Big Data and Surveillance Capitalism: 21st Century Threats

“Once we searched Google, now Google searches us.” Shoshana Zuboff

Although for most people the flow of huge amounts of private information that transits daily for the WEB (Big Data), goes virtually unnoticed, according to philosopher “Shoshana Zuboff”, this phenomenon hides an unprecedented risk to privacy, which is why she has called this economic and social model as “Surveillance Capitalism”.

What is Surveillance Capitalism and Why Should We Care? By: Gabriel E. Levy B.

Big Data is a complex concept of Anglo-Saxon origin widely spread in the information age, which is used to describe a set of information so large and

complex that it requires specialized computer systems, both at software and hardware level, for the efficient and real-time processing of such data.

The concept of Big Data does not have a single author, the first texts date back to 1983 when the Japanese Takuya Katayama wrote an article called: “Treatment of Big Values in an Applicative Language HFP” and it is believed that it was the first time that the term Big Data was referenced in an academic article. Later, in the last decade of the 20th century, John Mashey, a Ph.D. researcher in Computer Science at Pennsylvania State University, popularized the concept in several references.

Big Data systems allow companies to better understand their audiences, determine niches, offer better and more appropriate content for each user, geo-locate offers and advertising, among many applications that are revolutionizing the contemporary economy.

But although Big Data and its management could be considered one of the greatest achievements of mankind in the field of information technology, not everything is positive in this field, as there are a number of risks associated with the collection and management of these data.

Some specialized authors consider that the growing market and the commercialization of data end up impacting not only the privacy of individuals, but also the stability of Western democracies.

Surveillance Capitalism

The distinguished and award-winning professor emeritus of the Harvard Business School, Shoshana Zuboff, introduced the concept of ” Surveillance Capitalism”[1] in a book of the same name and with which she proposed her revolutionary thesis that the information resulting from the footprint of citizens’ internet usage, could be considered as a proprietary behavioral surplus “property”, which is used as input for advanced production processes known as machine intelligence, with which predictive indicators are manufactured that can very efficiently, anticipate the behavior of any human being connected to the network.

Finally, these predictive products are bought and sold in a new type of behavioral prediction market that Zuboff called “behavioral futures market”, which is why, as a result of his research, he claims that large surveillance entrepreneurs have become exponentially richer with these commercial operations, in the face of an information market that anticipates consumer behavior [2].

“…Google invented and perfected surveillance capitalism in much the same way that a century ago General Motors invented and perfected managerial

capitalism. Google was the pioneer of surveillance capitalism in thought and practice, the deep pocket for research and development, and the trailblazer in experimentation and implementation, but it is no longer the only actor on this path. Surveillance capitalism quickly spread to Facebook and later to Microsoft…” Shoshana Zuboff in the book surveillance capitalism [3].

The same vision of Shoshana Zuboff is shared by the other philosopher Carissa Véliz, who states in the book “Privacy is Power” [4], that: “the data economy has unfolded under our noses during the last decade, and we realized too late the seriousness of its consequences”, so the author concludes that the only possible answer is to put an end to this intrusive and abusive model, either by regulating the use of data or by expressly prohibiting its commercialization.

For journalist Patricia Serrano, the novel published in 1932 by Aldous Huxley: “Brave New World”, ended up being a prophecy, because just as the author envisioned it, people live drugged and happy, manipulated by a superior plan in which science serves a structure of domination and it is not about “Soma” the drug consumed by Huxley’s characters, but about an infinite offer of free applications and services specifically designed to turn us into happy digital addicts and into the authentic resources that supply the accumulation of wealth in the new capitalism that orders the world [5].

“Welcome to surveillance capitalism, the place where we have never felt so free despite being watched relentlessly.”

Parasitic corporations

When we talk about large technology corporations such as Facebook, Microsoft or Google, positive concepts such as Innovation, Digital Transformation or Digital Economy come to mind, possibly because these companies have transformed the world as we know it in less than three decades, and in many ways have improved our lives in a positive way.

Although in many aspects the great digital technologies bring important values to our lives, a detailed and rigorous analysis of the background of these corporations allows us to glimpse, as many academics have warned, that they are parasitic models that profit at the expense of goods and inputs from third parties, i.e. they do not pay an adequate economic consideration for the goods they obtain.

A clear example of the parasitic model is the use of last mile infrastructure networks, which are owned by Internet providers and on which none of these corporations pay a consideration for their use beyond the installation of some CND equipment or in the case of traditional media news, on which they also benefit and only now have decided to start paying an economic consideration.

But undoubtedly, it is the private information of users, which could be called the most parasitic exploitation, because it is with this data that corporations have built multi-million dollar economic empires, which is why it is pertinent to ask: do a free email, a free search engine or a social network without limits compensate the economic benefit that these corporations receive with the use of private user data?

From the perspective of authors such as Shoshana Zuboff, corporations such as Facebook or Google have altered the rules of the game in the markets by obtaining and commercializing information, unleashing a new and very dangerous form of capitalism, which she has called: “Surveillance Capitalism”.

In conclusion, although we perceive companies like Google or Facebook as innovative and free, in reality they hide a dangerous business model that hides a parasitic use of tangible and intangible assets and goods on which they do not pay proportionally to the benefit they receive.

The commercialization, management and administration of users’ private data became in the last decade one of the most prosperous businesses on the Internet, however, although their services are in most cases free, several experts such as philosophers Carissa Véliz and Shoshana Zuboff have set alarm bells ringing regarding the risk that “behavioral futures markets” represent for privacy, civil rights and the free market, to the point that it is quite possible that we are witnessing a new form of capitalism: “Surveillance Capitalism”.

[1] Book: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power: Shoshana Zuboff,

Grupo Planeta, 2020 ISBN, 8449337623, 9788449337628

[2] Book: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power: Shoshana Zuboff,

Grupo Planeta, 2020 ISBN, 8449337623, 9788449337628

[3] Book: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power: Shoshana Zuboff,

Grupo Planeta, 2020 ISBN, 8449337623, 9788449337628

[4] Book: Privacy is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data (Paperback). Carissa Véliz- Random House, 2020. ISBN147358353535, 978147358353535 288 pages.

[5] Article by Patricia Serrano on the Surveillance Economy in the specialized publication: El Economista.