It’s not just Facebook – surveillance is the business model of the internet

Twenty-five years ago, the New Yorker published a cartoon that became the most republished in the magazine’s history. It depicts a canine sitting at a computer, looking down at its friend, a smaller pooch, and saying, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog”. 

It captured well the reality of the time. In the early 1990s internet, you could communicate with anyone and browse websites in almost complete anonymity. The tools to track you down or get your “real name” did not exist. 

Today, things are different. Increasingly, our electronic devices are connected to the internet and, intentionally or unintentionally, are used to spy on us. Almost all of our personal information is harvested. 

What data? 

The scandal involving data firm Cambridge Analytica and tech giant Facebook is one aspect of the problem of data privacy. Writing in the Washington Post, Salvador Rizzo and Meg Kelly note:

“We’re really talking about two kinds of data here. The first kind is ‘content’ – the photos, videos, status updates, news articles and other baubles that Facebook users are posting for their friends, or the whole world, to see.

“The second kind of data goes behind the curtain. It includes users’ location information, their web browsing history, and the inferences that Facebook draws about them to tailor the kinds of ads they see. For example, Facebook might infer a user’s ethnicity and political affiliation and use those inferences to show more relevant ads.” 

The problem goes well beyond Facebook. The business model of most of the internet is built around surveillance and data harvesting.
Computers are becoming part of almost everything we use daily: cars, fridges, phones, televisions. And they all produce enormous amounts of data. For example, walking out of your house each morning produces data; your mobile phone sends location data along with your speed and direction of travel. 

If you take the phone from your pocket and use it, you’re producing even more data: what websites you visit, who you call, text and email, which emails you open and what links you click on, who you are friends with, what you say and even at what angle you’re holding the phone. What you search for in Google is recorded and owned by it, and can be directly linked to you.

Our phones are constantly listening. “Assistants” such as Google Now or Siri learn to recognise your voice. From the moment I say the word “okay”, my phone will record 20 seconds of audio, and that data is stored and owned by Google. It can tell the difference between the questions, “Okay, where is a good place to eat?” and “Okay, Google, where is a good place to eat?”

Today, when we talk about data and surveillance, we’re not simply talking about what you do on the web – we’re talking about almost everything you do, from the moment you get up in the morning until you go to sleep. And, if you’ve got a fitness tracker, how well you sleep.

Obviously, some data trackers are useful. Through Google maps we can find restaurants, be given directions while driving and so on. Facebook allows us to stay in touch with friends and family around the world, makes friend suggestions and recommends groups we may find interesting – 25 percent of US users of the social media platform say it has made their lives better, according to a recent YouGov/CBS News survey.

The problem is that we use these tools precisely because they are so useful – and free. But, as the saying goes, “If you’re not paying, then you’re the product”. All the data we produce is a valuable commodity to be bought and sold. While private companies spy on us for profit, states and governments harvest information for mass surveillance.

You’re the product

In the early days of the internet, there weren’t a lot of ways to make money from it, and payment for services or content never took off. As with newspapers, radio and television, advertising became the key way that websites could generate revenue – but the key difference is targeted advertisements. 

Tailored advertisements solve one problem that the advertising industry has always had. John Wanamaker, a capitalist in the United States in the 19th century and widely seen as a marketing pioneer, once said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half”. For example, if Rolex markets its timepieces on TV or radio, a lot of poorer working class people who can’t afford the watch will nevertheless see or hear the advertisements. That is wasted money in the eyes of the company. 

The internet allows it to target people with a particular income, gender and purchase history. To do this, websites must collect users’ data. This has become key for some of the biggest companies on the planet. Almost every website now collects data on who visits its site; and it is in its best interest to collect as much data as possible on us, so it can be sold to advertisers.

According to security expert Bruce Schneier, “These companies are analogous to feudal lords, and we are their vassals, peasants, and – on a bad day, serfs. We are tenant farmers for these companies, working on their land by producing data that they in turn sell for profit”.

And profit they do. Last year, around US$200 billion was spent on online advertisements in the US alone, the majority of that going to two companies: Google and Facebook.

The amount of data Facebook harvests allows it to offer advertisers incredibly detailed targeting. On its website Facebook tells advertisers that they can “select people based on their prior purchase behaviours, device usage and other activities. For example, if you’re a shoe shop you can target people who’ve recently purchased shoes”.

