s responsibility to respect the privacy of users, users are also constantly feeding their data by relying on online platforms for everything. Resisting the temptation to reflexively refer to online platforms and responding to problems in more traditional ways, will diminish the risk of being subject to surveillance capitalism (Deibert 5).

In the dystopian society of 1984, Winston longs for the privacy, love, and freedom, which have become a memory from his childhood. Our current society can compare to the society in 1984, as we gradually lose our privacy and security due to our society’s high dependence on surveillance technology. As a result, peoples’ privacy is being violated, and they are being subject to the manipulation and deception of surveillance capitalism. Surveillance capitalism must be stopped before society suffers more dire consequences.