Surveillance capitalism

Saturday, 24 March 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Facebook’s policy of sharing data with advertisers and third parties has come under international scrutiny following the revelation that Cambridge Analytica accessed data of 50 million people and used it to campaign for US President Donald Trump. The capacity to mine and then use data from billions of people worldwide and channel it to influence people at domestic level has sparked a global discourse on privacy and how this issue is tackled will define the future of the world.

Facebook, with more than two billion monthly active users, made almost all its $40.6 billion in revenue last year from advertising. Its entire business model is based on mining information from its users and selling the data for money. When Google, Snapchat and other platforms are added billions upon billions of profiles are handed over to advertisers all for the free use of these platforms. This exercise has been described as “surveillance capitalism” by Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff. 

Facebook, like many other multibillion dollar companies, has essentially been allowed to conduct its business with little or no oversight by government or any other stakeholder for over a decade. Despite being one of the largest companies in the world and reports of Cambridge Analytica’s practices being reported since 2015 it failed to take any action on the data mining issues and how it releases data to numerous parties. In fact the person who built the app that enabled the data to be collected was working in close collaboration with Facebook. Even after the serious breach of privacy came to light Facebook has not indicated if they will make a fundamental shift in their advertiser driven revenue model or how data can be accessed by third parties.

In such a situation it becomes imperative that the outrage triggered by Cambridge Analytica should be channeled in such a way that greater society gets to have a say in how its privacy is protected. Parliamentary oversight, while dangerous in some ways, can also be a reflection of how people want their privacy to be protected and how or in what circumstances such data can be mined. If surveillance capitalism is allowed to exist in the shadows then such positive regulation would be discouraged and could lead to even larger transgressions in the future. Already world altering events such as the election of President Trump and Brexit have been linked to social media weaponisation and this, essentially, is a lawless frontier of technology. 

This does not mean that Facebook should be regulated for the benefit of government or in a way that reduces freedom of expression. But there does need to be a well-informed, substantive and nuanced discourse globally on how data mining should be handled for public interest and multinationals alone should not be allowed to drive this platform. This same surveillance capitalism is also filtering into fintech and other instruments that are becoming ubiquitous but regulations are often following far behind. Cause and effect are playing a catch up game that cannot be won and consumerism is taking the place of public interest. 

Sri Lanka’s policy makers and other stakeholders need to be aware of these shifts around the world. An estimated six million people use social media in Sri Lanka and the number will only grow, which means that all of us will be affected by the evolving challenges of surveillance capitalism.