Surveillance Capitalism Has Become the Internet

Surveillance capitalism was invented when previously discarded and ignored data logs were repurposed as a ‘behavioral surplus’ by Google, not for product improvement, but to predict user behavior.

Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other social media companies manipulate us and sell access to our attention. Google pioneered the model in the late 90s. Seeing the profits, companies around the world adopted the same strategy. These tech companies track what people do on and offline, making predictions about what they will do, devising ways to influence behavior from shopping to voting, and selling that power to whoever is willing to pay.

These companies harvest private human experience as raw material for unscrupulous corporations and political powers. Predictions of our behavior are sold to the highest bidder. The design of this system produces extreme asymmetries of information and power. This is unprecedented territory with profound consequences.

Online tracking is ubiquitous, across the top million sites you will be tracked on more than 90 percent. Companies track when you visit medical websites, pornography sites, shopping sites, websites for politicians and newspapers. There are very few things that people don’t seek out or share using a computer and nearly all of it is tracked, all the time, by the billion dollar giants you see in the news as well as hundreds of companies you’ve never heard of.

Companies collect this information in order to monetize it. While we may not see much value in the individual data points about our behavior, in the aggregate it adds up to big money.

It’s impossible to opt out of being tracked or being included in the datasets used to create targeting algorithms. For example, you might assume after you had been searching for shoes and later if you don’t see targeted ads for shoes they stopped tracking you, but that’s not the case. There are ways to prevent some level of tracking, but a lot of the internet will be limited. There are alternative social media platforms and search engines but most people are unlikely to start using these alternatives soon.



Image: “GOOGLE” by CHRISTOPHER DOMBRES is licensed under CC0 1.0