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How Tracking And Selling Our Data Became A Business Model

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pauses while testifying before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 11, 2018, about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election and data privacy. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pauses while testifying before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 11, 2018, about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election and data privacy. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

This show originally aired Jan. 15, 2019.

Find our buildout from this hour, featuring a partial transcription, here.

With Meghna Chakrabarti

There are new calls for tech companies to stop selling your location to third parties. We’ll look at the economics and perils of “surveillance capitalism.”


Shoshana Zuboff, professor emerita at Harvard Business School and former faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. Author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power,” among other titles. (@shoshanazuboff)

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff

The Unprecedented

One explanation for surveillance capitalism’s many triumphs floats above them all: it is unprecedented. The unprecedented is necessarily unrecognizable. When we encounter something unprecedented, we automatically interpret it through the lenses of familiar categories, thereby rendering invisible precisely that which is unprecedented. A classic example is the notion of the “horseless carriage” to which people reverted when confronted with the unprecedented facts of the automobile. A tragic illustration is the encounter between indigenous people and the first Spanish conquerors. When the Taínos of the pre-Columbian Caribbean islands first laid eyes on the sweating, bearded Spanish soldiers trudging across the sand in their brocade and armor, how could they possibly have recognized the meaning and portent of that moment? Unable to imagine their own destruction, they reckoned that those strange creatures were gods and welcomed them with intricate rituals of hospitality. This is how the unprecedented reliably confounds understanding; existing lenses illuminate the familiar, thus obscuring the original by turning the unprecedented into an extension of the past. This contributes to the normalization of the abnormal, which makes fighting the unprecedented even more of an uphill climb.

On a stormy night some years ago, our home was struck by lightning, and I learned a powerful lesson in the comprehension-defying power of the unprecedented. Within moments of the strike, thick black smoke drifted up the staircase from the lower level of the house and toward the living room. As we mobilized and called the fire department, I believed that I had just a minute or two to do something useful before rushing out to join my family. First, I ran upstairs and closed all the bedroom doors to protect them from smoke damage. Next, I tore back downstairs to the living room, where I gathered up as many of our family photo albums as I could carry and set them outside on a covered porch for safety. The smoke was just about to reach me when the fire marshal arrived to grab me by the shoulder and yank me out the door. We stood in the driving rain, where, to our astonishment, we watched the house explode in flames.

I learned many things from the fire, but among the most important was the unrecognizability of the unprecedented. In that early phase of crisis, I could imagine our home scarred by smoke damage, but I could not imagine its disappearance. I grasped what was happening through the lens of past experience, envisioning a distressing but ultimately manageable detour that would lead back to the status quo. Unable to distinguish the unprecedented, all I could do was to close doors to rooms that would no longer exist and seek safety on a porch that was fated to vanish. I was blind to conditions that were unprecedented in my experience.

I began to study the emergence of what I would eventually call surveillance capitalism in 2006, interviewing entrepreneurs and staff in a range of tech companies in the US and the UK. For several years I thought that the unexpected and disturbing practices that I documented were detours from the main road: management oversights or failures of judgment and contextual understanding.

My field data were destroyed in the fire that night, and by the time I picked up the thread again early in 2011, it was clear to me that my old horseless- carriage lenses could not explain or excuse what was taking shape. I had lost many details hidden in the brush, but the profiles of the trees stood out more clearly than before: information capitalism had taken a decisive turn toward a new logic of accumulation, with its own original operational mechanisms, economic imperatives, and markets. I could see that this new form had broken away from the norms and practices that define the history of capitalism and in that process something startling and unprecedented had emerged.

Of course, the emergence of the unprecedented in economic history cannot be compared to a house fire. The portents of a catastrophic fire were unprecedented in my experience, but they were not original. In contrast, surveillance capitalism is a new actor in history, both original and sui generis. It is of its own kind and unlike anything else: a distinct new planet with its own physics of time and space, its sixty-

seven-hour days, emerald sky, inverted mountain ranges, and dry water.

Nonetheless, the danger of closing doors to rooms that will no longer exist is very real. The unprecedented nature of surveillance capitalism has enabled it to elude systematic contest because it cannot be adequately grasped with our existing concepts. We rely on categories such as “monopoly” or “privacy” to contest surveillance capitalist practices. And although these issues are vital, and even when surveillance capitalist operations are also monopolistic and a threat to privacy, the existing categories nevertheless fall short in identifying and contesting the most crucial and unprecedented facts of this new regime.

Will surveillance capitalism continue on its current trajectory to become the dominant logic of accumulation of our age, or, in the fullness of time, will we judge it to have been a toothed bird: a fearsome but ultimately doomed dead end in capitalism’s longer journey? If it is to be doomed, then what will make it so? What will an effective vaccine entail?

