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Google as a Fortune Teller : The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism

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Who are these “various people” and what is this “long-term game”?  The game is no longer about sending you a mail order catalogue or even about targeting online advertising. The game is selling access to the real-time flow of your daily life –your reality—in order to directly influence and modify your behavior for profit. This is the gateway to a new universe of monetization opportunities: restaurants who want to be your destination. Service vendors who want to fix your brake pads. Shops who will lure you like the fabled Sirens. The “various people” are anyone, and everyone who wants a piece of your behavior for profit. Small wonder, then, that Google recently announced that its maps will not only provide the route you search but will also suggest a destination.

The goal: to change people’s actual behavior at scale

This is just one peephole, in one corner, of one industry, and the peepholes are multiplying like cockroaches. Among the many interviews I’ve conducted over the past three years, the Chief Data Scientist of a much-admired Silicon Valley company that develops applications to improve students’ learning told me, “The goal of everything we do is to change people’s actual behavior at scale. When people use our app, we can capture their behaviors, identify good and bad behaviors, and develop ways to reward the good and punish the bad. We can test how actionable our cues are for them and how profitable for us”.

The very idea of a functional, effective, affordable product as a sufficient basis for economic exchange is dying. The sports apparel company Under Armour is reinventing its products as wearable technologies.  The CEO wants to be like Google. He says, "If it all sounds eerily like those ads that, because of your browsing history, follow you around the Internet, that's exactly the point--except Under Armour is tracking real behavior and the data is more specific… making people better athletes makes them need more of our gear.”  The examples of this new logic are endless, from smart vodka bottles to Internet-enabled rectal thermometers and quite literally everything in between. A Goldman Sachs report calls it a “gold rush,” a race to “vast amounts of data.”

The assault on behavioral data

We’ve entered virgin territory here. The assault on behavioral data is so sweeping that it can no longer be circumscribed by the concept of privacy and its contests.  This is a different kind of challenge now, one that threatens the existential and political canon of the modern liberal order defined by principles of self-determination that have been centuries, even millennia, in the making. I am thinking of matters that include, but are not limited to, the sanctity of the individual and the ideals of social equality; the development of identity, autonomy, and moral reasoning; the integrity of contract, the freedom that accrues to the making and fulfilling of promises; norms and rules of collective agreement; the functions of market democracy; the political integrity of societies; and the future of democratic sovereignty.  In the fullness of time, we will look back on the establishment in Europe of the “Right to be Forgotten” and the EU’s more recent invalidation of the Safe Harbor doctrine as early milestones in a gradual reckoning with the true dimensions of this challenge.

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