What is surveillance capitalism?

SSI Ambassador
9 min readDec 4, 2019

This blog-post is also available as video.

Thumbnail: A new economic logic — surveillance capitalism

While information is abundant on the internet, our attention is a finite and valuable resource. To use our attention as efficient as possible, tech companies have developed a new kind of capitalism, which accumulates behavioral data to bring advertisement technology to perfection. We call it surveillance capitalism.

You are tracked, right now!

As soon as you go online, multiple parties track everything you are doing. We live in constant surveillance, and your online behavior is used for targeted advertisement. But how did this happen and what are the consequences for our society?

Online surveillance is omnipresent: They know your location, search history, the installed apps on your phone, the websites you visit, and what you read and watch. They also monitor your social media posts, your private conversations, emails, what you buy, as well as all the metadata that comes with it and the list goes on and on.

But who exactly do I mean with “they”. I speak about surveillance capitalists. Companies which offer products and services to extract our behavioral user data and make predictions and modifications to our future behavior.

The common saying: “If the service is free you are the product” is not exactly right. You are not the product, your behavior data is the raw material — the supply — to produce prediction products, which are sold to advertisers.

Surveillance capitalists see your behavior data as their proprietary and use the data to feed machine intelligence to fabricate sophisticated prediction products. These prediction products are then traded on behavioral futures market places. The more data is fed into this new machine intelligence-based “means of production,” the more powerful are its prediction products.

Let’s use search as an example to illustrate this concept. Every online search creates more insights about us. This data is then structured and fed to machine learning algorithms. When trained with enough data, these algorithms can give accurate predictions on what you are going to click on, based on your search input and past behavior. The outcome is that if you use google search to do research about a particular product, you will suddenly see fitting advertisements following you around the internet almost everywhere you go.

They simply declared our private experience to be theirs for the taking, for translation into data for their private ownership and their proprietary knowledge. The capitalist logic of accumulation works perfectly since information can be extracted with zero marginal cost. Their systems, which aim to modify our behavior, are designed outside of our awareness and operate in the dark to maintain our ignorance.

The information technology is turning the world into information. The result is that these new knowledge territories become the subject of political conflict.

Knowledge as political conflict, surveillance capitalism

The first conflict is over the distribution of knowledge: “Who knows?”
The second is about authority: “Who decides who knows?”
The third is about power: “Who decides who decides who knows?”

3 major economies:

Three major economic principles are dictating the direction of this kind of capitalism.

Economic principles of surveillance capitalism

The economies of scale imply the more behavioral data they can extract the better the prediction. Economies of scope mean the more varied the data sources are, the higher its predictive value and the economies of action describe the modification of behavior, shaping it towards a desired commercial outcome.

So let’s take a short look at the history of the most prominent surveillance capitalists.

While surveillance capitalism was invented by Google around 2001, make Zuckerberg went crazy about it. Facebook: (Mark Zuckerberg: I know we are shit in privacy)

Facebook executed behavioral studies on million users without registering the studies, informing users, or asking for permission in the first place. They gave out private data (even private chat conversations) to third-party app developer without any kind of vetting. They also supported or at least accepted political manipulation on their platform via Cambridge Analytica and many more.

They also violated data protection regulations and keep shadow profiles. Obviously, I could go on for another two hours, but I think you get my point.

The other behemoth is obviously Google, as the undisputed internet giant in the world, considering we ignore the Chinese market for a moment. Google has a de-facto monopoly or the strongest position in a small oligopoly in dozens of markets. Besides search, they also control maps, online browsers with chrome, mobile operating systems with Android, the online advertisement with AdSense, online website analytics, email with Gmail, and many many more.

The combination of these monopoly powers grants the company unprecedented control over our market economies, our society, and every single individual. A rather simple example is a change in the page-rank, which determines on which position your search result is listed on google search. We’ve already seen cases in which Google changes the algorithm and suddenly the search traffic drops or increases by up to 50 percent for certain news outlets.

The outcome is that their services are superior to everything seen before, and they can further amass power and influence to control and manipulate our society at their will. A recent example of the ongoing dispossession and fraudulent business practices of Google is the case of the lyrics provider genius, which caught google red-handed of using their content and presenting it as their own. This might seem like a minor incident but is just one out of thousands of examples of how this company threatens the core values of our society.

