Hiding in Plain Sight

Surveillance Capitalism


DDP Images

The watchful eye of surveillance capitalism.

Janet Han, Photojournalist

The likelihood of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Gmail, or similar applications being installed on nearly every cell phone user’s phone is a near given. In fact, it is far stranger not to have at least one of these apps, and certainly not uncommon to have every single one- and more.


Now, the prevalence of social media and the Internet has become old news. While the debates about the potential harms versus the convenience continue to range, the overlying truth is that the Internet has settled deep into the very roots of society’s foundation.


In fact, the constant and widespread use of the Internet, social media, and even Google, in particular, are all contributing to create an entire business model followed by both large and small companies alike. Most complaints against technology target Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and similar companies who sell products. But in fact, an entire, perhaps even more harmful, category of business has been hiding in plain sight.


The experts and number one perpetrators are Google and Facebook. Together, they constitute over 70% of Internet traffic and 63% of national digital advertising (eMarketer). Both are completely free services, accessible to anyone with network access and a computer or smartphone. Yet Facebook has a network of $407.3 billion, while Alphabet (Google’s parent company) accounts for an astounding $715 billion (Forbes).


The secret to their money making success is surveillance capitalism. An online business platform possible only in the modern age, and thus highly familiar to nearly every Internet user, surveillance capitalism has quietly been trading information for money. More specifically, it is employed by companies that are usually free, who collect personal information from their users and sell it to advertisers. Advertisements have become so common and widespread that most users do not even bother to consider how exactly they function. The truth is, the majority of advertisements displayed are highly specific to who they are being shown to, regardless of the platform.


But even if one knows about how their information is being collected and sold, few people actually stop to consider the gravity of the situation. Sarah Chen (10) explains how easily it is

“overlooked” because “we are so used to it.”


Surveillance capitalism has only recently begun to be seriously assessed, most notably as a result of Facebook’s scandal. Dubbed the “Cambridge Analytica scandal,” it was the result of an event in which “87 million Facebook users had their data leaked to a political firm hired to help elect Donald Trump as president in 2016” (Money). With a user base of over 2.2 billion people, or over 30% of the world’s population, such an allegation against Facebook is not one to be taken lightly. Most importantly, Facebook is suspected of using the highly personal and sensitive user data it has gathered over the years in order to harness such political influence.


Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is set to appear before the Supreme Court a number of times in order to testify and address the allegations against his company. Already Facebook’s stock has plummeted, but it is still uncertain as to what will be the final result.


However, Facebook is just one of many companies that have been profiting for years through the use of surveillance capitalism. Such a phenomenon so deeply engraved into society will be more difficult to reverse than possible by bringing down just one company. It is important that users realize how much of their data is being used, and advocate for better privacy laws and security of personal information.