Surveillance Capitalism?

In her new book, Shoshanna Zuboff argues that, in order to be realistic, “it is necessary to distinguish between capitalism and surveillance capitalism.”

Surveillance capitalism, she says, is a new kind of power structure, resulting from an elite coup d’etat against regular-old corporate capitalism.  Here is how Zuboff defines the break:

When a firm collects behavioral data with permission and solely as a means to service or product improvement, it is committing capitalism, but not surveillance capitalism.

The question this raises is when it was that major businesses started collecting behavioral data without permission in order to do something other than objectively improve their products.

The answer, of course, is: Exactly as soon as they could — meaning a long time before the AMGAF (Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Facebook) complex came into existence.

By 1923, Frederick Winslow Taylor‘s acolytes were giving corporate planners lectures on the need to apply Taylor’s methods to the task of “sales engineering.”

According to corporate management’s at-the-time self-reporting, by the 1950s, the idea had reached fruition, triggering what is now known, in standard business history, as the “marketing revolution.”

The engine of that revolution? Boilerplate corporate capitalism, a.k.a. profit-seeking under the new-and-improved, entirely normal-capitalist conditions made possible by the Corporate Revolution of the 1880s.

Both ever-expanding data scraping and treatment of products as sales-maximizing, behavior-conditioning stimuli were elementary marketing priorities from Day One of the Marketing Era. Both pre-date, clearly and massively, the inevitable emergence of AMGAF.

Funny, then, that in this book’s 531 pages, Zuboff does not discuss big business marketing! I mean, the word “marketing” does not appear in the book’s index!

Hence, despite the many useful arguments and facts Zuboff provides in this work, the thing is a giant red herring, an effort to make hair-splitting look like brain surgery.

Big business marketing is really a rather amazing institution. The main engine of national and global culture and a plain and direct outgrowth of our socio-economic order, it is somehow so ideologically well-insulated that almost nobody can bring themselves to mention, let alone analyze, it.

Facebook Ain’t Going Away

The question of the week comes from marketing guru Rich Greenfield, who just said this to Advertising Age about the status of Facebook, following more (mis-reported) revelation of its core business practices:

“Why would [an ad agency] advise clients not to use Facebook?” Greenfield asks. “It’s not like there are a lot of good alternatives.”

That is what they call, in academia, “instrumental morality,” i.e. the ends justifying the means.

Big businesses will, in other words, keep doing what they need to do to achieve their end, come –ahem — hell or high water.

Facebook as Lightning Rod

lightning-rod-image The New York Times has obtained some of Facebook’s internal planning records.  These show that Facebook is what it says it is, what its founders have always understood it to be: a device for harvesting intimate knowledge of people’s private lives and selling that knowledge to corporate marketers.

The meat of the NYT story is the revelation that, despite pretending to promise the Federal Trade Commission that it would cease doing so, Facebook has continued to sell “what are known internally as “capabilities” — the special privileges enabling companies to obtain data, in some cases without asking permission.”

This means, among other things:

Facebook [has] assumed extraordinary power over the personal information of its 2.2 billion users — control it has wielded with little transparency or outside oversight. Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages. The social network permitted Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends, and it let Yahoo view streams of friends’ posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier. [The New York Times, 12/19/2018]

Despite its importance, the great problem with this exposé is that it is yet another major case of rotten-appleism, of trying to portray a systemic imperative as a mere miscreant malpractice. As the NYT acknowledges, “personal data has become the most prized commodity of the digital age, traded on a vast scale by some of the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley and beyond.”

Why is that, and what entities and forces are genuinely responsible for the radical, progressively worsening market-totalitarianism of our life environment? It ain’t just ham-handed, yuppie-faced Facebook. It is, as somebody once said, a matter of Economics 101 in our supposedly best-possible, history-resolving system.

facebook finger-point image

Meanwhile, the proper answer to all this is not more silly efforts to regulate private-sector media providers. It is to empower the United States Postal System to enter the realm of modern communications, on all fronts, with full competitive aggression. A non-commercial, publicly-guaranteed social networking website, for example, could neatly and reliably dispose of all the problems inherent in Facebook, including the privacy issue.

Least Surprising News: Verizon is Spyware

eyeball The shameless profit ranchers we in the USA allow to sell us our cell phone service not only provide us massively over-priced substandard products, but turn around and sell our data to other corporate overlords. As always with big business marketing, it only grows. According to Advertising Age:

Under the radar, Verizon, Sprint, Telefonica and other carriers have partnered with firms including SAP, IBM, HP and AirSage to manage, package and sell various levels of data to marketers and other clients. It’s all part of a push by the world’s largest phone operators to counteract diminishing subscriber growth through new business ventures that tap into the data that showers from consumers’ mobile web surfing, text messaging and phone calls.

