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Surveillance Technology Expert Issues Dire Warning About Tech Company Power

“It is imperative for the government to rein in technology firms and their “surveillance economy” that stifles economic development and threatens democracy,” Harvard Business School professor Emerita Shoshana Zuboff told the Maryland Cybersecurity Council. She said there must be regulation over how these huge firms collect private data from individuals and sell it.

“You will not stop the internet, and you will not stop technologies. No one can,” Zuboff said at the council’s June 16 meeting. “But you can stop surveillance capitalism, and it’s not actually that difficult.”

Zuboff, the author of “The Age of Surveillance Technology: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power,” said the average American’s online activity and location are exposed 747 times a day.  

The Maryland Cybersecurity Council, charged with protecting the state from cybersecurity threats, has been examining whether state law is needed to provide internet privacy protection to consumers. The council is composed of top Maryland government administration officials and lawmakers and is chaired by Attorney General Brian Frosh. University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) staffs the council’s administrative operations and contributes to its policy research. 

As far back as 1997, Zuboff told the council members, a Clinton-Gore administration report on eCommerce concluded that the face of the future was private technology, which would lead to economic development without being impeded by the government. Just three years later, the Federal Trade Commission warned that self-regulation of the internet industry was not going to work. It submitted to Congress basic privacy legislation, Zuboff said. However, the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred and, within 24 hours, “the conversation on Capitol Hill shifted from one about privacy and the internet to one about total information awareness and the internet.”

Mining of personal information began during the 2001 dot-com meltdown, she said, as technology companies searched for ways to make money. In the heat of that financial emergency, Google realized that every human internet touchpoint leaves behavioral traces that can be mined for information that people never intended to share. That information carried great value for advertisers.

“Everyone involved understood that for surveillance capitalism to succeed, privacy must fall, and fall it did,” Zuboff said.” And still, I wake up every morning shocked that we gave up all this for something as banal as online, targeted advertising.”

These privacy invasions were not made illegal, she said, because politicians and economists were captured by economic ideology that favored markets over the public sphere. Tech companies were fast and innovative while the government was slow and hindered development.

It’s the same argument made in the late 19th century when industrialists opposed government regulations to stop monopolies, even as monopolies stifled innovation.  

“We’re talking about an economic logic that has funneled the profits to a very narrow sector,” Zuboff said. “They have the capability to modify behavior on a collective scale, so our society has become more or less angry, more or less polarized, more or less radicalized.”

She said this “complete dominance” of knowledge production and artificial intelligence will eventually allow tech companies to control infrastructure, systems, and networks, enabling them to bully governments into following their will. 

“If we really want to release the economy and the economic power of the digital, then we need to get rid of this rogue economic logic,” Zuboff said.

She said the current momentum can be stopped by law and the tech companies know it, which is why they criticize democracy as too slow and maintain that it does not understand what tech is doing.

“What they’re really saying is that we are scared like heck of democracy, because democracy has the one thing that is actually the thing that could kill [tech],” she said. “Democracy has the power to make and enforce law.”

But it won’t be easy, she noted. Legislators should think of their work as a long-term strategy that builds a scaffolding for what comes next.

“The ultimate goal is to interrupt and outlaw the foundational economic operations that have allowed the destruction of privacy and have allowed disinformation, misinformation, corrupt information to become, as the head of the FDA recently said, ‘the largest cause of death in America,’” Zuboff said. “That could not happen had it not been for the destruction of privacy, in our society and around the world.”