Enablers of Surveillance Capitalism

Nov 07, 2020

Bhavabuthi Bobby

Normalizing through shocks:  A global strategy

Every few years, there will be a media sensation that will tremble the society. Be it Cambridge Analytica or the Aadhaar data breach. The news on how corporations are indulging in dark patterns to collect data. The news on how data breaches leading to sensitive data of users being exposed in internet. The list goes on.

This has become so prevalent that it became a norm in the digital era. The practice of media resorting to shocking people for the sake of sensation creates despair and is pervasive. There are several instances in our conversations with engineering students that we see this despair and helplessness. We see that they are reliant on the internet for many of their necessities. But due to proprietary technologies engulfing discourse of the commons, they are finding it difficult to explore alternatives.

The corporate media went hand in hand with these corporations to supply stories that might be presented to be most shocking but doesn't address the over arching problem. They end up suggesting limitations in social media usage. The same thing happened in a recent popular Netflix documentary 'The Social Dilemma'.

This is definitely against the logic of human interaction. For example, you want to meet and talk with your friend and call them over to a place. If the place is noisy, would you abandon the place and go to a less noisy place or would you abandon the talk altogether? A person with common sense would choose another place with less chaos to have conversation with their friend. This is somehow missing in the conversation when they sensationalize the news. The pervasive data collection by the corporations for profits at the cost of our sensitive data is being normalized by blaming people for their social media usage.

Do companies like Facebook snoop on us? This question has been answered in 2013. We don't need an answer every year or two! Snowden revelations have shown us that companies like Google, Facebook and Apple are complicit in sharing data to NSA without the consent/knowledge of users around the world.

Pervasive corporations is not a new phenomenon

Corporations taking data for their profit even at the cost of people's lives is not a 21st century phenomenon. It has been there since the early age of corporations. A very good example is one of the most powerful corporations in the mid 20th century, IBM.

You would have read about a German leader, Hitler, who killed millions of Jews. Hitler created a plethora of prison factories to support his War economy (which boomed during WWII). These camps were for forced labor which is literally work to death. This massive data of prison labor was tough to organize and maintain on paper. It needed 'smart' computation to organize the data and hence organize the labor. And IBM, a powerful corporation, came to his rescue with its Hollerith system. This system is used to collect, identify, sort, assign and transport millions of people in Europe during the Holocaust.

Privacy by Default

The fight for privacy in this context would not just be about individual for their sensitive data but would also be about communities fighting against the model of monetizing through privacy invasive micro targeting.

Corporations have been trying forever to narrow down the fight for privacy to individual responsibility. To confuse people, there is a set of people (of course backed by corporations) who brought the slogan "Privacy by Design". This is a deceitful slogan as they advocate the design of privacy code but they  support the method of opt-in. It resulted in design of privacy extensions or software to be explicitly opted by users who in many cases will not be aware of them. This is not a privacy-first approach. Its very important for us to embrace the slogan "Privacy by Default" which means that privacy for an individual should come out of the box.

"Privacy by Default" over "Privacy by Design".

Privacy ultimately is a collective effort. If I'm using a free software that doesn't spy on me but my mom uses an Alexa for home assistant then the outcome is that I'm being spied along with my mom. Hence narrowing the responsibility of privacy to an individual defeats the purpose of the privacy movement itself.

(Bhavabhuthi Bobby is a Co-ordination Committee member of Swecha, a hacktivist and works as a Software Engineer at a multinational firm)