The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, written by Shoshana Zuboff, is a comprehensive overview of the new ‘personal information’ economy, published last year to much critical praise. It is an imposing 704 pages. Luckily, you can get a quick representation of her arguments in an interview, ‘Beyond Surveillance Capitalism‘, released yesterday online by the Centre for Digital Rights. The interview is worth the time.
In her view, our private information has become the new raw resource which is being ‘mined’ by large technology companies for them to profit from. It has become the new frontier. But even beyond that, our data is being mobilized as an instrument of social control and political power in ways we can scarcely conceive of, because the tools are just being invented.
As I listened to her I realised that this new online universe is an expansion on the customer rewards strategies deployed in the late twentieth century. By way of Air Miles, rewards cards, and similar tricks we agreed to share our shopping habits with merchants. Only now the arrangement is ‘not voluntary’ and a lot more information is collected.
Zuboff itemises many of the excesses of ‘information’ capitalism over the last two decades, including the integration with the state’s security establishment. Huge datasets have been aggregated and turned into proprietary treasures – at Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.. And then she notes that analysis within these ubiquitous but private spheres is ‘sold’ to advertisers and political campaigners. Increasingly our data – transaction data, search data, travel data, contact data, etc. – is being used to change what comes up on our screens, what is included in our feeds, and what is recommended to view/listen to next. All this to manage our behaviour as consumers and as citizens. Meanwhile, we are told that the information you disclose, or that they track, simply helps them “serve you better”.
Spoiler: Basic elements of a democracy are undermined – one’s right to privacy, one’s ownership of one’s own personal information, the liberty/autonomy of the citizen, and the right to free, open, democratic decision-making.
The one big question is how can ‘we’ curtail the growing abuses of this emerging technology. Zuboff observes that government regulation models of the twentieth century may not be adequate, but she is optimistic that a regulatory model will be developed. She appears confident that there is, or soon will be, the political will. Others may not be as assured.
The political picture is grim. Targeted advertising on the Internet has grown immense. New data is being collected (like facial recognition) and added to the earlier piles. And the tech giants are now huge corporate and capital markets players. Incumbency, accumulated reserves and capital, and millions of ‘devoted’ users make these companies a political force.
So where do credit unions fit in? Do credit unions simply line up and pay to use these privatised data troves, the algorithms, and marketing resources? Or do credit unions play a role in pushing for more effective regulation. Do credit unions model the best corporate practices and transparency with respect to use of their members information?
To date there has been no real critical discussion among credit unions that I know of. The Canadian Credit Union Association did champion members’ ownership of members’ personal information within a submission on Open Banking in Canada.
Unfortunately, it appears that many credit union marketing teams are doing just what banks, retailers, and other purveyors of services do ‘to make a sale’ and grow market share. They have been seduced by contemporary ‘data-driven’ marketing and the surveillance apparatus behind it. But the member relationship at a credit union is not just about closing deals. It includes looking out for the best interests of that member. Does that not extend to how we use, abuse, or share ‘their’ information?