In the video above, you can watch the first public conversation between social psychologist and Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff and Margrethe Vestager, executive vice president of the European Union (EU) regarding the European way to shape the digital age.
In February 2020, the EU announced a new digital strategy — “Europe Fit for the Digital Age” — that’s intended to ensure technology serves the people and adds value to their lives.1
Privacy is a major concern in a digital era and, according to the EU, their “strategies for artificial intelligence (AI) and data aim to encourage businesses to work with, and develop, these new technologies, while at the same time making sure that they earn citizens’ trust.”2
With Vestager in charge of setting the strategic direction for this new initiative, a conversation with Zuboff is exciting. Her book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” is one of the best books I have read in the last few years. It’s an absolute must-read if you have any interest in this topic and want to understand how Google and Facebook have obtained such massive control of your life.
Her book reveals how the biggest tech companies in the world have hijacked our personal data — so-called “behavioral surplus data streams” — without our knowledge or consent and are using it against us to generate profits for themselves. She’s uniquely poised to help guide the EU and any nation looking out for personal privacy.
Why Privacy Matters Even if You ‘Have Nothing to Hide’
Mikkel Flyverbom, professor at Copenhagen Business School, who’s the moderator in the video above, asks an important question in that, when speaking about privacy, some people respond that certain forms of surveillance aren’t a big deal because they have nothing to hide.
It’s a mistake to give over your privacy to this thought process, though, and, as Zuboff explains, it is a sign that you’ve succumbed to a kind of authoritarian propaganda.
The propaganda is the notion that “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” from their sensors, their devices and their surveillance. But at the very foundation, losing your privacy means giving up your right to an inner life — a fundamental change to the society we live in. Zuboff says:
“If everything is transparent and there is no privacy we have fundamentally changed the kind of society that we live in — a society that cherishes privacy is a society that cherishes freedom and autonomy and democracy. What we see is that when we succumb to this idea of total transparency they take our faces, they take our bodies, they take our bloodstreams, they take whatever they want.
These are used for data sets. As we’ve seen in facial recognition, they take our faces; they put them into data sets. Ultimately, we’ve seen as in the case with Microsoft, their facial recognition training data set sold to military divisions, including military divisions in China.
… We need an inner life. We need sanctuary to be a democracy and we need societies that are structured by that respect for the individual if we are to have a free democratic society and a free world.”
Digital Strategy Differences Between the EU, US and China
China, led by the Chinese Communist Party, has been intentionally crafting their vision of a digital future since at least 2010 — something the U.S. and the EU have failed to do.
In China’s case, Zuboff notes, “Their vision is one specifically that is to advance their form of government, which is an authoritarian state. They advanced their form of government domestically and they create the technologies and the training systems and value systems to support those technologies, which they export.”
At least 36 countries are now using these authoritarian training systems and surveillance technologies. The U.S. and the EU will now have to work to advance a digital age that will also advance democratic government. If they don’t, Zuboff says, “Our century will not remain democratic.”
At present, we’re “walking naked” into the digital future, and when asked how much progress the EU has made, Vestager says, “Well, I’m afraid we only have a thong on. We still have so far to go.” The EU enacted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018, which is designed to increase the protection of personal data and acts as a sort of digital citizen’s rights.
However, even with these rights in place, Vestager says, “we still need to go further to enforce them.” The COVID-19 pandemic offered a crash course of sorts in doing everything digital, which has shown the urgency in the need to ensure a safe digital future.
9/11 Terrorist Attacks Eroded Privacy Conversations
When asked whether European initiatives will be able to address privacy concerns, Zuboff states that steps are being made, even in the U.S., which has lagged behind but has recently had 29 key bills come out that are trying to tackle these important issues.
There are no laws in place to curtail this brand-new type of surveillance capitalism, and the only reason it has been able to flourish over the past 20 years is because there’s been an absence of laws against it, primarily because it has never previously existed. Surveillance has become the biggest for-profit industry on the planet, and your entire existence is now being targeted for profit.
But in order to really come to grips with the facts surrounding surveillance capitalism, Zuboff says, it’s necessary to understand how we got into this place to begin with:
“This goes back to a specific moment in history. This goes back to the day that the twin towers fell because in the United States on September 11th the conversation about the internet and the digital future changed dramatically. People were poised to be considering comprehensive federal privacy legislation on that day.
We see terrorist attacks and that conversation changed very, very quickly to one called Total Information Awareness, and this new obsession altered the way that Washington looked at these fledgling internet companies in Silicon Valley.