Every vaccine begins in careful knowledge of the enemy disease. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a journey to encounter what is strange, original, and even unimaginable in surveillance capitalism. It is animated by the conviction that fresh observation, analysis, and new naming are required if we are to grasp the unprecedented as a necessary prelude to effective contest. Let’s close doors, but let’s make sure that they are the right ones…


Taming surveillance capitalism must begin with careful naming, a symbiosis that was vividly illustrated in the recent history of HIV research, and I offer it as an analogy. For three decades, scientists aimed to create a vaccine that followed the logic of earlier cures, training the immune system to produce neutralizing antibodies, but mounting data revealed unanticipated behaviors of the HIV virus that defy the patterns of other infectious diseases.

The tide began to turn at the International AIDS Conference in 2012, when new strategies were presented that rely on a close understanding of the biology of rare HIV carriers whose blood produces natural antibodies. Research began to shift toward methods that reproduce this self-vaccinating response. As a leading researcher announced, “We know the face of the enemy now, and so we have some real clues about how to approach the problem.”

The point for us is that every successful vaccine begins with a close understanding of the enemy disease. The mental models, vocabularies, and tools distilled from past catastrophes obstruct progress. We smell smoke and rush to close doors to rooms that are already fated to vanish. The result is like hurling snowballs at a smooth marble wall only to watch them slide down its facade, leaving nothing but a wet smear: a fine paid here, an operational detour there, a new encryption package there.

What is crucial now is that we identify this new form of capitalism on its own terms and in its own words. This pursuit necessarily returns us to Silicon Valley, where things move so fast that few people know what just happened. It is the habitat for progress “at the speed of dreams,” as one Google engineer vividly describes it. My aim here is to slow down the action in order to enlarge the space for such debate and unmask the tendencies of these new creations as they amplify inequality, intensify social hierarchy, exacerbate exclusion, usurp rights, and strip personal life of whatever it is that makes it personal for you or for me. If the digital future is to be our home, then it is we who must make it so. We will need to know. We will need to decide. We will need to decide who decides. This is our fight for a human future.

Excerpted from THE AGE OF SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM by Shoshana Zuboff. Republished with permission of PublicAffairs, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © Shoshana Zuboff, 2019.

Salon: “How surveillance capitalism became the pre-eminent business model of Silicon Valley” — “The ubiquity of smartphones means that those who own one are pretty easy to track. All modern smartphones have inbuilt GPS accurate to within a few feet. Even if your GPS is turned off, smartphones also peer at Wi-Fi networks in the vicinity, which are mapped to a physical location and can be used to verify location. Even if your Wi-Fi and your GPS are turned off, your phone and its apps can use triangulation of your cell signal to figure out roughly where you are. And whenever you take a cell phone picture, the photo includes a tiny piece of metadata (called EXIF data) that records the location where that photo was taken, along with the type of camera and the date and time.

“Even if you’re on your personal computer instead of your phone, there are plenty of ways for websites or applications to figure out your location. All computers have a unique code, called an IP address, that is created whenever they go online – and which can be used to roughly map location.”

Washington Post: “Opinion: The Facebook scandal isn’t really about social media. It’s about capitalism.” — “As wizened consumers, we’ve learned to be cynical about the commodification of our privacy at the hands of tech corporations. Still, it’s one thing to know in principle that industry giants like Facebook are spying on practically everything we do and say; it’s quite another to see it in action. But that’s just what we have, thanks to recent reporting by the New York Times, which revealed how Mark Zuckerberg, who’s expected to act as the trusted custodian of the personal information of more than 2 billion people, has allowed his company’s partners — Netflix, Amazon and Spotify, among many others — access to users’ most intimate communications.

“Some arrangements enabled Facebook’s partners to read and delete users’ private messages; others had access to users’ friends and their data. In some cases, the deals appeared to be so broad that Facebook’s partners claimed that they weren’t even aware that they had access to certain data streams.

“The Times’ reporting offers a necessary window into the surveillance economy and the emerging economic logic of ‘surveillance capitalism.’ We are beginning to see how the trade in data — much of it done behind the scenes — is also an exchange of influence and power. We are becoming aware of companies’ astonishing information appetites, according to which all data is potentially useful. Even carmakers like Ford are beginning to tout consumer data as a major revenue stream on par with the selling of automobiles. In other words, the Times’ reporting doesn’t just implicate Facebook: It’s an indictment of the whole economic system in which we participate today.”

Allison Pohle produced this show for broadcast.

This article was originally published on

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