Surveillance is the DNA of the Platform Economy

Yves here. Not new to anyone who has been paying attention, but a useful recap with some good observations at the end, despite deploying the cringe-making trope of businesses having DNA. That legitimates the notion that corporations are people.

By Ivan Manokha, a departmental lecturer in the Oxford Department of International Development. He is currently working on power and obedience in the late-modern political economy, particularly in the context of the development of new technologies of surveillance. Originally published at openDemocracy

The current social mobilization against Facebook resembles the actions of activists who, in opposition to neoliberal globalization, smash a McDonald’s window during a demonstration.

On March 17, The Observer of London and The New York Times announced that Cambridge Analytica, the London-based political and corporate consulting group, had harvested private data from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their consent. The data was collected through a Facebook-based quiz app called thisisyourdigitallife, created by Aleksandr Kogan, a University of Cambridge psychologist who had requested and gained access to information from 270,000 Facebook members after they had agreed to use the app to undergo a personality test, for which they were paid through Kogan’s company, Global Science Research.

But as Christopher Wylie, a twenty-eight-year-old Canadian coder and data scientist and a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, stated in a video interview, the app could also collect all kinds of personal data from users, such as the content that they consulted, the information that they liked, and even the messages that they posted.

In addition, the app provided access to information on the profiles of the friends of each of those users who agreed to take the test, which enabled the collection of data from more than 50 million.

All this data was then shared by Kogan with Cambridge Analytica, which was working with Donald Trump’s election team and which allegedly used this data to target US voters with personalised political messages during the presidential campaign. As Wylie, told The Observer, “we built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons.”

‘Unacceptable Violation’

Following these revelations the Internet has been engulfed in outrage and government officials have been quick to react. On March 19, Antonio Tajani President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani, stated in a twitter message that misuse of Facebook user data “is an unacceptable violation of our citizens’ privacy rights” and promised an EU investigation. On March 22, Wylie communicated in a tweet that he accepted an invitation to testify before the US House Intelligence Committee, the US House Judiciary Committee and UK Parliament Digital Committee. On the same day Israel’s Justice Ministry informed Facebook that it was opening an investigation into possible violations of Israelis’ personal information by Facebook.

While such widespread condemnation of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica is totally justified, what remains largely absent from the discussion are broader questions about the role of data collection, processing and monetization that have become central in the current phase of capitalism, which may be described as ‘platform capitalism’, as suggested by the Canadian writer and academic Nick Srnicek in his recent book.

Over the last decade the growth of platforms has been spectacular: today, the top 4 enterprises in Forbes’s list of most valuable brands are platforms, as are eleven of the top twenty. Most recent IPOs and acquisitions have involved platforms, as have most of the major successful startups. The list includes Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, eBay, Instagram, YouTube, Twitch, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Waze, Uber, Lyft, Handy, Airbnb, Pinterest, Square, Social Finance, Kickstarter, etc. Although most platforms are US-based, they are a really global phenomenon and in fact are now playing an even more important role in developing countries which did not have developed commercial infrastructures at the time of the rise of the Internet and seized the opportunity that it presented to structure their industries around it. Thus, in China, for example, many of the most valuable enterprises are platforms such as Tencent (owner of the WeChat and QQ messaging platforms) and Baidu (China’s search engine); Alibaba controls 80 percent of China’s e-commerce market through its Taobao and Tmall platforms, with its Alipay platform being the largest payments platform in China.

The importance of platforms is also attested by the range of sectors in which they are now dominant and the number of users (often numbered in millions and, in some cases, even billions) regularly connecting to their various cloud-based services. Thus, to name the key industries, platforms are now central in Internet search (Google, Yahoo, Bing); social networking (Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat); Internet auctions and retail (eBay, Taobao, Amazon, Alibaba); on-line financial and human resource functions (Workday, Upwork, Elance, TaskRabbit), urban transportation (Uber, Lyft, Zipcar, BlaBlaCar), tourism (Kayak, Trivago, Airbnb), mobile payment (Square Order, PayPal, Apple Pay, Google Wallet); and software development (Apple’s App Store, Google Play Store, Windows App store). Platform-based solutions are also currently being adopted in more traditional sectors, such as industrial production (GE, Siemens), agriculture (John Deere, Monsanto) and even clean energy (Sungevity, SolarCity, EnerNOC).

