Exploring Surveillance Capitalism: How Our Data Becomes a Commodity


In 2019, Harvard University professor Shoshana Zuboff introduced the concept of surveillance capitalism in her seminal work, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”. She delineated surveillance capitalism as the process where private human experiences are appropriated freely to be transformed into behavioral data (Parsons, 2023). This concept incisively unveils a stark reality of the digital era: as we indulge in the pleasure and ease of online content, our privacy may have quietly transformed into the profits of others.

Imagine a situation where every click, like, comment, or simple search you make—each trace you leave online—is quietly recorded by someone you can’t see.This is not the dystopian surveillance of George Orwell’s (2012) “1984” overseen by Big Brother, but rather the reality of our everyday lives in the digital era. Amidst the global surge of digitalization, the notion of personal privacy confronts unparalleled challenges. From our preferences and habits to our locations, our personal data is ceaselessly harvested and covertly commodified, exchanged in invisible markets. Alarmingly, this process unfolds with most of us being largely oblivious to its occurrence.

From Data Collection to Data Surveillance and then to Data Trading. This blog will explore how surveillance capitalism has transformed personal privacy from a basic human right to a commodity that is bought, sold, and utilized in the context of the digital age, using examples from Amazon Alexa and others.

Shoshana Zuboff analyses the digital era in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.The Guardian

Data Collection: The Initial Breach of Privacy

Personal data collection is clearly a preliminary violation of the commercialization of privacy rights. In reality, without a comprehensive understanding of how our data is collected and utilized, we frequently find ourselves coerced or inadvertently surrendering our privacy rights to others.The collection and targeting of user preferences by social media platforms have become all too familiar to us. As Shoshana (2019) pointed out, surveillance capitalism was invented by Google and further explored in the realm of online advertising by entities like Facebook, Google’s success is attributed to its ability to predict human behavior.Data reveals that from its inception, Google began collecting data related to user searches, initially seeing it merely as backup materials. However, Google soon realized the potential of this data can enhance search engines continually, allowing the value generated by users to be reinvested into enriching their experience. Although it may seem like “guess what I like”, what we see is more what the platform wants us to see than what we are truly interested in. Platforms lack neutrality, they set rules to determine what content to display, and we have to accept them (Suzor, 2019). We often fail to realize the extent of our personal data loss, as technologies characterized by surveillance capitalism have insidiously integrated into every facet of our daily lives, but it is precisely these technologies that have the most profound impact on us (Weiser, 1991).

If the preference push on social platforms is an unintentional privacy breach caused by us, there is another situation where we intentionally voluntarily surrender our data usage rights.I’m pretty sure most of us know about Cookies. Whenever we land on a website, that inevitable Cookie acceptance box pops up, nudging us to click ‘accept’ if we want to keep browsing. A lot of websites use Cookies to keep track of our login details, preferences, and more, all in the name of offering a smoother user experience and functionality.Under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) from the European Union, websites are required to secure explicit consent from users before employing Cookies. However, in practice, many users instinctively click the accept button to swiftly access the content or feel compelled to consent to obtain the information they seek. This situation arises because numerous websites do not offer an alternative for users to continue browsing without accepting Cookies. Research has made it clear that by digging into the Cookie data we leave online, it’s entirely possible to piece together our real-world privacy details, like where we are and where we’ve been moving around. This just goes to show that the whole Cookie business can end up causing our personal privacy to leak or get invaded (Storbaek,2023).

Data Surveillance: The Continuous Violation of Privacy

The infringement of privacy rights by surveillance capitalism goes far beyond data collection. In today’s information age, data surveillance activities are also a continuous and common phenomenon. It is based on data collection, but its influence and scope have far exceeded preliminary data collection activities.

Everyone knows the world of IoT smart home gadgets is a hotbed for data snooping. Those handy digital assistants that seem to make life easier are often deep in the trenches of surveillance capitalism. Take Amazon Alexa, for example.It nestled within Amazon Echo speakers and a bunch of third-party gadgets like cars and watches, offers all sorts of nifty features from voice commands and streaming music to shopping and controlling smart home devices with its slick IoT tech.Yet, it’s this feature-packed product that has found itself in hot water over privacy issues time and again since it hit the market. Just last year, Amazon coughed up a whopping $30 million to settle a lawsuit over privacy invasions by Alexa (Wehner, 2023). The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has pointed out that Alexa retained the voice and location data of thousands of children without parental consent, ignoring parental deletion requests, which violates the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA).

Amazon Echo speakers(The Verge

Shoshana introduced us to the idea of Behavioral Surplus in “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” This concept talks about the behavior data that’s rediscovered after being tossed aside or overlooked, and the accumulation of Behavioral Surplus is the main driving force behind surveillance capitalism (Zuboff,2019). Behavioral Surplus pretty much spans all kinds of user info, from what you search for to how you live your life. Behavioral Surplus encompasses a wide range of user information, from search queries to lifestyle choices. For instance, when you use Alexa to play music, it does more than just fulfill your request; it also logs your actions, preference, gathering additional data beyond the basic service provided. Research suggests that in over one tenth of cases, Alexa mistakenly starts without receiving a clear wake-up command and may unintentionally start listening to user conversations. We know that Alexa is activated through specific wake-up words, but due to the limitations of speech recognition technology, as well as the diversity of background noise, accents, and intonation, these factors require far more computing power than a small device can provide. Therefore, the vast majority of processing work is done in the cloud, which also provides enterprises with the possibility of monitoring and analyzing voice recordings. (Lynskey, 2019) Over time, by continuously extracting Behavioral Surplus through everyday interactions with users, data surveillance activities of Alexa may persistently infringe upon individual privacy.

