4.2 What to do: Tactics to Counter Surveillance Capitalism

Adrian Castillo

“If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.”
― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862)

Figure 7.

Data fist

Note. From Data Fist [Digital Image], by Valery Brozhinsky, n.d., Shutterstock (https://tinyurl.com/u53kbvap). Standard License.
The quotation from Victor Hugo suggests how social structures (such as education, religion, or political institutions) are decisive in shaping individual behavior, and can both constrain or expand a person’s agency (the ability to exercise free will and make choices) (Gibbs, 2017). There is an ongoing debate on how to best counter surveillance capitalism: while many scholars argue that we should focus on strengthening political institutions through offensive measures, such as developing laws and compulsory models for data governance, privacy rights, and the prevention of monopolies (Geist, 2020; Micheli et al., 2020; Owen, 2019), other experts suggest that we should focus on learning defensive measures, using our agency to study encryption and other privacy tools, reclaiming personal data stored in platform companies, or developing ethical online behaviors (Mattson, 2021; Ribble & Park, 2019).

While it is true that focusing only on defensive measures would leave surveillance capitalism intact, it is also true that we can and should use our agency to learn about the benefits and risks of specific digital technologies. Thus, this section will provide strategies to counter surveillance capitalism through offensive measures (emphasis on structures) and defensive measures (emphasis on personal agency). 

A story of Defensive Measures: Paul-Olivier Dehaye

“I have made mistakes. The biggest one was to go it alone. Without allies you can’t win these sorts of conflicts” (as cited in The Local, 2018).

Paul-Olivier Dehaye is a Belgian mathematician and data ownership activist, who in December 2016, emailed Facebook asking for the profile data the company harvested with the code Facebook Pixel., explained in the video below. 

Please watch:

CBC News. (2018, April 11). Facebook, advertisers and your data explained [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=daoCwHARvGo

Even though as a Belgian citizen, Dehaye was protected by the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, “whose privacy laws are considered the global gold standard” (The Economist, 2018, para. 1). It took Facebook 106 days to answer his email, explaining the company couldn’t fulfill his request in its totality.

After another maze of emails that lasted over a year, Facebook clarified that Dehaye’s data was stored in Hive, Facebook’s data storage for data analytics. Facebook stated that it would take a disproportionate effort to retrieve that data. Hive’s data is “also not used to directly serve the live Facebook website which users experience” (as cited in Zuboff, 2019b, p. 688). In other words, Facebook was saying that because it was too difficult to find its users’ complete data, the company deserved to be above the law (Martineau, 2018). In reality, Hive’s data is Facebook’s exclusive realm in which behavioral data is stored to manufacture prediction products (Zuboff, 2019b). Eventually, Facebook dismissed Dehaye’s complaint, due to a lack of enforcement of data laws by the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, which Dehaye’s calls “the biggest [Facebook] enabler” (Dehaye, 2018, para.9). Despite this, the mathematician was able to have a hearing in the European Parliament, which made his case widely known. Dehaye’s case exemplifies the possibilities and limits of agency from the “bottom-up” (Micheli et al., 2020).

Activity #1

How to find out what Facebook knows about you.

Following on Dehaye’s footsteps, let’s figure what data is Facebook willing to provide about each of us. To do this, watch the video below, then log into your Facebook profile and follow these instructions to download a copy of your Facebook data.

*Due to time constraints, download only data from the last three months.

The download should take anywhere from five-to-ten minutes, depending on the amount of data you are downloading. Therefore, continue reading through this section, then come back to answer the questions below. 

Please watch the video below and answer the Google Form questions. Please remember, the questions are open-ended and there are no wrong answers! Just elaborate your ideas as much as you can. As explained in previous chapters, your answers are anonymous and will be used exclusively to improve the content of the present eBook.

CNN Business. (2018, March 27). How to find out what Facebook knows about you [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9EKGmNa9jAA

Understanding Browser Tracking

Every time we use the internet we leave a footprint on the websites we have visited. There are many techniques to follow our online movements; however, one of the most popular ways is embedding a small piece of data into our web browsers–this is known as a cookie. Cookies are designed to “store registration data, to customize information for visitors to a website, to target online advertising, and to keep track of the products a user wishes to order online” (Britannica, 2017, para. 1). 

We can further understand website tracking with the video below. Please watch:

[GCFLearnFree.org]. (2017, September 8). Understanding digital tracking [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EHSlhnE6Ck

Note that cookies are designed, which means that we could also create an alternative web experience in which privacy is “proactive, not reactive; preventative not remedial” (Cavoukian, 2011, the 7 foundational principles section). This is known as Privacy by Design (PbD), the main advantage is that it prevents privacy-invasive risks from occurring, as privacy is embedded into the architecture of  IT systems; it is not an add-on (Cavoukian, 2011).

Privacy Applications that you Can Trust:

Since defensive measures are important in our digital era, you can enhance your privacy by downloading many privacy-related applications on the website PrivacyTools. The website is trustworthy since it does not utilize paid recommendations or affiliate programs that are very common elsewhere online.

In addition, we can examine how some Canadian news websites, unfortunately, employ extensive tracking practices. Please open Trackography. This site offers a visualization tracker guide and includes the tracking practices of many popular news outlets, including The National Post, The Calgary Herald, or The Toronto Sun. Similarly, you can find global news outlets, such as CNN, BBC, or El Pais. Moreover, Trackography shows countries around the world hosting the servers where their websites store our tracked data.

Offensive Measures: Governing Data as Oil or Sunlight?

As technology corporations such as Google and Facebook continue to grow, governments are catching up by imposing legislation to limit their power and enhance accountability. An example of this is Canada’s Digital Charter, which is trying to establish practices that protect our personal information in the private sector (Government of Canada, 2021a). The Digital Charter Implementation Act promises to build a “foundation of trust and transparency between citizens, companies, and government” (Government of Canada, 2020, para. 5). The legislation will ensure that Canadians are protected in the modern data-driven economy. It mandates:

  • Meaningful Consent: Increases control and transparency in online consent rules, mandating they are written in plain language, so people can make informed choices on how companies handle their personal information.
  • Data Mobility: Allows Canadians to direct the transfer of personal information between organizations in a secure manner. For example, individuals can tell a bank to transfer or share their data with another financial institution.
  • Disposal of personal information and withdrawal of consent: Ensures that Canadians can demand an organization to destroy their information. It also permits the withdraw of consent for the use of personal information.
  • Algorithmic transparency: Empowers Canadians to request clarification on how companies apply automated decision-making systems like algorithms and artificial intelligence in making predictions, recommendations or decisions about individuals.
  • De-identified information:  ensures the privacy of Canadians by removing any identifiers (such as name) in information disclosed without consent. 

At its core, the Digital Charter Implementation Act recognizes the tension between personal data as a right, and personal data as a commodity. A means to understand this tension is available in the question “Are data more like oil or sunlight?” (The Economist, 2020). The question emphasizes that data can be extracted, tagged, and sold (just like oil); however, unlike oil, data is a renewable source, just like solar rays, which are free, are everywhere and cover everything. 

The metaphor is further explored in the video below. Please answer the Google Form question after watching. 

[FT Rethink]. (2018, November 1). Is data the new oil? [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kG-Naum0Dvk

As we have seen, there are a number of perspectives on how to best counter surveillance capitalism, the economic logic that turns all aspects of our life into digital data, all human nature into ones and zeros. In the next chapter, we will consider our Datafied society.