User Profiling – Good-Bye to Privacy

These platforms differ significantly in terms of the services that they offer: some, like eBay or Taobao simply allow exchange of products between buyers and sellers; others, like Uber or TaskRabbit, allow independent service providers to find customers; yet others, like Apple or Google allow developers to create and market apps.

However, what is common to all these platforms is the central role played by data, and not just continuous data collection, but its ever more refined analysis in order to create detailed user profiles and rankings in order to better match customers and suppliers or increase efficiency.

All this is done in order to use data to create value in some way another (to monetize it by selling to advertisers or other firms, to increase sales, or to increase productivity). Data has become ‘the new oil’ of global economy, a new commodity to be bought and sold at a massive scale, and with this development, as a former Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff has argued, global capitalism has become ‘surveillance capitalism’.

What this means is that platform economy is a model of value creation which is completely dependant on continuous privacy invasions and, what is alarming is that we are gradually becoming used to this.

Most of the time platform providers keep track of our purchases, travels, interest, likes, etc. and use this data for targeted advertising to which we have become accustomed. We are equally not that surprised when we find out that, for example, robotic vacuum cleaners collect data about types of furniture that we have and share it with the likes of Amazon so that they can send us advertisements for pieces of furniture that we do not yet possess.

There is little public outcry when we discover that Google’s ads are racially biased as, for instance, a Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney found by accident performing a search. We are equally hardly astonished that companies such as Lenddo buy access to people’s social media and browsing history in exchange for a credit score. And, at least in the US, people are becoming accustomed to the use of algorithms, developed by private contractors, by the justice system to take decisions on sentencing, which often result in equally unfair and racially biased decisions.

The outrage provoked by the Cambridge Analytica is targeting only the tip of the iceberg. The problem is infinitely larger as there are countless equally significant instances of privacy invasions and data collection performed by corporations, but they have become normalized and do not lead to much public outcry.


Today surveillance is the DNA of the platform economy; its model is simply based on the possibility of continuous privacy invasions using whatever means possible. In most cases users agree, by signing the terms and conditions of service providers, so that their data may be collected, analyzed and even shared with third parties (although it is hardly possible to see this as express consent given the size and complexity of these agreements – for instance, it took 8 hours and 59 minutes for an actor hired by the consumer group Choice to read Amazon Kindle’s terms and conditions). In other instances, as in the case of Kogan’s app, the extent of the data collected exceeds what was stated in the agreement.

But what is important is to understand that to prevent such scandals in the future it is not enough to force Facebook to better monitor the use of users’ data in order to prevent such leaks as in the case of Cambridge Analytica. The current social mobilization against Facebook resembles the actions of activists who, in opposition to neoliberal globalization, smash a McDonald’s window during a demonstration.

What we need is a total redefinition of the right to privacy (which was codified as a universal human right in 1948, long before the Internet), to guarantee its respect, both offline and online.

What we need is a body of international law that will provide regulations and oversight for the collection and use of data.

What is required is an explicit and concise formulation of terms and conditions which, in a few sentences, will specify how users’ data will be used.

It is important to seize the opportunity presented by the Cambridge Analytica scandal to push for these more fundamental changes.

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  1. Arizona Slim

    I am grateful for my spidey sense. Thanks, spidey sense, for ringing the alarm bells whenever I saw one of those personality tests on Facebook. I never took one.

    1. Steve H.

      First they came for…

      The most efficient strategy is to be non-viable. They may come for you eventually, but someone else gets to be the canary, and you haven’t wasted energy in the meantime. TOR users didn’t get that figured out.

