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Data Protection Laws in the Age of Surveillance Capitalism

surveillance capitalism collage

In George Orwell’s 1984 fictitious dystopian society of Oceania, a telescreen is an instrument of surveillance. It broadcasts and picks up information simultaneously. Installed in every flat,  the telescreen is a commanding presence. Even within the confines of one’s home, Big Brother is always watching. Winston Smith’s trepidation of the telescreen is valid – he can dim it, but can never turn it off completely.  The significant parallels between Surveillance Capitalism and 1984 are quite unsettling. Our smartphones, laptops and most gadgets are modern-day telescreens. Throw in the buzzwords “predictive,” “behavioral,” and “targeted,” and we know companies know more about us than they should.

Living in the age of surveillance, the primary source of concern, therefore, is how people’s data are gathered and processed beyond what they have disclosed. The situation underscores the significance of data protection laws and regulations that protect people’s fundamental right to privacy.

The Birth of Surveillance Capitalism

Capitalism is an economic system that thrives by bringing a product or service into the marketplace. Players within the system have the power to assign value to the goods and sell them to the market. Following this framework, surveillance capitalism refers to the process of accumulating data and personal information with the intent of extracting profit from it.

Shoshana Zuboff, a social psychologist and author of the book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” states, “Surveillance capitalism was invented in Google in the year 2001, approximately, between 2000 and 2002.” The dot-com bubble burst around this period pushed the executives of Google to find a way to monetize the sophisticated technology of the search engine. Using surplus data from user searches, the company created predictions on what ads the users will notice and click. This prediction, therefore, became the blueprint of Google Ads and online targeted advertising.

Consequently, this paved the way for new advertising concepts such as pay per click, click-through rate, and online ads conversion rate. As computing and digital technology progresses, so does prediction technologies. Now, every industry – from automotive to textile – wants to dip their hands in the data-gathering market.

Every Click We Make: Living In the Age of Surveillance

Prediction technology has progressed significantly in the last decade. Living in the age of surveillance, companies collect a user’s geolocation, socioeconomic status, online behavioral patterns. They also siphon purchase and account profile data to create a reservoir of information. There is also the collection of every click, view, action, voice and text searches. This helps them generate a scale of data where they derive valuable predictions from.

For instance, a consumer looking to renovate his home searches the internet for information. The next time he logs online, the web pages will then display advertisements related to this previous search. The accuracy by which these predictions technology can forecast consumer behavior is, no less, astounding.

Data Protection Laws around the World

In 2016, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the United Kingdom’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The implementation of the policies has taken full force last May 2018. With two years to prepare for the full implementation of GDPR, business and government agencies should be ready to keep pace with the requirements of the policies in the era of surveillance capitalism.

Living in the age of surveillance, China has implemented the PRC Cybersecurity Law in June 2017 to address cybersecurity and data protection issues on a national level. The implementation of Strengthening Online Information Protection National Standard of Information further strengthen China’s robust data protection policy and supplemental laws.

Surveillance capitalism in the Middle East is also highly regulated. For instance, the country of Bahrain has several laws with provisions relating to data protection. One example of such is the Amiri Decree No. 15 of 1976 concerning the Penal Code. The decree protects individuals’ right to privacy with provisions allowing sanctions against those who disclose information without consent from the concerned person.

In the US, sector-specific and industry-specific national privacy and data security laws and regulations are in place. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act (GLBA), and The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) are some of these policies. On top of the over-arching national laws, there’s an implementation of data protection and privacy policies in each of the 50 states and territories.

Shane Morris talking surveillance capitalism
The age of surveillance capitalism requires a heightened level of personal attention when it comes to protecting data.

Ethical Use of Data in the Age of Surveillance Capitalism

Surveillance capitalism is a thriving ecosystem. The suppliers of data, the data analytics specialists, and the behavioral market makers harvest, process, and assign value to these data. At the end of the chain are industries that serve as a marketplace. The predictions from consumers’ data can help improve products and delivery of services. By principle, this model is mutually beneficial to the business and the consumers.

However, cases of abuse and exploitation of data are on the rise. One of the most significant cases that rocked the world was the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Data Scandal. With millions of personal data harvested without consent and used for targeted political ads, Facebook learned the costly and hard way. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) slammed Facebook with a billion-dollar fine for “misrepresentations about the privacy or security of consumers’ personal information.”

With the scale, quality, and depth of data collected, it is now possible to create accurate calculations and forecast consumer behaviors. However, without restrictions on the gathering, storing and processing of people’s data, the potential for misuse and exploitation is high. These realities hit businesses and therefore need to take the high road and uphold the people’s fundamental right to personal privacy.

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