Surveillance capitalism: a widespread, ugly foe

Ian Sims

I was fascinated when Twitter Analytics informed me that 33 percent of my followers consume “salty snacks.” While I have no specific plans for this information, I’m not the only one who has access to it. Corporations regularly purchase large swaths of user data from popular websites and use it to tailor advertisements. This gross practice, known as surveillance capitalism, enables aggressive marketing tactics and further concentrates wealth in top corporations. 

Some would call this the natural forces of the market. I call this ugly. In an age where Amazon is expected to become the first trillion dollar company, it is immensely important to critique the methods in which the privileged gain more power. While people in America face poverty everyday, the three richest Americans have more wealth than the entire bottom 50 percent. 

Surveillance capitalism was a term popularized in 2015 by Harvard academic Shoshana Zuboff and describes the mass acquisition of digital data by advertisers. Although often invisible to the public, corporations frequently buy large data sets that include information such as browser history and purchasing habits. This information is then sorted and categorized to develop market profiles and predict which target audiences will be most receptive to marketing.  

For example, someone who Googles “Plane tickets to Bahamas” could be served online ads for sunscreen and encounter higher prices for plane tickets.

Data collection occurs en masse. Recently, voting-profiling company Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge when they or their friends downloaded a personality quiz. Although current news is focused on Facebook, let us not forget the list of companies Facebook has acquired is 66 deep — including Instagram and WhatsApp.

Although Cambridge Analytica could face legal charges and Facebook stock is plummeting, selling user data is still highly profitable. The U.S. digital advertising industry has an estimated annual value of $83 billion. 

Unsurprisingly, this wealth is concentrated. In 2017, 10 companies took home more than 67 percent of revenue from the mobile ad market. Google, the most popular search engine, controls 40.7 percent of the U.S. digital ad market. 

We all use the same websites and have the same apps on our precious phones, so these same companies continue to profit off of our prolonged internet use. If the internet was decentralized, money made from advertising would be more evenly distributed.

Even worse, the repeal of net neutrality means that decentralization won’t be happening anytime soon. In the meantime, surveillance capitalism will continue to enrich those who are already powerful. So, maybe Siri isn’t the best entity to go to for comfort. Maybe Amazon’s Alexa in your living room isn’t your best friend.

Sims is an international relations and global studies sophomore from Houston.