    2. Annieb

      Never took the personality test either, but now I now that all of my friends who did unknowingly gave up my personal information too. I read an article somewhere about this over a year ago so it’s really old news. Sent the link to a few people who didn’t care. But now that they all know that Cambridge Analytical used FB data in support of the Trump campaign it’s all over the mainstream and people are upset.

      1. ChrisPacific

        You can disable that (i.e., prevent friends from sharing your info with third parties) in the privacy options. But the controls are not easy to find and everything is enabled by default.

    3. HotFlash

      I haven’t FB’d in years and certainly never took any such test, but if any of my friends, real or FB, did, and my info was shared, can I sue? If not, why not?

  2. Octopii

    Everyone thought I was paranoid as I discouraged them from moving backups to the cloud, using trackers, signing up for grocery store clubs, using real names and addresses for online anything, etc. They thought I was overreacting when I said we need European-style privacy laws in this country. People at work thought my questions about privacy for our new location-based IoT plans were not team-based thinking.

    And it turns out after all this that they still think I’m extreme. I guess it will have to get worse.

  3. Samuel Conner

    In a first for me, there are surface-mount resistors in the advert at the top of today’s NC links page. That is way out of the ordinary; what I usually see are books or bicycle parts; things I have recently purchased or searched.

    But a couple of days ago I had a SKYPE conversation with a sibling about a PC I was scavenging for parts, and surface mount resistors (unscavengable) came up. I suspect I have been observed without my consent and am not too happy about it. As marketing, it’s a bust; in the conversation I explicitly expressed no interest in such components as I can’t install them. I suppose I should be glad for this indication of something I wasn’t aware was happening.

    1. Collins

      Had you used your computer keyboard previously to search for ‘surface mount resistors’, or was the trail linking you & resistors entirely verbal?

      1. Samuel Conner

        No keyboard search. I never so much as think about surface mount components; the inquiry was raised by my sibling and I responded. Maybe its coincidental, but it seems quite odd.

        I decided to click through to the site to generate a few pennies for NC and at least feel like I was punishing someone for snooping on me.

        1. Abi

          Its been happening to me a lot recently on my Instagram, I don’t like pictures or anything, but whenever I have a conversation with someone on my phone, I start seeing ads of what I spoke about

    2. ChiGal in Carolina

      I thought it came out a while ago that Skype captures and retains all the dialogue and video of convos using it.

  4. Eureka Springs

    What we need is a total redefinition of the right to privacy (which was codified as a universal human right in 1948, long before the Internet), to guarantee its respect, both offline and online.

    Are we, readers of this post, or citizens of the USA supposed to think there is anything binding in declarations? Or anything from the UN if at all inconvenient for that matter?
    Article 12.

    No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

    Platforms like facebook allow individuals to ‘spy’ on each other and people love it. When I was a kid i always marveled at how some households would leave a police scanner on 24/7. With the net we have this writ large with baby, puppy and tv dinner photos. Not to forget it’s a narcissist paradise. I have friends who I’ve tried to gently over time inject tidbits of info like this article provides for many years and they still just refuse to try and get it. If they looked over their shoulder and saw how many people/entities are literally following them everywhere they go, they would become rabid gun owners (don’t tread on me!) overnight, but the invisible hand/eye registers not at all.

  5. Pelham

    A side note: If Facebook and other social media were to assume ANY degree of responsibility for content appearing on their platforms, they would be acknowledging their legal liability for ALL content.

    Hence they would be legally responsible just as newspapers are. And major newspapers have on-staff lawyers and editors exquisitely attuned to the possibility of libelous content so they can avoid ruinous lawsuits.

    If the law were applied as it should be, Facebook and its brethren wouldn’t last five minutes before being sued into oblivion.

    1. albert

      “…being sued into oblivion….” If only.

      Non-liability is a product of the computer age. I remember having to agree with Microsofts policy to absolve them of -any- liability when using their software. If they had their druthers, -no- company would be liable for -anything-. It’s called a ‘perfect world’.