Data Trading:Profit vs. Privacy

After data collection, Surveillance, and analysis, a sufficient amount of Behavioral Surplus has been accumulated, and personal data has become a hot product in the market.In data trading, these data can serve as precise targeting tools for advertisers, facilitate strategic cooperation among businesses, and can also be sold at a high price on the dark web.

In the world of data trading, users aren’t the buyers or the sellers, and they’re certainly not the product on offer. Yet, it’s their deeply private info that gets traded.In this process, the role of users is marginalized, and they are no longer the core purpose of market application, but instead become a natural source of free utilization (Zuboff, 2019). It can be clearly seen that users have always been at an unfair disadvantage in data transactions (Wang et al., 2021).

Most Internet companies will mention in their privacy policies that they will share user data with third parties to provide higher quality services. For example, third parties can achieve website commercialization through targeted advertising. They first obtain user data, track users, and then display relevant advertisements to users. Based on the accuracy of advertising targeting, they obtain profit rewards through contracts based on the number of displays or clicks (Gopal et al., 2023).This form of advertising can be seen everywhere on today’s network, which seems to achieve a win-win situation for both Internet service providers and users. But in fact, there are many hidden dangers due to its lack of transparency. The vast majority of users lack a clear understanding of how their data is used and shared with others. Once user data is shared with a third party, their control over their data is greatly weakened, The fluidity of data makes tracking its movements extremely difficult.

The profits brought by these data transactions are astonishing, far beyond people’s imagination. Research has shown that Amazon and its third-party partners have been collecting voice interaction data on Echo and Alexa devices and sharing this information with up to 410000 advertising partners. These collected data are used to accurately push user-preferred advertisements, especially targeted advertising through Echo speakers. The study further points out that this data sharing cooperation model makes advertisers willing to pay up to 30 times the normal advertising bid in exchange for this highly customized advertising opportunity (Potuck, 2024).

How to Counter Surveillance Capitalism

To combat or even end the era of surveillance capitalism, there are three key areas that must be addressed. Firstly, public awareness needs to shift.As surveillance capitalism creeps further into our lives, there’s been a kind of blind faith in technological progress within society, many believe that tech will just naturally make society and our lives better. Yet, this idea misses the complex and potential social impacts of how technology is used,therefore, awakening public awareness has become extremely important. Users should realize that their data belongs to them, not to corporations, should recognize the value of their own data, should also understand how internet companies use personal data to drive their businesses, and they should, even more, learn to say no (Beyer, 2019).

Secondly, there is legal and regulatory intervention. Indeed, countries around the world have already put in effort in privacy protection laws and regulations, but in the face of rapid technological progress and surveillance capitalism, existing legal and regulatory frameworks often seem inadequate.Faced with such challenges, it is not only necessary to strengthen existing regulations but also to innovate regulatory mechanisms. As mentioned earlier, the EU’s GDPR is a significant innovation in traditional privacy protection, granting consumers extremely high control rights such as forgetting rights, data access rights, etc., while setting strict requirements for data processors (Li, Yu, & He, 2019). According to GDPR regulations, any organization must obtain the explicit consent of users before collecting data and implementing appropriate technical measures.

The third area is to stimulate the emergence of competitive solutions. A survey shows that once people learn about the behind the scenes behavior of monitoring capitalists, they will refuse to accept it. This phenomenon indicates a disconnect between market supply and demand (Zuboff,2019). This situation will create opportunities for some forward-looking companies to create innovative digital ecosystem products that respect user privacy and meet user needs, thereby challenging the existing surveillance capitalism model.The search engine DuckDuckGo is an example of this. Unlike mainstream search engines such as Google, it is a search engine that places great emphasis on privacy protection. Its goal is to provide users with a more secure and private search environment. For example, on DuckDuckGo, each user’s search results are consistent, avoiding customized results based on personal search history.With the increase of such enterprises, it is obvious that this will intensify market competition within the industry, driving the overall industry towards higher quality services that focus more on user privacy (Saravanos et al., 2022).To this end, it is crucial to create a market environment that encourages innovation and fair competition, which requires joint efforts from society and government to provide support for emerging companies, develop innovation friendly policy frameworks, challenge the existing market landscape, and promote the formation of a healthy digital economy environment that places greater emphasis on user privacy rights.


We cannot deny that the internet and digital products of the surveillance capitalism era have brought many benefits to our lives, but this cannot be a reason for us to forgive their threat to social morals and individual freedom.It thrives at the cost of sacrificing human nature, similar to how the industrial age prospered by sacrificing the natural environment, ultimately inflicting harm on human civilization. How to protect our precious privacy and freedom while enjoying the convenience of the digital age? This not only requires the public to enhance their awareness of valuing and protecting digital privacy, but also to establish a consensus on technological ethics throughout society, ensuring that technology truly serves the well-being of humanity, rather than becoming a tool to deprive the public of freedom and dignity.


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