Not only online — the shift to the real world

While surveillance capitalism needs technology. Technology doesn’t need surveillance capitalism. Unfortunately, these business practices already began with the transition into the real world. The famous game Pokemon go, which is developed by Niantic: a game company formed as an internal startup in google — generates revenue streams from businesses, which purchase lure modules to attract people to a specific location in the real world. One of their biggest customers is Mc Donalds, which observed revenue spikes at restaurants equipped with lure modules.

So it’s no longer restricted to individual companies or even to the internet sector. It has spread across a wide range of products, services, and commercial industries, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and many more.

Every product which has smart, intelligent, or personalized in its name is feeding the surveillance mechanism. If you buy a “smart home” Nest thermostat (which is owned by Google), it requires a user to read more than 1.000 contracts and privacy policies, since everybody is sharing information with third parties.

With technology, you don’t have to overwhelm human strengths, you just have to conquer their weaknesses. And let’s be honest, nobody reads more than one privacy policy of a consumer product.

The consequences:

Surveillance capitalists are incentivized to create even more addictive products following the model of the attention economy. Pull to refresh, infinite feeds or push notifications are just the tip of the iceberg. 70 percent of the youtube traffic is driven by recommendations. These recommendations are tilted towards the spectrum of Crazy Town, including conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine and Bigfoot.

So the predictive algorithm doesn’t show you what is best for you, but instead, what is in the economic interest of the platform providers. This debate goes way beyond the question of a free market economy, since the dispossession of knowledge and the behavioral manipulation of billions of people are a threat to democracy itself.

Their business practices change how society works and lead to significant social inequality and spikes in depression among our youngest generation.

The quote from socio-biologist E.O. Wilson sums it up pretty good: ”We have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.”


To regulate an emerging new form of capitalism is extremely difficult. We just began to understand how it even works and only came up with terminology for it. Meanwhile, it’s spreading throughout the world like wildfire and is adopted and integrated by more companies and marketplaces every day.

Lobbying for an end to commercial surveillance on the internet is like asking old Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand. Its demands are an existential threat that violates the underlying mechanisms of the entity’s survival. They need massive amounts of detailed data to train their machine intelligence to produce sophisticated prediction products.

On the other hand, the rhetoric of the pioneers of surveillance capitalism has been a textbook example of misdirection, euphemism, and obfuscation. They will do everything to protect their profit margins. We need politicians who understand the business practices and consequences of these business models and approach them with an iron fist. Democracy has slept while surveillance capitalists amassed unprecedented concentrations of knowledge and power. In her latest guest article in the guardian Shoshana Zuboff provides us with a regulatory approach:

Regulation of surveillance capitalism, by Shoshana Zuboff

Step 1: Outlaw the secret theft of private experience and markets, which trade predictions on the behaviour of individuals for advertisement purposes.

Step 2: New laws and regulations must favor companies, which use business models contrary to the logic of surveillance capitalism.

Step 3: Our society needs governmental support for collective actions protecting the rights of individuals and educating the broader public.


To conclude we can say that companies who follow this emerging kind of capitalism not only monitor and control what you find, see, read and watch to a considerable degree, but also manipulate your behavior according to their economic interests.

While surveillance capitalists know everything about us, we know very little about them. The pioneers in this field are already the most valuable publicly traded companies in the world, and now this model of capitalism is adopted by traditional companies too. The technological trend of artificial intelligence will only increase the need for more data and further enhance our dependence on these.

We are witnessing an unprecedented amount of surveillance and observe the highest rates of depression of our youngest generation because they think the status quo is reasonable and the attention economy creates platforms, which are designed to be as addictive as possible.

The combination of artificial social systems, out-predicting machine intelligence, and extractive incentives downgrade human nature and benefit the richest from the rich.

A collective numbness

Now you might get privacy fatigue, which is a sense of weariness toward privacy, issues, in which one believes that there is no effective means of managing personal information on the internet.

And I can totally understand that It is overwhelming. But every one of us can implement counter-measures to take back part of our independence without feeding the data kraken.


While not easy, there are a couple of things you can do against it: Avoid their services when possible. You can take a look at the data detox kid, which helps you find existing alternatives.

Another important aspect is the protection of your privacy. You can use privacy tools such as the tor browser, a VPN, the brave browser, the search engine DuckDuckGo or add-ons like NoScript, the privacy badger, etc. to increase your online privacy.

I highly recommend the content of the center for human technology as well as the book from Shoshana Zuboff.

Thanks for reading & sharing
Hodl Helper — Own your keys!

Information Sources:
Shoshana Zuboff: The age of surveillance capitalism (book)



SSI Ambassador

Educational content about self-sovereign identity with focus on Europe. Content by Adrian Doerk