[M]arketers and agencies are testing never-before-available data from cellphone carriers that connects device location and other information with telcos’ real-world files on subscribers. Some services offer real-time heat maps showing the neighborhoods where store visitors go home at night, lists the sites they visited on mobile browsers recently and more.

SAP’s Consumer Insight 365 ingests regularly updated data representing as many as 300 cellphone events per day for each of the 20 million to 25 million mobile subscribers. SAP won’t disclose the carriers providing this data. It “tells you where your consumers are coming from, because obviously the mobile operator knows their home location,” said Lori Mitchell-Keller, head of SAP’s global retail industry business unit.

The global market for telco data as a service is potentially worth $24.1 billion this year, on its way to $79 billion in 2020, according to estimates by 451 Research based on a survey of likely customers. “Challenges and constraints” mean operators are scraping just 10% of the possible market right now, though that will rise to 30% by 2020, 451 Research said.

And so it goes…

Koop it Up

brill In the spirit of C. Everett Koop, Joycelyn Elders, and Diane Ravitch, it appears we have our latest heretical honest public servant mistakenly-appointed high government agency administrator. This time, it’s Julie Brill, pictured at left, head of the Federal Trade Commission. Per Advertising Age:

Big data brokers are “taking advantage of us without our permission.” Those were the words of Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill this morning at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference in Washington.

The commissioner, often vocal on data-privacy issues, called on Congress to legislate what she calls a “Reclaim Your Name” program, one that would establish technical controls allowing people to access the information data collectors have stored about them, control how it is shared and correct it when necessary.

As always, the reaction was immediate:

The Direct Marketing Association was caught off guard by Commissioner Brill’s announcement. “DMA has been in discussion with Commissioner Brill regarding ways to increase transparency in the ‘data broker’ industry, but was surprised to see her announcement of this new initiative,” said Rachel Thomas, VP of government affairs at DMA. “The FTC’s Section 6B inquiry into ‘data brokers’ is still ongoing, and the Commission has yet to articulate a specific problem that would justify a call for congressional action in this area,” she continued in an emailed statement.

The fun continued, too, as Brill dared tell the obvious truth about another aspect of corporate marketing-spying:

Ms. Brill indicated that the FTC believes mobile device IDs are personally-identifiable…. “Information linked to specific devices is, for all intents and purposes, linked to individuals,” she said.

The FTC is calling on data companies and users of consumer data “to commit to a robust program to de-identify their information,” she said, arguing that predictive analytics have rendered much of the consumer information collected as forever linked to individuals, no matter industry’s claims that the information often is anonymized or aggregated.

Companies should “take both technical and behavioral steps to make sure information used in advertising is truly and completely de-identified.” Ms. Brill didn’t make distinctions between data collected and used by first-parties and third-parties.

Countless retailers and consulting firms that provide data services to them — such as Acxiom, Merkle and many others — handle terabytes of personally-identifiable consumer data on a regular basis.

Ms. Brill’s comments come amid revelations that the National Security Administration has gleaned consumer phone call and Internet data from corporations including Verizon, Google and Facebook. Indeed, corporate data-harvesting practices for logistics and marketing purposes have facilitated the controversial NSA data grab.

Companies collecting or employing data should make a public commitment not to re-identify information, and should contractually require their partners to make the same commitments, continued the commissioner.

How can you tell when you have the overclass dead-to-rights? That’s when they have nothing left to say but plain denial. According to Ad Age:

Many of the companies using device IDs to track in-store shopping behavior and other location-based interactions hold that they are not.

“Many” here means “all,” of course…

One wonders: How long til Zerobama cans Brill?

Marketing as Sociopathy

sociopath How do they sleep at night, after spending their working days helping corporate capitalists, at great expense and costs to end users, trick people into doing what the overclass requires, the planet and the people be damned?

Advertising Age today has a column by one Allie Savarino Kline, chief marketing officer at aspiring data scraper 33Across. Ms. Kline reports that, while “Google, Yahoo, Quantcast and my firm 33Across alone protect data on well over 2 billion people” and are moving to exploit that “big data” to map the “social DNA” that surrounds corporate brands, some marketers are hesitating to jump into that endeavor.

The frame of reference Kline chooses is telling:

Read moreMarketing as Sociopathy