      Companies that host ‘social media’ should not have to bear any responsibility for their users content. Newspapers employ writers and fact checkers. They are set up to monitor their staff for accuracy (Okay, in theory). So you can sue them and even their journalist employees. Being liable (and not sued) allows them to brag about how truthful they are. Reputations are a valuable commodity these days.

      In the case of ‘social media’ providers, liability falls on the authors of their own comments, which is only fair, in my view. However, I would argue that those ‘providers’ should -not- be considered ‘media’ like newspapers, and their members should not be considered ‘journalists’.

      Also, those providers are private companies, and are free to edit, censor, or delete anything on their site. And of course it’s automated. Some conservative Facebook members were complaining about being banned. Apparently, there a certain things you can’t say on Facebook.

      AFAIC, the bottom line is this: Many folks tend to believe everything they read online. They need to learn the skill of critical thinking. And realize that the Internet can be a vast wasteland; a digital garbage dump.

      Why are our leaders so concerned with election meddling? Isn’t our propaganda better than the Russians? We certainly pay a lot for it.
      . .. . .. — ….

  6. PlutoniumKun

    It seems even Elon Musk is now rebelling against Facebook.

    Musk Takes Down the Tesla and SpaceX Facebook Pages.

    Today, Musk also made fun of Sonos for not being as committed as he was to the anti-Facebook cause after the connected-speaker maker said it would pull ads from the platform — but only for a week.

    “Wow, a whole week. Risky…” Musk tweeted.

    1. saurabh

      Musk, like Trump, knows he does not need to advertise because a fawning press will dutifully report on everything he does and says, no matter how dumb.

    2. Jim Thomson

      This is rich.

      I can’t resist: It takes a con to know a con.
      (not the most insightful comment)

  7. Daniel Mongan

    A thoughtful post, thanks for that. May I recommend you take a look at “All You Can Pay” (NationBooks 2015) for a more thorough treatment of the subject, together with a proposal on how to re-balance the equation. Full disclosure, I am a co-author.

  8. JCC

    A reminder:

    I saw this video back in 2007. It was originally put together by a Sarah Lawrence student who was working on her paper on social media. The ties of all the original investors to IN-Q-Tel scared me off and I decided to stay away from Facebook.

    But it isn’t just FB. Amazon, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Apple, Microsoft and many others do the same, and we are all caught up in it whether we agree to participate or not.

    Anyone watch the NCAA Finals and see all the ads from Google about being “The Official Cloud of the NCAA”? They were flat out bragging, more or less, about surveillance of players. for the NCAA.

    Platform Capitalism is a mild description, it is manipulation based on Surveillance Capitalism, pure and simple. The Macro pattern of Corporate Power subsuming the State across every area is fascinating to watch, but a little scary.

    1. oh

      Caveat Emptor: If you watch youtube, they’ll only add to the information that they already have on you!

      1. HotFlash

        Just substitute “hook” for ‘you” in the URL, you get the same video, no ads, and they claim not to track you. YMMV

  9. Craig H.

    Privacy no longer a social norm, says Facebook founder; Guardian; 10 January 2010

    The Right to Privacy; Warren & Brandeis; Harvard Law Review; 15 December 1890

    It was amusing that the top google hit for the Brandeis article was JSTOR which requires us to surrender personal detail to access their site. To hell with that.

    The part I like about the Brandeis privacy story is the motivation was some Manhattan rich dicks thought the gossip writers snooping around their wedding party should mind their own business. (Apparently whether this is actually true or just some story made up by somebody being catty at Brandeis has been the topic of gigabytes of internet flame wars but I can’t ever recall seeing any of those.)

  10. Ed

    “… Two young psychologists are central to the Cambridge Analytica story. One is Michal Kosinski, who devised an app with a Cambridge University colleague, David Stillwell, that measures personality traits by analyzing Facebook “likes.” It was then used in collaboration with the World Well-Being Project, a group at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center that specializes in the use of big data to measure health and happiness in order to improve well-being. The other is Aleksandr Kogan, who also works in the field of positive psychology and has written papers on happiness, kindness, and love (according to his résumé, an early paper was called “Down the Rabbit Hole: A Unified Theory of Love”). He ran the Prosociality and Well-being Laboratory, under the auspices of Cambridge University’s Well-Being Institute.

