Surveillance Capitalism: From Data Misuse to Commodification

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Writer: Zanna Afia Deswari

The internet as a gateway to access information has brought various simplification and benefits in the society. However, all the possibilities and benefits of the internet actually raises new concerns. One of them is the issue of publication of users’ personal data. There are some privacy issues that arise in social networking sites, including, publication of personal data that will leave a digital trail difficult to remove. Other problems can also be caused by the activity of posting content about other people on social media. Facebook and Instagram for example allow users to associate or include other people’s names through the tag feature. That may cause inconvenience and even threaten the privacy of users if there is no agreement from the party marked in the post.

Furthermore, a bigger problem occurred about the personal data misuse by one of the leading social media companies. Yes, Facebook. The scandal involving Cambridge Analytica in 2018 has unmasked the digital wilderness giants (read: digital platform companies) regarding the misappropriation of users’ personal data. Cambridge Analytica is proven to use Facebook user data for the political interests of the United States election in 2014. Moreover, an investigation conducted by the New York Times in late 2018 reported that Facebook gave access to Netflix, Spotify, and Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) to read, delete, and write users’ private messages.

Inevitably, the news lead to criticisms from various parties. Many people feel “betrayed” because of the misuse of personal data. Instead of maintaining trust, social media platforms commodify user data to make the most profit.

Some people seem to be glorified by the term “social” in the word social media, so that it purely means social media as a space for online interaction and discussion. The public is not yet aware that social media is a form of covert surveillance carried out by digital media companies.

In 2014, Shoshana Zuboff, an author from the United States, coined another term related to contemporary surveillance known as surveillance capitalism. According to Zuboff’s theory, surveillance capitalism is a new form of market and the specific logic of capitalist accumulation. Supervision capitalism is the logic of accumulation that arises from digital footprint, a new era of digital technology.

According to Zuboff, there are those who are stronger and more sophisticated than state institutions in conducting surveillance and spying. That party is none other than a digital platform company. Users are both data suppliers and online advertising objects. Social media platforms monetize user data for business or economic purposes.

Nowadays, there is a new regime in the era of digitization. Reported by Media Indonesia website, December 29, 2019, Agus Sudibyo, Head of the Indonesian Television Academy Mass Communication Study Program (ATVI) said that we currently live in interference and control over the personal lives of social media users. However, most social media users are unaware of the threats that lie behind social media euphoria.

The social media platform controls user data and user behavior through the user registration process. Likewise, when an active user creates a status, uploads photos, makes comments or likes. At that time the user is actually allowing himself to be recorded and identified by the social media platform. Social media platforms and search engines such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Twitter and others are actually spying on users. The company tracks and records the users’ identities, habits and behavior.

User data information will be processed into trends in behavior patterns that are crushed by capitalists through the temptation of advertisements and products that are milling about on mobile pages. Behavioral data is then transformed into a surplus of behavior when algorithms and artificial intelligence processes behavioral data to produce predictions of user social interaction to information consumption patterns (Sudibyo, 2016).

In addition to obtaining the ease and efficiency of communication and information sharing, social media users must also be prepared with the consequences that arise behind the benefits of social media. Social media surveillance is now considered to have exceeded the limits of individual personal space. Although it has become a necessity, the effects caused by the sophistication of digital technology must also be accompanied by the right mindset and behavior.

Education on digital media, digital data protection needs to be introduced early. So, people can be selective and know the limits in sharing information and personal data to public spaces, especially in cyberspace. The government must also explicitly regulate the protection of personal rights of users and formulate rules regarding the ethics of digital advertising. Users have the right to remove traces of their digital activities as a form of sovereignty over personal data. Furthermore, there is indeed a need for civil society oversight of digital companies and the establishment of alternative media or institutions as a form of resistance from surveillance capitalism that only benefits some people.

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