In partnership with Rutgers, The Intercept held a live chat yesterday on the increasingly pressing issue of surveillance capitalism. The event was hosted by Naomi Klein, whose insightful work as both an author and filmmaker revolve around corporate globalization and capitalism. She is also the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers.
“Surveillance in an Era of Pandemic and Protest” also featured Shoshana Zuboff, author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” (2019) and Harvard University professor, along with Simone Browne, author of “Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness” (2015) and associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Klein kicked off the event with some alarming examples of state surveillance amid the racial justice protests that have followed since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. Back in late May, four days after Floyd’s unjust killing, a Customs and Border Patrol Predator drone flew over a protest in Minneapolis.
Zuboff, a self-proclaimed “data-lover,” followed up with a staggering set of facts and figures to describe the state of tech companies under the pandemic-torn economy. Since the onset of the pandemic, tech giants like Apple and Amazon have been carrying the U.S. stock market all against the “catastrophic backdrop” of the historic 9.5 percent decline in the gross domestic product.
Zuboff cited education as one of her chief concerns raised by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Google, already established as the “biggest player” in the K-12 markets (and used by universities across the nation, including all Ivy League schools), has reaped massive benefits from the transition to remote learning.
Google Classroom doubled its active users (100 million) and the user base for the paid-for G Suite rose from 90 million to 120 million users worldwide. Its video-conferencing application went up by 900 percent in the first few weeks of lockdown.
Perhaps the fact that our very own University uses G Suite — which we might recognize as the ScarletApps, which includes the Scarletmail accounts our professors implore us to check daily — has provided us with some level of trust in Google, but Zuboff begs us to reconsider.
She recounted how back in February, Hector Balderas, New Mexico's attorney general, filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming that it violated the privacy of students, extracting their personal information without consent through a Google initiative that gave schools free Chromebooks.
In a particularly grave analogy, she likened the dynamics between tech giants and consumers to those characteristic of a parasitic relationship: “Tech companies have a growth strategy which is to seek and inhabit and exploit vulnerabilities in our institutions and society. They are there in the shadows waiting to pounce in order to provide (their services) at the moment of need,” she said.
Browne, too, shared concerns about the current state of schooling and education. Now, due to the shift to remote learning, the school-to-prison pipeline begins at home, with the “home as an extension of the carceral state.”
Browne traced the origins of state surveillance in the United States back to the Atlantic slave trade, in which enslaved peoples were monitored and controlled by slavetraders, slaveowners and statesmen.
Biometrics, “physical or behavioral human characteristics,” were just as instrumental in plantation surveillance as they are in its contemporary form. Some enslaved people were marked with their slaveholder’s initials and runaways were branded with an “R,” Browne said.
These markings were used to “identify, verify and automate” Black bodies in alignment with slave owners' commercial interests and discriminatory laws that controlled the mobility of Black people.
In a survey that Zuboff referenced during the live chat, people were asked who they thought was responsible for the erosion and manipulation of their privacy at the hands of tech companies. Approximately 36 percent of the sample believed that responsibility lies with these companies and 28 percent responded by saying that the government is at fault.
What Zuboff found particularly worrisome was that 34 percent of the sample believed that individuals were responsible for the violation and exploitation of their personal data. She described this response as the result of “two decades of gaslighting,” arguing that individuals are not to blame and cites ignorance, a sense of futility or resignation and foreclosure of alternatives to the services provided by these tech companies as among the chief reasons for individual users’ blamelessness.
In another survey, 77 percent of the sample population said that major tech companies like Facebook, Apple and Amazon have become too powerful. Another 60 percent also said that lawmakers have failed to meet their concerns in a meaningful capacity.
Zuboff called attention to these specific statistics, saying that they reflected a widely shared understanding that we are in a political struggle, rather than one technological in nature.
In order to remedy this situation, characterized by a “rogue economic logic that has hijacked the digital,” Zuboff insisted that political action is necessary. The growing exploitation of personal data coupled with the increasingly ubiquitous use of surveillance technology are indeed a cause for concern, but Zuboff urged viewers not to despair.
Change, while slow, is possible and a “critical mass” could potentially be reached where it can be affected quickly and positively.