    Despite its prominence in research on well-being, Kosinski’s work, Cadwalladr points out, drew a great deal of interest from British and American intelligence agencies and defense contractors, including overtures from the private company running an intelligence project nicknamed “Operation KitKat” because a correlation had been found between anti-Israeli sentiments and liking Nikes and KitKats. Several of Kosinski’s co-authored papers list the US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, as a funding source. His résumé boasts of meetings with senior figures at two of the world’s largest defense contractors, Boeing and Microsoft, both companies that have sponsored his research. He ran a workshop on digital footprints and psychological assessment for the Singaporean Ministry of Defense.

    For his part, Aleksandr Kogan established a company, Global Science Research, that contracted with SCL, using Facebook data to map personality traits for its work in elections (Kosinski claims that Kogan essentially reverse-engineered the app that he and Stillwell had developed). Kogan’s app harvested data on Facebook users who agreed to take a personality test for the purposes of academic research (though it was, in fact, to be used by SCL for non-academic ends). But according to Wylie, the app also collected data on their entire—and nonconsenting—network of friends. Once Cambridge Analytica and SCL had won contracts with the State Department and were pitching to the Pentagon, Wylie became alarmed that this illegally-obtained data had ended up at the heart of government, along with the contractors who might abuse it.

    This apparently bizarre intersection of research on topics like love and kindness with defense and intelligence interests is not, in fact, particularly unusual. It is typical of the kind of dual-use research that has shaped the field of social psychology in the US since World War II.

    Much of the classic, foundational research on personality, conformity, obedience, group polarization, and other such determinants of social dynamics—while ostensibly civilian—was funded during the cold war by the military and the CIA. The cold war was an ideological battle, so, naturally, research on techniques for controlling belief was considered a national security priority. This psychological research laid the groundwork for propaganda wars and for experiments in individual “mind control.” The pioneering figures from this era—for example, Gordon Allport on personality and Solomon Asch on belief conformity—are still cited in NATO psy-ops literature to this day…..”

    1. Craig H.

      This is an issue which has frustrated me greatly. In spite of the fact that the country’s leading psychologist (at the very least one of them–ex-APA president Seligman) has been documented taking consulting fees from Guantanamo and Black Sites goon squads, my social science pals refuse to recognize any corruption at the core of their so-called replicated quantitative research. I have asked more than five people to point at the best critical work on the Big 5 Personality theory and they all have told me some variant of “it is the only way to get consistent numbers”. Not one has ever retreated one step or been receptive to the suggestion that this might indicate some fallacy in trying to assign numbers to these properties.

      They eat their own dog food all the way and they seem to be suffering from a terrible malnutrition. At least the anthropologists have Price. (Most of that book can be read for free in installments at Counterpunch.)

    2. Jim Thomson

      I am not seeing any links to Russia in this story.
      I mentioned this to an acquaintance and she said there were all sorts of Russian links with Cambridge Analytica; she listens to Ms. Maddow, which I do not anymore.
      Do you have any insights on any Russian aspects in this?

      It seems to me to have almost completely diverged from the Russian story.

      1. JeffC

        Saw it on Maddow: Apparently Nix’s people gave a detailed sales pitch on microtargeting, etc. to execs at Lukoil, the huge Russian oil company, presumably a conduit to the Kremlin, as no one at msnbc can think of any other reason for Lukoil to care about election-meddling tech.

    3. Craig H.

      I have terrible experience using ZeroHedge (popups, auto-audio, &c) and haven’t loaded any of their pages in years.

      The source material here is from new york review books:

      The New Military-Industrial Complex of Big Data Psy-Ops; Tamsin Shaw; March 21

      Not a bad article but they accept the premise that the Psychological Warfare Operators’ science is as reliable as the Psychological Warfare Operators’ psychologists and anthropologists claim it is. I question this premise.

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