Google, right at the forefront, was already on record with the Federal Trade Commission as violating privacy rights with the cookies and the web bugs and the various early tracking procedures that they were implementing.
As a result of the so-called war on terror, Washington developed an unwritten doctrine that I’ve called surveillance exceptionalism — the idea that these budding tech companies would be allowed to develop their surveillance capabilities outside of democratic oversight, outside of constitutional constraints, and that ultimately these massive oceans of human-generated information that the tech companies would provide would be available to the state when they needed to avail themselves …
[This] allowed the state to pursue surveillance and allow the companies to develop and amplify, root and elaborate a complex economic logic called surveillance capitalism, which has now become the dominant economic logic.
So, what we have is for these last two decades our democracies chose to be surveillance societies instead of choosing to be democratic societies with the digital underneath that umbrella of democracy … and constrained by democratic constitutional constraints.”
Now, we’re at a point where the once fledgling startups have morphed into immense information empires, and control of our information and our privacy is in their hands.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear how valuable digital technologies are acting as a safety net to allow many activities to continue, but because governments haven’t dealt with fundamental issues to protect privacy and digital rights, these information empires continue to own and operate the internet and global means of communication.
These monopolies lead to uncontrolled power that, in turn, leads the people to be even more constrained and living in a society based increasingly on surveillance. “When a human is seen as a resource and not as a citizen,” Vestager said, “well then democracy is undermined.”
COVID-19 Triggered a Rapid Digital Transformation
It’s likely that, in 20 years, we’ll look back at the pandemic as another pivotal point in the digital age, as it triggered one of the most rapid digital transformations in history. One thing it’s made clear is the many nuances that are lost during digital communication, leading Vestager to point out that the point of technology is not to become full-scale but to be used only when it’s useful.
“Humans, in order to stay human, we need to come together, because we educate each other, we develop together and we need each other in order to do that,” she said. “So, my hope over the next 20 years is that we will keep technology in its place as a tool and that we will stay proud and vigilant.”
What we’re seeing now, however, is a society with no escape from surveillance capitalism. From getting medical test results to making dinner plans with friends or relaxing at home with your smart TV, you’re encountering various surveillance capitalism supply chains. Google has also infiltrated education with its Google classrooms, usage of which has skyrocketed during the pandemic.
About 80% of students globally are now doing some type of remote learning, and many of them are using Google classroom or other platforms that also have surveillance capabilities. The Attorney General of New Mexico filed a suit against Google for its educational tools in its classroom suite, helping to “break through the fog,” Zuboff says, but many aren’t aware that even their children are being tracked:
“[The suit is bringing to light how they’re] identifying the huge amounts of data that they’re taking about kids, how they track them across the internet and integrate it with all the other Google streams of information and have it as a foundation for tracking those children all the way through their adulthood.”
The Digital Silver Lining
The silver lining is that many are beginning to realize that this is intolerable and something that citizens of democratic societies shouldn’t have to face. As a result, Zuboff says she believes the pandemic will mark the time of democratic resurgence.
“This is going to operate like the Great Depression. The Great Depression was a terrible crisis but it brought forth a sense that, no more, we must create the institutions, the laws and the rights that will protect us from this ever happening again.”
As it stands, there’s an unacceptable concentration of power in a handful of companies that are controlling the information empire, and the global data they’ve amassed is not being used for the public good but, rather, to advance the financial interests of surveillance capitalists and their clients.
By interrupting this “rogue economic logic,” Zuboff explains, the data can be freed for public uses, for those who want to use it to solve problems for the public good, while at the same time building trust and confidence toward a different, better kind of digital future. To get to this point, we need epistemic rights. Zuboff says:
“Part of the big picture is we need to be working on the charters of rights that are necessary in this historical moment — rights that never came under fire before but are now under attack. I call these to begin with epistemic rights.
[They are] the rights to know who gets to know about my life, who decides who gets to know, who decides who decides who gets to know. These issues of knowledge, authority and power need to be translated into rights as we begin to identify these rights.
We have the tools to truly interrupt and outlaw surveillance capitalism, because taking my face is an act of theft and it should be a criminal act. If I’m going to give my face for an enterprise that’s collecting data maybe for this treatment, maybe for improving some other aspect of public health, then this is my choice …
I do it transparently, and I do it understanding what my data will be used for, how it will be used, how it will be shared and so on and so forth. So, from these rights we can develop the tools the laws and the institutions that we need to fundamentally change.”