Surveillance Capitalism

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Surveillance capitalism is a concept created by Shoshanna Zuboff that separates contemporary society into two parts:

  • The Watcher: those who collect data, make predictions, and run businesses centered on claiming and monetizing human experiences.
  • The Watched: those whose data are collected, receive personalized outcomes, and are encouraged by businesses to further release more data in order to receive more personalization.

The capitalist market gives motivation to companies to always collect more data in order to grow larger, make more revenue, etc. Asking these corporations to stop or ease up on surveillance hasn't worked in the past because it's not as strong as the motivation driven by the market. Corporations like Google and Facebook have been built upon a system where they need surveillance in order to survive.

On one hand this may allow for increased customer convenience, since corporations and algorithms are able to understand them so well, it also raises ethical concerns about privacy, democracy, and true freedom of choice.


Surveillance capitalism treats human experiences as a new type of resource that can be harvested as data. Furthermore, it can be broken down into a cycle consisting of four parts[1]:

  1. Proprietary behavioral surplus: The data collected from human experiences that is not necessarily used to improve services.
  2. Machine intelligence: The surplus of data is given to machines or computers that process the data.
  3. Prediction products: Data from computers give way into new products that will predict the future actions of humans, or give them personalized information.
  4. Behavioral futures markets: Markets are based off of the personalization algorithms, so that companies begin to make choices based off the predicted actions of people.


Shoshanna Zuboff

Shoshanna Zuboff
Shoshanna Zuboff

Shoshana Zuboff is credited as coining the term “surveillance capitalism” in 2014 and has since written an entire book on the subject, entitled The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power[2]. In it, she explains surveillance capitalism as the spawn of capitalism and technology, motivated by social logic that corporations always need more money and growth.

This concept asserts that surveillance is the business model of the internet[3]


Google is one of the first and largest companies to so clearly follow the rules of surveillance capitalism. It’s no longer a surprise that Google captures and saves current location, location history, web and app activity emails, purchases, voice recordings, etc as most of these data points are available in Google’s My Activity dashboard[4]. But there’s little transparency in exactly what Google is doing with this hoard of data and little room to opt out of the data collection besides abandoning Google altogether.

In 2016, Pokemon Go, made by Google, pushed and prodded its users, herding them, “to the McDonald’s, Starbucks, and local pizza joints that were paying them for “footfall,” in exactly the same way that online advertisers pay for ‘click through’ to their websites.” This was unbeknownst to players, who most likely thought they were just playing a game with themselves or a group of friends. Little did they realize how much data they were sending to Google, but how Google was attempting to use that data as an advertisement under the guise of good and clean fun[5].


Facebook's share button
Facebook's share button tracks user activity on any site it's placed on.

As a social media site, Facebook brand’s itself as being a free platform to connect with friends, family, and loved ones. But this is a narrow view of what the company does as a whole. Since users don’t pay for the platform, Facebook turns a profit from targeted ads. The targeting takes process by collecting where users spend their time on the site, what posts they click on, and who they interact with. But the troubling part of this surveillance is that Facebook also tracks internet users across the internet even if they’re logged out of Facebook or don’t have an account.

Ethical Issues

Privacy Concerns

As is the case with any type of surveillance, surveillance capitalism rasises concerns about personal privacy. It can be argued that surveillance capitalism creates a default where people don’t have privacy or aren’t aware of their level of privacy. This is explained by corporations collecting data by any means necessary, even if it creates opaque technology.

Freedom of Choice

Because companies can now have so much information about its users (as well as users similar to them), they can easily advance particular opinions, actions, or products that certain users might take to. One perspective on this high level of personalization is that users' choices are manipulated by the interests of private corporations.

Oftentimes, users have no option to correct data, remove their data, or say “no” to having it collected in the first place.[6] So users are repeatedly exposed to what similar users are interested in. Rather than organically exploring things based on their own interests, this may cause customers to passively take what information or products are fed to them. This would allow for companies to control, or at least highly influence, the consumption of their customers.


In the contemporary era of digital technology, information and data can be seen as power. Because of the sheer amount of information and data possessed by corporations operating under the surveillance capitalism model, these corporations or watchers have far more power than the watched.

Some argue there exists too little regulation on tech companies that collect and shape information seen by the public. They go roughly unchecked and are allowed to operate on a policy of “act now, apologize later” because surveillance technology is still relatively new and ever-changing.

See Also


  1. Zuboff, Shoshana. “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” PublicAffairs, 15 Jan. 2019,
  2. Zuboff, Shoshana. “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” PublicAffairs, 15 Jan. 2019,
  3. Rashid, Fahmida. “China 'Surveillance is the Business Model of the Internet: Bruce Schneier'.” Schneier on Security, 9 Apr. 2014,
  4. My Activity, Google,,
  5. Zuboff, Shoshana. “ .” New York Times, 24. 2020, .
  6. 'The goal is to automate us': welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism .” The Guardian, 20 Jan. 2019,