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Our “data self” explained. A brief journey into Surveillance Capitalism – Nataly Tedone

If we had the choice to be paid to discuss and share our likes, dislikes, food choices, political views, health issues, desires, fears and anything that makes us unique, would we?

Some of us would, some of us still wouldn’t feel comfortable with it, even in return for money. But one thing is clear – we are all providing this kind of information to third parties for free.

We sign up to free apps, websites, we use free search engines, we register with free corporate and government databases, we subscribe to free social media, send free texts and emails.

For every action we take, data is being extracted, analysed, repackaged and sold to advertisers for large profits. In 2014, Shoshana Zuboff coined the term “surveillance capitalism”.  Her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism was published this year.

Data and Extraction

According to Zuboff, our data comes from five different sources.

There is data extracted from direct computer-mediated economic transactions; data that comes from sensors embodied in a wide range of objects, bodies and places like drones, smart home devices, wearables, self-driving cars, even nano particles which sole purpose is to ‘patrol’ the body looking for signs of disease.

Corporate and governmental databases are the third source of data, including banks, payment-clearing intermediaries, credit rating agencies, airlines, tax and census records, healthcare operations, credit card and many more.

A fourth source of data comes from private and public surveillance cameras, as well as Google Street View and Google Earth.

The fifth source of data are our online actions. From internet researches, Facebook likes, photos, songs, location, purchases, Google searches, communication patterns and more.

After the data is produced in all the ways outlined above, companies like Google and Facebook extract the data. This process, as explained by Zuboff is a one way process, where the person generating the data is not an active party and receives nothing in return, despite the fact that data signals facts and subjectivities of individual lives.


After all data has been extracted, it is subject to analysis to filter high volume of information about each individual and group. Scientists also require new methods associated with predictive analysis, reality mining and patterns of life analysis.

Though the population only plays a part in the production of data and not in its extraction, after the phase of analysis, data returns to its source in form of targeted advertising in order to generate revenue. Google, Facebook and Amazon can target us with tailored advertisements and news, but can also sell our data to third parties who can target us unknowingly. Through surveillance capitalism, our cars have the potential to “tell” insurance companies if we are driving safe and an innocent conversation about the shopping list in the house turns into a Facebook ad for the product.

After the Cambridge Analytica / Facebook data scandal the lid has been lifted on the use of data not only to target news and advertisement, but also to modify our behaviour.

The monetary value of data for each individual is difficult to calculate, but the main issue is that people don’t have a way out of the surveillance capitalism system. It is opted in as a default position, just because we browse online, or buy certain items, we use our phone or walk around streets riddled with cameras.

More recently, the NHS partnership with Amazon’s Alexa which will be able to search NHS web pages to answer medical questions, has raised eyebrows in the wake of data harvesting and privacy scandals.

There is an argument to say that we are the modern society that wants answers, outcomes, we want “what we want, when we want it”, and that we are the ones who have put the demand out there for companies to tailor and personalise their services to us, and surveillance capitalism is just the price to pay to have it.

Those more conscious about their data and privacy, use websites which allow to block cookies and maintain privacy not allowing the user to be tracked like DuckDuck Go and Brave.

In her latest book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Zuboff discusses and analyses the journey through surveillance capitalism and what this could mean for human freedom.

On 24 July 2019, Netflix will release its documentary “The Great Hack”, which sets out to explain and examine the Cambridge Analytica data scandal through the roles of several affected people.

Nataly Tedone is an LPC student with a particular interest in media law

1 Comment

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