This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism" by Shoshana Zuboff. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What are the biggest ethical issues in information technology right now? What risks do they pose to society?
According to author Shoshana Zuboff, Google and other tech giants have been able to mine user data with little regard for ethical data collection. She claims that there are three secret factors that have allowed big tech to carry on this way.
Keep reading to find out the three ways information technology companies exploit users, according to Zuboff.
The Ethical Issues in Information Technology
Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff introduced the world to the concept of “surveillance capitalism,” arguing that the ultimate goal of surveillance capitalism is to create a society in which our free will is replaced by behavioral conditioning that encourages predictable and machine-like patterns of behavior. This clearly raises ethical issues in information technology and how user data is gathered.
According to Zuboff, surveillance capitalism is an emerging form of capitalism in which companies harvest data about our behavior, make predictions about our future behavior using that data, and sell those predictions for profit. With surveillance capitalism’s aim to eliminate human mistakes, accidents, and randomness, what ethical issues are raised?
By guaranteeing specific human behavior, companies like Google can sell certainties instead of predictions and maximize their profits. So, how have Google (and other companies) managed to keep mining user data despite showing such blatant disregard for privacy? There are a variety of factors that have contributed to surveillance capitalism’s ability to thrive. Discussing the ethical issues in information technology, Zuboff says that these factors fall into three categories: overcoming opposition, cornering the public, and mastering the art of disguise.
Let’s discuss each of them further.
#1 Big Tech Has Overcome Opposition
One ethical issue Zuboff has identified in information technology is that Google and its competitors have learned to overcome any form of opposition, making it difficult for the public to demand—and lawmakers to enact—change.
Tech companies have refused to take accountability. These companies have never stopped to consider whether their actions are immoral or against public opinion and have proceeded unfazed by any and all attempts to raise concern.
(Shortform note: Do companies have moral responsibility, as Zuboff seems to suggest here? Some would argue that they don’t. According to the legal compliance view argued by Milton Friedman, corporations have no moral obligations outside of their legal obligations.)
Tech companies have developed strong defenses. To avoid addressing ethical issues in their information technology, Google (and, later, its competitors in a similar fashion) has defended itself from governmental threats by proving its value to political campaigns, investing in lobbying, and building close ties with Washington.
(Shortform note: Just how involved is Google in the political sphere? According to reports, in 2018, Google spent $21 million on federal lobbying, more than any other company in the US. In addition, as of 2019, its public policy division provided funding to 349 different organizations— including academic institutions, trade organizations, and advocacy groups—that work to defend Google and its practices.)
#2 Tech Giants Have Cornered the Public
Zuboff maintains that Google and its competitors have cornered the public in such a way that they are effectively unable to resist the ethical issues of information technology.
Surveillance capitalism has fostered dependency. By tying data extraction to free services that meet people’s needs, Google and other companies have forced customers to allow their invasive practices. These days, it’s difficult—if not impossible—to live without access to those resources.
(Shortform note: Is this dependency on Big Tech’s services as absolute as Zuboff claims? Our experience during the Covid-19 pandemic would suggest it is. According to a Pew Research survey conducted in 2021, 58% of Americans said their use of the internet and technology—like video calls—was essential, and 90% said it was extremely important.)
Surveillance capitalism has prevented users from reclaiming their privacy. A very concerning ethical issue that Zuboff claims information technology faces is the invasion of privacy. Because users are dependent on their services, Google and other companies have no incentive to prioritize user privacy. As a result, they either provide no alternative option where user privacy can be protected, or make the information regarding how to opt out of data collection extremely difficult to find.
(Shortform note: Zuboff argues that companies either provide no option to opt out of data collection or make the information about how to do so nearly impossible to find. Research conducted since the book’s publication supports this claim. In a 2020 study, over 50% of the 7,000 websites examined by researchers contained no option to opt out of data collection, and just over 11% provided only one opt-out hyperlink.)
Surveillance capitalism has exploited people’s desire for inclusion. Google and other companies—especially social media sites like Facebook—have taken advantage of the fact that people have a natural desire to feel included, which makes them highly likely to keep using their social services.
(Shortform note: How does this exploitation work? Psychologists say that social media platforms create a cycle of isolation and connection to keep us reliant on their apps. They isolate us by enticing us to connect with acquaintances and strangers rather than see our friends and family face-to-face. Then, when we’re feeling lonely, we’re influenced to look to their apps to feel like we’re connecting with our social networks, restarting the vicious cycle.)
Tech companies have leveraged their image of authority. To avoid accountability for ethical issues, Google and its competitors use their innovative information technologies to portray themselves as experts on the ways of the future. This means that people feel they can’t question them, and tech companies have taken advantage of that position to continue their data collection practices.
(Shortform note: Zuboff’s claim that people feel they can’t question tech companies may be in question based on a recent survey. According to a 2021 survey, trust in technology has dropped to a record low in the US and 17 other countries, including China, the UK, and Germany. Diminishing trust may indicate that people around the world are indeed questioning the authority of these companies.)
#3 Big Tech Has Mastered the Art of Disguise
The final ethical issue in information technology that Zuboff has identified is Google’s (and its competitor’s) mastery of the art of disguise. This makes their intentions and practices are undetectable and therefore unstoppable.
Tech companies have masked their intentions. Google and other companies have learned to mask their intentions with innovative information technologies like personalization and digital assistants. Because these technologies are undeniably useful, companies can distract users from the fact that they simultaneously harvest sensitive information.
(Shortform note: Perhaps companies’ intentions aren’t as well-masked as Zuboff implies. According to a survey, while 76% of Americans say they use smart assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, 61% of those who use them are also worried that these devices are listening to their private conversations.)
Surveillance capitalism has operated in secret. Google and its competitors have worked hard to conceal the details of their data-mining practices and have actively opposed calls to reveal information, which clearly raises ethical issues in terms of the true purpose of information technology.
(Shortform note: In some cases, companies are so secretive that employees themselves are out of the loop. For example, in 2018, Google employees requested that the company be more transparent about an ongoing project to develop a search engine for China. Employees cited concerns that they couldn’t make an ethically informed decision to continue working on the project without further information.)
Surveillance capitalism has progressed at lightning speed. As a side effect of Google and its competitors’ fast-moving technological innovation, the public and government have been incapable of processing and confronting these changes to information technology fast enough to raise concerns and enact regulatory policies.
(Shortform note: Technological progress is likely to become even faster (and even more difficult to regulate) as time goes on. Famously championed by Ray Kurzweil, the Law of Accelerating Returns states that technological progress occurs exponentially, not linearly—the rate at which technology transforms our world is constantly increasing. Kurzweil, currently in his 70s, predicts that technology will accelerate so quickly in the next few years that he’ll be able to live forever.)
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Age of Surveillance Capitalism summary:
- The methods big tech companies are using to watch you
- How surveillance capitalism can thrive despite opposition
- How to prevent it from destroying our freedom and democracy