Libertatem Magazine

The Era of Online Surveillance Capitalism: A Vampire That Feeds on Human’s Experience

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Surveillance capitalism is something in which a person’s searches and choices are commodities and these personal choices are capitalized by different corporations with the help of internet surveillance. In simple words, suppose you are searching for a different type of commodities like sofa’s or mattress covers, or maybe different types of exercises to lose some weight. And the next moment you start seeing ads of items related to your searches by different types of sellers. This is what surveillance capitalism is in simple terms.[1] It’s often carried out by search engines like Google or social media services like Facebook. YouTube is also a rising platform for surveillance capitalism and Amazon is not far behind with their mini detective popularly known as “Alexa”.

 The term “Surveillance capitalism” was termed by Shoshana Zuboff in her book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”. Shoshana Zuboff is an American author, a Harvard professor, and also a scholar. She defines surveillance capitalism as something which unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material and translates it into behavioral data. Such translated behavioral data is then used to make up “prediction products” which are then used by corporations to make a profit. Zuboff says that surveillance capitalists have become very wealthy from these trade practices as a lot of companies are eager to put bets on people’s future behavior.

The Origin of Online Surveillance – “How it all started”

The blowout of Dotcom Bubble

Online Surveillance has its history. It is said to be originated around the year 2000 when the dot-com bubble became a massive failure in the US stock market. In 1989, the World Wide Web was launched in the world. It gave birth to the dot-com bubble. The era of 1995-2000 was known as the dot-com era, which was a stock market bubble that resulted in investment in dot-com businesses at that time. A massive number of tech giants were established at that time, the internet became the engine of these businesses. Online shopping, trading, communication became widespread.

Investment in internet-based tech start-ups became a trend and also profitable for investors. Initially, these internet-based companies earned huge profits but due to a lack of business models, the dot-com bubble hit a massive burst in 1999. Most of the businesses went bankrupt. The investors lost faith in these companies. But some of the internet companies were able to save themselves from this hit. They decided to adopt another model to restart their business. One of them was Google, after the dot-com bust the investors pressurized the Google leaders to abandon their antipathy towards advertising. This resulted in the entry of a tech giant (Google) to start generating ad revenue by using the data logs with its already placed analytical and computational powers and capabilities. Google started developing more techniques and operations to hijack personal data and started peeing into the behavior of the user, his past & present activities to predict his future needs which are known as behavior data surplus.[2]

 From User’s data to the raw material of tech giantsHow Does It Work?

Online Surveillance Capitalism is a way where different search engines and social media profit off your personal preferences and data. For example, whenever you searched for something, you would get Ads on all the social media sites from different sellers and corporates. So how are some ways this capitalism takes place? Well, the most common one of these tactics is the microphone of your mobile. All the apps have inbuilt voice features that get activated the moment you download them and most of the time people aren’t aware of these. When an app gets downloaded, it asks for the app’s permission. People don’t think much when they give permission, they unknowingly give permission to the apps, to record what someone is talking about, it records people’s personal preferences and then forwards it to surveillance capitalists to make a profit off it. The easiest way to tackle this tactic is to go into your settings, app permission, and undo the given microphone permission.

Another one of the tactics is the Ad personalization feature of Google. If you’ve turned on the ads personalization feature of your Google Chrome, and are logged in to it, you might want to check out the website. There Google has recorded all of your searches has listed numerous amounts of assumptions based on your searches. It has assumed your age, your gender, what work you might be doing, and how you earn monthly based just on your searches.[3]

Facebook is also on the frontlines when it comes to the practice of Surveillance Capitalism.

One of Facebook’s reported tactics is very hard to believe but true. Facebook updated its “like” feature and added multiple emotive reactions to it other than just a thumbs up. It is said that it was done to record people’s emotions regarding activities and posts on Facebook and this would again help Surveillance capitalists to promote their business accordingly and make ads.[4]

Personal Data Protection Laws Around the world

In America, research from pew Research institute found for around 74% of Americans, keeping their PI (Personal Information) safe digitally is very important. Another study shows that 84% of Americans have taken strict actions to ensure their digital safety. This is, Because of public demand why there are a lot of laws regarding digital safety. Due to the increase in online breaches throughout the years, there isn’t a single law protecting people’s online safety, instead, there are a lot of federal and state laws. For example: Electronic Communication Privacy Act (ECPA) [1986], Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) [1986], Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act (FACTA) [2003] etc.[5]

 Many other states have adopted laws to protect online privacy like consumer protection statutes, laws to protect certain types of PI, data breach notification laws, and information security laws.

