As wizened consumers, we’ve learned to be cynical about the commodification of our privacy at the hands of tech corporations. Still, it’s one thing to know in principle that industry giants like Facebook are spying on practically everything we do and say; it’s quite another to see it in action. But that’s just what we have, thanks to recent reporting by the New York Times, which revealed how Mark Zuckerberg, who’s expected to act as the trusted custodian of the personal information of more than 2 billion people, has allowed his company’s partners — Netflix, Amazon and Spotify, among many others — access to users’ most intimate communications.
Some arrangements enabled Facebook’s partners to read and delete users’ private messages; others had access to users’ friends and their data. In some cases, the deals appeared to be so broad that Facebook’s partners claimed that they weren’t even aware that they had access to certain data streams.
The Times’ reporting offers a necessary window into the surveillance economy and the emerging economic logic of “surveillance capitalism.” We are beginning to see how the trade in data — much of it done behind the scenes — is also an exchange of influence and power. We are becoming aware of companies’ astonishing information appetites, according to which all data is potentially useful. Even carmakers like Ford are beginning to tout consumer data as a major revenue stream on par with the selling of automobiles. In other words, the Times’ reporting doesn’t just implicate Facebook: It’s an indictment of the whole economic system in which we participate today.
None of that is to let Facebook off the hook, of course. The latest reporting has grim legal implications for the company, especially since it is operating under a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission in which it essentially pledged to guarantee users’ privacy and to enact a comprehensive privacy program. There’s little evidence that agreement has been respected. The overall picture is of a digital marketplace overseen — with varying degrees of inattention — by Facebook, in which it gives access to its customers to whomever will pay. Facebook may not be selling bulk user data directly, but it’s giving outside companies the ability to gather information en masse about its users. That amounts to almost the same thing. (And these deals were concealed from users.)
For Facebook, scale is everything, so it had every incentive to allow other companies access to its users, provided they did it on Facebook’s terms. And from its Beacon scandal in the late aughts to more-recent questions over Cambridge Analytica, Facebook has shown a tendency to act first and offer a pro forma apology later. Years of self-regulation have revealed that the company is incapable of restraining its appetites or of seeing its users as anything but a resource to be mined. The same might be said of Google, which has its own history of overzealous data collection.
In an era when consumers are increasingly transparent to the companies that furnish them goods and services (not to mention their governments), perhaps we should expect scandals such as these. But we shouldn’t allow that foreknowledge to become an excuse for complacency. Most people still have no idea to what extent their communications and everyday behaviors are being monitored, nor do they understand how personal data is in turn leveraged for targeted advertising, credit scoring, police threat assessments and job applications. Companies like Facebook and Google are now using anything from search histories to fluctuations in WiFi signals to try to anticipate where we are and where we’ll go next. To be a modern consumer is to be watched, but the last year’s scandals have shown that coercion and secrecy are part of the bargain.
In a lecture this year, Shoshana Zuboff, the author of a forthcoming book about surveillance capitalism, said that the manipulation endemic to the surveillance economy puts the lie to the once widely accepted notion that social networks are naturally democratizing and empowering. “Digital connection,” she explained, “is now the brazen means toward others’ market ends.” More galling, Facebook hides behind the benevolent rhetoric of emancipation and connectivity as it frisks us for our most intimate information. Connectivity seems less like a human right, as Zuckerberg has argued, than like a means to surveil a good chunk of the world’s population. As Facebook generates billions in profits by exploiting access to our attention and our personal lives, it tells us this arrangement is good for us. It’s long past time to ask why we ever believed them.