And you might be surprised at what groups can be targeted. Last year the investigative news organisation ProPublica discovered that, for $30, it could buy ads for people identified as “Jew haters”. This is not the first time Facebook has had unscrupulous advertising categories. 

Last year it was reported that the company was offering advertising targeting Australian teenagers based on their emotional state, which they organised into 10 categories: worthless, insecure, defeated, anxious, silly, useless, stupid, overwhelmed, stressed and a failure. 

And if all that wasn’t bad enough, in 2014 Facebook conducted a social experiment on nearly 700,000 people. The company altered the number of positive or negative posts in users’ newsfeeds to see how it affected their moods.

This is a company that not only sells our private data, but uses the information to manipulate our emotions so that companies can sell us things that might help fix our emotional state – all to turn a profit. 

So when you hear Mark Zuckerberg complain that data his company collected have been misused, think of a weapons manufacturer complaining about wars. Profiling and misusing data is Facebook’s business model.

This level of spying is not limited to the online world. If you go into a shopping centre, you’re producing more location data – which shops you visit, which supermarket shelves you go to and how long you look at advertisements in the store.

If you’ve been to the big ones, you may have noticed that they provide free wifi. This may seem like a nice offering, but read through the privacy policies. An example from one of the large centres in Melbourne: it records the “different areas of a centre that you have visited and your present location within a centre … [and] websites accessed”. How is this used to market to you? Sue Mitchell wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald about Westfield’s spying:

“When a customer shopping for suits in a department store googles a rival e-commerce site, a report is sent to the retailer’s marketing team, which may choose to respond by sending the customer an email offering a discount.” 

Marketing company Val Morgan claims that its new system of electronic billboards tracks 2 million Australians every week in shops around the country. Using facial recognition, the company tailors advertisements depending on a person’s age, gender and mood (based on facial expression).

This enormous amount of detailed data is increasingly being used and analysed by insurance companies, security firms, companies such as Cambridge Analytica, employers and the state as means of mass surveillance.

It’s not just about individuals. We live in the age of “big data”, in which data are pooled and analysed. And it is being used to discriminate against social groups.

Institutionalised data collection and discrimination have existed for a long time. An example was the policy of “redlining” – banks in the United States refusing loans to African Americans or poor if they tried to purchase a house in a particular suburb. The banks drew red lines on maps to guide mortgage brokers in enforcing segregation. Civil rights legislation in the 1960s outlawed such policies. 

However, with big data we’re seeing “weblining”. It is now common for banks to lower your credit limit if you shop at particular outlets. A couple of years ago, a US man, having returned from his honeymoon, received a letter from American Express informing him that his credit limit had been lowered by $7,000 because “other customers who have used their card at establishments where you recently shopped have a poor repayment history”. 

It’s well known that welfare can be denied based on your marital status. We now know that the US Internal Revenue Service carries out bulk analysis of people’s Facebook photos to determine their relationship status. And it is now common when visiting the US that people have to hand over their mobile phones and show their Facebook profile before being approved entry. 

Further, location information from mobile phone towers is accessible by the state. This was used in 2014 by the Ukrainian government, which sent a very Orwellian text message to thousands of its citizens who had attended a demonstration. The message read, “Dear subscriber, you have been registered as a participant in a mass disturbance”. 

The same technique has been used in the US to monitor union demonstrations. In Melbourne, Victoria Police use data from mobile phone towers to estimate crowd numbers at events. Whether they use it for demonstrations is not known, but the point is that the police have the ability to do so.

The more you look at big data and how it is used, the more the line blurs between private surveillance by corporations and surveillance by states. 

Thanks to whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, we know that the US government has access to all the data described above. And through the intelligence agreement known as Five Eyes, the governments of the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have it too. They have access to it because they have collected it themselves, through agreements with private companies, or through hacking or compulsion. 

When Yahoo refused to be a party to domestic spying, the US government threatened it with a $250,000 daily fine. The company acquiesced. Microsoft, Google and Facebook did not put up even token resistance. We know the most about US domestic surveillance because of Snowden, but it would be naive to not think that other countries don’t do the same things.

A system of surveillance

To appreciate how normalised surveillance has become, we need to understand the coming together of a few factors. First is the rise of the internet and of mass data collection by corporations. Second, data storage has become very cheap, and computers are powerful enough to analyse quickly and cheaply mountains of data. 

There have also been political factors: the “war on terror”, revolutions across the Arab world, the rise of a new left, the decline of the US as the dominant power in the world, the rise of China and increasing geopolitical tensions.

