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COVID-19 and the forward march of surveillance capitalism


Surveillance capitalism undermines autonomy and democracy. Image from iStock.

In her 2019 book The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff outlines how companies like Alphabet (Google), Microsoft and Facebook have created a new economy based on the buying and selling of personal data you must provide in order to keep up with the modern world. 

“Digital connection is now a means to others’ commercial ends,” Zuboff affirmed pre-COVID. But it is even more true today. 

The pandemic has accelerated the growth of an economy in which most of our human interactions are mediated by the very for-profit companies for whom our identities are the product being sold to companies seeking to predict and shape human behaviour.

“We are the sources of surveillance capitalism’s crucial surplus: the objects of a technologically advanced and increasingly inescapable raw-material-extraction operation,” writes Zuboff. “Surveillance capitalism’s actual customers are the enterprises that trade in its markets for future behaviour.” 

Consider Zoom, the video conferencing app that exploded in popularity at the outset of the crisis, which, among other security failures, has been caught selling user data to Facebook for advertising purposes, even if the user doesn’t have an account. This is peak surveillance capitalism. 

State actors are also getting into the public health data business, with all the issues that entails. 

As the most shameless disaster capitalist in Canada, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has used the pandemic to promote Telus’s private healthcare app, Babylon, which requires users to sign away doctor-patient confidentiality as we know it and uses AI to provide certain medical recommendations. Mexican authorities have been collaborating with Uber to do contact tracing.

It is particularly troubling when for-profit enterprises have access to data that they can then provide to a growing, and similarly data-hungry, surveillance state. 

“Over the past decade or so, the kindred spirits of the advertising industry and intelligence community have worked tirelessly and on parallel tracks to perfect their exploitation of the unimaginably vast trails of personal data collected through various mobile apps,” writes Sam Biddle in The Intercept. “The ability to learn your location and predict your behaviour is priceless to both Silicon Valley and the Pentagon, whether the ultimate goal is to target you with a Warby Parker ad or a Hellfire missile.”

That said, mass data collection does have value as a public health tool, just as a company takes user data to improve the product, Biddle notes. That’s not corporate surveillance. But once that data is bought and sold on the market, it becomes surveillance capitalism, as defined by Zuboff. 

It is hard to believe that a company normally in the data business would have a sudden change of heart and use that information for the greater good. It seems more like a rebranding exercise than genuine concern for public health. 

Rivals Google and Apple teamed up in mid-April to develop an app that uses wireless signals to alert users if they come into contact with someone who has COVID. Two weeks later, the companies said they were strengthening the app’s privacy settings after data security experts expressed concern. 

Employees of Apple, Amazon and Google recently collaborated to create an app called COVID Near You, where due to the lack of COVID tests in the US, people can input what symptoms they may have alongside demographic information, such as their zip code. The information, one co-creator says, will be provided directly to public health officials and not the data-hungry companies whose employees created it. 

Software developed with the best intentions can still be used against us once COVID subsides, whether it’s in the hands of a government that can now more easily track its citizens, a voracious data collecting business or a nefarious hacker. 

UK-based digital privacy activist Samuel Woodhams warns of “surveillance creep” resulting from the pandemic, where “surveillance companies are having a field day—and they’re going to try to make as much money out of this as they possibly can.”

It’s a damning indictment of our healthcare system—in Canada but especially the US—that authorities are seeking public-private partnerships to deliver healthcare during a pandemic. And when they’re surveillance capitalists, that makes it even worse. 

Tech workers from Apple, Amazon and Google created COVID Near You to help the public easily report COVID-19 symptoms or testing activity. Using these reports, the tracker maps this information to provide local and national views of the illness. Image: COVID Near You.


Light at the end of the tunnel?

There was at least one major positive development recently, with the public rejecting the promise offered to them by surveillance capital. 

Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs Quayside project in Toronto, which was slated to privatize a portion of the city’s waterfront to provide some high tech services, such as driverless cars, automated garbage collection and heated sidewalks in exchange for extensive data collection, and hence corporate surveillance of the neighbourhood, was cancelled in early May. 

This initiative would have turned the neighbourhood into Alphabet’s laboratory, bringing cameras and sensors into the designated space to track residents’ movements, which was pitched as a means of improving mobility and decreasing traffic. It was set to provide a privately-owned public square, with an “integrated set of parks, plazas and open spaces,” alongside 800,000 square feet of condos, 270,000 of market rental apartments and 710,000 below market.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explicitly said the $50 million Quayside project would “create a test bed” for big tech. 

Although Waterfront Toronto approved the Google affiliate’s initial 12-acre plan, Sidewalk Labs came under fire in June 2019 for seeking to expand its scope to develop 190 acres of land, a more than 15-fold expansion. To their credit, Waterfront Toronto declined this expansionist proposal.

A grassroots campaign dubbed Block Sidewalk was established in February 2019 after internal documents were leaked to the Toronto Star that revealed Sidewalk Labs believed itself “entitled to” a share of the city’s property taxes, development fees and increased land value, despite the city having already dedicated $1.2 billion in flood and environmental mitigation, without which the project would have been impossible.

The report also hinted at a much greater expansion than was ultimately proposed, with Google eventually taking control of 350 acres of land by financing underground infrastructure and light rail transit.

Block Sidewalk drew attention to the inability to opt out of data collection, whether you’re a resident, worker or visitor, as well as the insecure, contract work that Google was passing off as job creation.

“All Torontonians deserve the right to say no to ubiquitous surveillance,” the group says succinctly on its website.

Proponents said data gleaned from the project will encourage local innovation, but Blackberry co-founder Jim Balsillie—a sort of Dr. Frankenstein in this narrative—countered that the fruits of whatever innovation occurs will belong to Alphabet, not the public. The company that owns Google is, in other words, trying to vacuum up data for its own purposes that take precedence over refurbishing Toronto’s waterfront with the latest fancy gadgets.

In a 2017 Globe and Mail op-ed, Bianca Wylie of the advocacy group Tech Reset Canada warned that this project isn’t your typical public-private partnership between urban planners and municipalities, because of the murky role data collection plays in it.

“We don’t have rules to manage private-sector actors that want to introduce their hardware and software into the planning and delivery of public services. We don’t have the knowledge,” wrote Wylie. “When urban-planning firms work with municipal governments, they share a language and can work together as equals. This is not the case with technology firms. Cloaking this work in urbanism is a betrayal of motive.”

And University of Toronto urban planning professor Matt Siemiatycki questioned where this massive corporation that is sustained in large part by data collection was getting the $50 million for Quayside.

“Is it an old-fashioned real estate development plan? Or is it like Google, where you pay in terms of data and advertising?” he asked.

It’s symbolic that this initiative was kiboshed in the midst of the pandemic, which as we’ve seen has provided a great business opportunity for privatizing medical data. It shows that popular opposition to mass corporate surveillance has resonated at the centres of power. 

This is no doubt an encouraging sign, but we must remain wary of how the technologies we value are being used to sell our identities to the highest bidder without any meaningful form of consent and be attentive to the gaps in our city planning that offer opportunities for data-hungry companies to swoop in and prey. 

There’s something eerie and totalitarian about an automated neighbourhood collecting information from its residents, who in order to opt out must leave their community. It represents a sacrifice of our natural human bonds to what is billed as technological advancement. 

The cancellation of Quayside is a victory that augurs well for those uncomfortable with their personal information being bought and sold by the byte. 

We may hope that this portends a more cautious approach to big tech’s overweening role in society once the pandemic dust settles. 

Jeremy Appel is a southern Alberta-based freelance reporter and columnist. He also cohosts two podcasts, the Forgotten Corner, an Alberta-focused long-form interview show, and Big Shiny Takes, which skewers the Canadian media class.


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