For Europe, there is the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). GDPR is a regulation for data and personal information protection in the European Union and European Economic Area. Along with data and personal information, it also regulates the usage and transfer of personal information outside of the European Union and European Economic Area. Its main aim is to provide individuals with control over their personal information and to unify EU regulations to simplify the regulatory climate for foreign business.[6]

In Canada, online privacy is protected on a federal level by Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) but the courts may take existing state-level statutes as precedents. PIPEDA has numerous privacy principles which aim to protect an individual’s privacy concerning consent, transparency, and security measures, and data retention.[7]

 India’s Position- “Personal Data Protection Bill of 2019”

The Personal Data Protection Bill of 2019 was originally drafted in 2018, it is based on the recommendations expert committee of Justice B.N Srikrishna. Currently, the bill is under detailed scrutiny by the Joint Parliamentary Committee. The object of the bill to protect the personal data of individuals and creating a framework through data fiduciary who will be further responsible for accountability measures to address personal grievances of an individual. 

A Bill with no teeth

India’s Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 was tabled during the winter session of parliament. Talking about the provision of fine in the bill, if a company violates any of such provisions then the fine imposed will be Rs 15 crores (2 million dollars) or 4% of their global annual turnover whichever is more depending upon the case. In case of a minor violation, a minor amount of Rs. 5 crores is mentioned in the bill.

In comparison to EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for the minor violations, a company has to up to Rs 79 crore or 2% of its annual global turnover, and for major violations, the provision of the fine is up to Rs. 159 Crores or 4%bof their annual global turnover. Hence, hefty fines give sharp teeth to (GDPR) and it’s not worried to bite.

With such a small amount of fine in the Personal Data Bill of 2019, the policymakers are expecting to protect its citizen’s data which acts as a raw material for businesses to run. [8]

Opinions of Global-tech leaders on India’s Data Protection Laws – “Critiques of Data Localization”

According to the CEO of IBM, Ginni Rometty, consumer data is a matter of concern that needs to be controlled by the consumer itself but India’s bill of Personal Data Protection, 2019 is vague in terms of differentiating between consumer data and business data. As the bill aims at localizing data and keeping it within the Indian Territory would adversely affect many of the businesses around the world. As per the words of Sunder Pichai, CEO of Google, the applicability of this bill will affect the Digital India campaign of the government. He further added that the data should be allowed to flow freely across the borders keeping in mind the user’s data privacy & security. According to Qualcomm president Christiano Amon, instead of protecting the personal data of users the bill will reduce the competition in the market and will prevent the companies from using technology. 

The above-mentioned criticism shows that India has to work more on its privacy protection laws without disturbing competition in the international markets. More detailed examination, clarification, and amendments are required in that bill before it becomes law. [9]


In the end, it boils down to one question: Is Surveillance Capitalism bad? Most of us in this world know that our data is being used by tech giants to earn profits. But are we able to delete our Facebook or Instagram even after knowing this reality? Every year number of internet users is increasing throughout the world. The question should not be whether technology is good or bad but the question should be how we are using it. The woman who coined this term Professor Shoshana Zuboff in her interview with the Harvard Gazette states that surveillance Capitalism’s “means of behavioral modification” at scales erodes democracy from within. But if we go with the literal meaning of the term “surveillance” as per the Cambridge dictionary, it means keeping an eye on the person or place by police or army. This is not what Google is doing with us. If today I search for a car to buy in the future then it will show a refined list of ads of different motor companies which are similar to my interest which will further help me to choose a car in the future. Shoshana says the reason for surveillance to be restricted because it takes away our autonomy, and without autonomy, people lose moral judgment and critical be thinking which are the main aspects needed for a democratic society. So as the owner of the said words says, surveillance capitalism is bad. Not only is it infringing our private data for the means of making a profit in the market, but it’s also taking away our sense of self-governance which is making a statement that we don’t have the proper judgment to look out for ourselves. 

As per the words of famous historian Melvin Kranzberg: Technology is neither good, nor bad, nor it is neutral. It depends on what is valuable for society then. If we give importance to economic and financial benefits then the technology will start working in our favor rather than against us.

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