The “war on terror” began this new era of erosion of civil liberties. The security apparatus of most states has been strengthened, including greater police powers and increased domestic surveillance. There’s also an increasing level of international espionage. All this has led to a situation in which the interests of corporations and the state have become firmly intertwined – particularly with regard to intellectual property and technological breakthroughs.

Some of this is hardly new. The 1950s Communist witch-hunts in the US involved detailed data collection and surveillance. The formation of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation was about spying on the political left and monitoring dissent: if you went to an anti-Vietnam War protest, then you likely got a file and may have been followed by agents. What is different now is the scale. In the past ASIO had to employ vast resources to follow people around. Today they can track anyone with fewer resources.

The driving factor in all this is capitalism – a system divided by class, in which the top 1 percent of the population owns and controls the vast majority of the world’s wealth. Being a minority, the wealthy need political institutions, laws, police, armies and mass propaganda to protect their position. 

A central aspect of capitalism is social control, either through direct force in dictatorships or through the illusion of democracy we have here in Australia or the US. Mass surveillance is now becoming a part of this social control. This is more obvious in countries like Turkey, Ukraine and China.

We shouldn’t overstate the impact surveillance has on political struggle; the weakness of our trade unions, the decomposition of social democracy and the collapse of the left, which began well before big data arrived, are more decisive factors. But in a period of weakness, increasing surveillance only reinforces the trends. 

Public servants today can be sacked for private social media posts critical of government policy. It is standard company policy that staff emails can be read by management. Last year, Westpac announced that in some workplaces cameras using facial recognition would be deployed to “read the mood of staff and tell managers if a pep-up is needed”. These are bound to affect people’s confidence to stand up for their rights in the workplace and to speak up about politics more broadly. 

Challenging the surveillance state

Whistleblowers have shown us the full extent of the surveillance state. But exposing it is no guarantee things will change. This is one tragedy of Edward Snowden. 

He exposed the domestic spying of the US. But four years later, almost every spying program continues. The level of surveillance in the US is greater today. In Australia we have mandatory metadata storage of everything we do online. Similar programs have been introduced in the UK, Russia and other countries.

Yet one important thing we learned from Snowden’s revelations is that modern encryption, done right, works. 

Keeping information private using encryption is a very old practice. For example, more than 2,500 years ago, the ancient Greeks developed a device called a Scytale. It was a hexagon-shaped piece of wood which a user would wrap leather around and write a message. When unwrapped, it would appear as gibberish. Only a holder of the piece of wood, who re-wrapped the leather around it, could decipher the message. 

Later, Julius Caesar developed a system – in cryptography it’s called the Caesar cipher – for the substitution of different letters in messages. This was his preferred way of encrypting private and military communications.

Today encryption has come a long way with modern computing; it has also become universal. Unlike when different states would have their own methods of encryption, their own machines with specific settings – such as the Enigma machine used by Germany in World War Two – today the same methods of encryption are used for internet traffic and phone data, no matter where you are in the world.

Why does this matter? 

As nation states increasingly spy on each other, they’ve had to develop tools that monitor internet and communications traffic as a whole and break into consumer products such as iPhones. So in the 21st century, the logic of inter-state espionage is mass surveillance. 

Half of all internet traffic is now encrypted, but governments are trying to break through the barriers. Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, British prime minister Theresa May and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, among others, have been pressuring tech companies to build “back doors” into their encryption systems so that communications can be read by government agencies. 

If tech companies relent, it will be only a matter of time before everyone’s data becomes publicly available. It’s vital that we oppose any attempt to do this. We have a right to privacy – the right to communicate with who we want, free of government surveillance. 

While we need whistleblowers, we need to understand that surveillance has become a key part of modern capitalism. Not just the growing advertising industry, but political crisis, imperialism and the more unstable world we are heading toward are all drivers of expanded surveillance. 

So it will take much more than reform or stronger regulation of data collection. We need to get rid of this whole system that puts profit above all else and seeks to turn all aspects of our lives into a tradable commodity. That will require a political and economic revolution. That might sound like an impossible task. But, in part, the prospect of it is precisely why states are so concerned with mass surveillance. As Snowden said in 2013:

“In the end the [government] is not afraid of whistleblowers like me … [Chelsea] Manning or Thomas Drake. We are stateless, imprisoned or powerless. No, the [government] is afraid of you. It is afraid of an informed, angry public … and it should be.”