The new Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, was released on 9 September, and has started a few conversations about social media and the influences it has in the modern day. The documentary highlights some of the most pressing problems people face regarding personal information, including data mining, social media addiction, and fake news. The Guardian, however, describes this documentary as “a valiant if flawed attempt to address our complacency about surveillance capitalism”.
The term “surveillance capitalism” is described in the article “Explainer: What is surveillance capitalism” on theconversation. com as a market for the commodity that is personal data. The article credits Professor Shoshana Zuboff as the academic who coined this term in 2014.
Prof. Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, describes surveillance capitalism as “a new economic order” in an article on The Guardian. Prof Zuboff explains that algorithms and mathematical calculations are used by businesses to find out the maximum they can extract from users in an exchange. The power that these businesses have over individuals is described as “an assault on human autonomy” by Prof Zuboff. The Social Dilemma also features comments by Prof Zuboff and adds that, when an app is free, “you are the product”. Personal data is collected through every action a user takes, and this process of collecting data is known as data mining.
“The term “surveillance capitalism” is described…as a market for the commodity that is personal data.“
Data mining is defined on Investopedia.com as “a process used by companies to turn raw data into useful information”. This information is used to design better marketing strategies, and it can also be used to influence the results prioritised by search engines and the ads that appear on social media feeds. Investopedia explains the process using the example of a loyalty card. Loyalty cards are marketed to individuals as a way to get access to special prices that non-members do not have access to. Companies can keep track of who is buying what and how much of it through the data collected by this system. The Social Dilemma focuses specifically on how data mining is used by social media platforms to predict the behavioural patterns of their users, and utilise the information to keep users engaged. With enough data, a platform knows what to show to users and when to show it, in order to keep users scrolling for as long as possible.
Consumer Notice emphasises the fact that data mining is commonly confused with data breaches. On their official website, they explain that “data breaches happen when sensitive information is copied, viewed, stolen or used by someone who was not supposed to have it or use it”. In 2018, The New York Times reported that Facebook has shared users’ personal data with more than 150 tech companies. In the same year, the Cambridge Analytica scandal became public. Cambridge Analytica collected data through a personality quiz app on Facebook. Consumer Notice explained that, by downloading the app, users gave the company access to the personal information of all their Facebook friends. Facebook has since added a feature that allows users to see if any banned app has accessed personal information.
Although surveillance capitalism is a worldwide phenomenon, the legislation that governs the processes of data mining differ for every country. The Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI) is an Act that was assented to by Parliament in 2014 in South Africa. This Act addresses issues relating to the processing of personal information. According to the official website, popia.co.za, the aim of the Act is “to promote the protection of personal information processed by public and private bodies”. The summary of the Act mentions that another aim is “to provide for the rights of persons regarding unsolicited electronic communications and automated decision-making”. Even though companies are not prohibited from processing personal data, they are required by POPI to obtain prior authorisation.
“The Social Dilemma focuses specifically on how data mining is used by social media platforms to predict the behavioural patterns of their users, and utilise the information to keep users engaged“
This legislation helps protect users’ personal information, but it remains the duty of the user to be vigilant. Many apps and websites ask permission to access data, and, in these scenarios, it is always important to research exactly what information the app is requesting access to. Consumer Notice advises individuals to adjust the privacy settings of apps and, most importantly, “don’t click agree unless you’re willing to agree with all the terms”.
One of the key speakers on The Social Dilemma, Tristan Harris, co-founded the Center for Humane Technology after noticing the ethical problems surrounding data mining. The computer scientist was referred to as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” and now continues to educate the world about the reality of data mining and other tech-related threats. The Center for Humane Technology was started in 2018, and, according to their official website, they “articulate the problem, its diagnosis and the path toward a new era of truly humane technology”.
Personal information is a valuable commodity in this technological era. While the measures to protect users from exploitation are being developed, the value of this commodity keeps growing.