As I talked about the implications of our data usage online with a computer science student, I remember thinking I didn’t mind companies using my information. What could be wrong about them knowing my age, gender, occupation, and nationality? There’s nothing particularly interesting about me, and more so, I am not important enough for it to truly matter. I don’t care if they have access to my browsing history, or the pictures I post online because I’m not doing anything illegal or even morally reprehensible. So what if they know I spent way too much time looking at any one product? Turns out it’s a lot more sinister than we think.

One fine evening I gave in to rampant consumption of short-form content when I encountered a video that drastically changed my perspective on the matter. The irony is not lost on me that I discovered the extent to which we are surveilled online, by scrolling through TikTok. In this video, Shoshana Zuboff, a professor from Harvard University, explained “surveillance capitalism,” a concept used to describe the perverse agenda of giant tech companies that use our data to manipulate and influence our decisions as consumers.

In the video, Zuboff argues that the surveillance practices carried out by corporations use our human experience as raw material to create advertising and marketing strategies. In other words, they closely monitor our interests and behaviours to make powerful market predictions. How long we watch a video, the way we hover our mouse, and how many times we click on a website are all extremely valuable pieces of information that allow them to understand our willingness to purchase a product or service. The reason why this is so nefarious is that we are mostly indifferent towards it.

Indeed, I am not a politician, an undercover agent, or even a celebrity, but the true threat of the ongoing digital surveillance of our data isn’t on an individual level, it’s a threat to the collective.

The reality of the situation is that all of these companies have a profound understanding of our habits, feelings, and desires. Yet, we don’t know anything about them, which sounds exactly like an imbalance of power. Zuboff eloquently calls this asymmetrical power dynamic a “one-way mirror,” because that’s exactly what is happening; we are being observed and manipulated for commercial and political purposes, and most of us are completely unaware.

The commercial intent is clear enough; 97 per cent of Facebook’s revenue comes from online advertising. The more the social media platform knows about their target audience’s hopes and dreams, the more effective they get at selling you things, which means more money for them. This understanding of the different demographics allows them to manipulate the markets, such as establishing new trends whilst making you believe that you came up with them. 

This has direct implications for our autonomy and free will.

How many of the decisions we make are influenced by the media we consume and their knowledge of our personal information? 

I have often wondered if my seemingly random ice cream craving was genuine or if it came from the Häagen-Dasz ad I saw on my phone hours before. Many times, we are not even aware of the advertising we have been exposed to and how that may relate to our identity. I think the reason this works so well is because we have ascribed a whole lot of value to creating an identity, and companies know how to take advantage of that.

For instance, if we have expressed an interest in listening to metal music online, we are more likely to be interested in buying products that are consistent with the “metalhead” persona. There is nothing wrong with that. After all, we are just experimenting with distinct character expressions. However, it is disquieting that they can use this information to predict our next move with so much accuracy. 

The same goes for how technology can manipulate political outcomes. For example, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica case is a perfect example of the way this ongoing vigilance has the potential to impoverish democracy. During the 2016 United States presidential election, data from approximately 87 million Facebook profiles were used to inform and construct political advertising for Donald Trump’s and Ted Cruz’s campaigns.

This case was exposed by a whistleblower and former co-founder of Cambridge Analytica, who claimed that the data from all the Facebook profiles was used to construct a psychographic profile —a study looking into a person's behaviours, habits, and other psychological traits — to deliver advertising in favour of the presidential candidates of that time.² 

These practices are a threat to our understanding of democracy and our sense of agency within our society. It is disheartening to think we can’t browse the internet without being on high alert, questioning the rhetoric of everything we read and watch.

As rational as it might be to operate with caution and paranoia, there is inevitable disappointment in navigating a time that seeks to know everything about you in order to manipulate your perspective of the world in a way that benefits them. 

As I continued down my online data vigilance research rabbit hole, I decided to watch an interview with Zuboff and Britain’s Channel 4. In the video, the interviewer asks Zuboff why there isn’t more public outrage at this phenomenon, to which she answers that the powers that be — mostly the giant corporations — have convinced us that “surveillance practices are the natural course of living in the digital age.” This means that we have to adjust to this new status quo if we want to continue to reap the benefits of the modern world. 

The indifference we feel when we know that they’re using our information is because we feel like we have no alternative but to comply with the new way of the world. 

Alas, it is a small price to pay for convenience. How marvellous it is to have an encyclopedia, map, camera, and phone in our back pockets! Even though data companies know every minute detail about our personal lives, it’s not like the risks outweigh the perks, right?

I once heard that if a company isn’t selling a product, then you are the product. So, I ask you this: how many hours in the day do you dedicate to using social media? And how many of these apps do you actually pay for? By incessantly scrolling through these interfaces, you are volunteering your most important resource: time. 

The lack of privacy paints a dire picture of George Orwellian proportions — “Big Brother” is indeed watching us through our technology. It is not just our decisions that are carefully surveilled — it often feels like it’s our thoughts, too. It might just be that computational advances in recent decades have allowed data scientists to process gigantic amounts of information that allow them to reduce every person to simple probability. Of course, the models they use to predict things are not always perfect; instead, they act on the assumption that the future will work like the past, but they can still get eerily close to knowing how we can behave.

Overall, I hope not to instill panic and existential dread in you but to make a case for why it’s important to care about data surveillance and how to take action. If you happen to spend hours on end using social media and clicking “accept all cookies” on every website you browse, there is absolutely no shame. We have all been victims of a masterfully crafted strategy that has benefited from our ignorance and lack of interest in the subject.

Overall, collective action is our single most important weapon against bigger-than-life companies. 

The invasion of our privacy on an individual level might not be enough to outrage us, but the cumulative breach of everyone’s data should make us question the details of our social contract.

Sometimes, it may feel like these deeply ingrained issues are beyond our control and like there’s no point in investing any time or energy to catalyze any form of change, but in this case, a good starting point might just be to fundamentally disagree with the practice. 

Understanding what our rights are and how they relate to our experience on the internet is the first step to empowering ourselves. There is no need to start wearing tin foil hats and bidding goodbye to technology forever. By educating ourselves and starting conversations, we are paving the way for policy-makers to establish better ground rules. 

It might be as simple as doing a little bit of research into what cookies are and how they work, or skimming through the terms and conditions — as insurmountable of an effort as these tasks may seem. We must make an effort to defend the idea of collective privacy. We have to believe that our information is worth protecting. 

Our ideas, time, and interests are raw gold, and the corporate and political world knows it. That being said, the nature of their value is inherent, not instrumental. Our identities should never be reduced to simple demographics.

We are more than our age, gender, and political orientation. We are ever-evolving beings who deserve to discover our place in the world without the constant puppeteering of greedy hands.