Google and surveillance capitalism
Religion & Liberty Online

Google and surveillance capitalism

Business Insider reported last week that Google failed to disclose the existence of a microphone in their home security system, NestSecure.

This came as a surprise to many Nest customers who complained that they were not informed that the security system even had a microphone. Google apologized, saying it was an error.

A Google spokesman told Business Insider:

“The on-device microphone was never intended to be a secret and should have been listed in the tech specs. That was an error on our part. The microphone has never been on, and is only activated when users specifically enable the option.

Security systems often use microphones to provide features that rely on sound sensing. We included the mic on the device so that we can potentially offer additional features to our users in the future, such as the ability to detect broken glass.”

Perhaps it was an error, at best a careless manifestation of Google’s intrusive data collection, but it also appears to be a pattern for companies like Google and Facebook who have habituated themselves to ignore privacy concerns.


Surveillance Capitalism

Failure to disclose information is a recurring theme for Google, as Harvard Emeritus Professor Shoshana Zuboff explains in her new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

Zuboff argues that while we often tend to blame technology, the bigger problem is the underlying model of how business is approached.

She writes:

“That surveillance capitalism is a logic in action and not a technology is a vital point because surveillance capitalists want us to think that their practices are inevitable expressions of the technologies they employ. For example in 2009 the public first became aware that Google maintains our search history is in definitely data that are available as raw material supplies are also available to intelligence in law enforcement agencies when questioned about these practices the corporation’s former CEO Eric Schmidt mused “The reality is that search engines including Google to retain this information for some time.”

Note the lack of responsibility and blaming of technology for human decisions.  As Zuboff rightly notes—it was not the search engine that retained the information—it was people who own and manage the servers who did it.  It was a human decision.

Zuboff argues that the type of argument employed by Schmidt makes the practices of surveillance capitalism appear to be “inevitable when they are actually meticulously calculated and lavishly funded means to self-dealing commercial ends.”

As Jaron Lanier has explained in his book, 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, much of this type of surveillance capitalism comes from the model of free services that require ads to make a profit.  This free service model set the stage for intrusive data collection and behavior modification.


The Myth of Progress

But it is more than just a broken economic model. As I wrote in a review of Lanier’s book, this is a reflection of a larger philosophical problem.

There is a lot going on, but it is worth highlighting two philosophical problems dominating Silicon Valley that help explain the tendency toward surveillance and behavior modification:

  • Empiricist Rationality
  • The Primacy of the Technical

Limiting Reason 

Empiricist rationalism holds that for anything to be “reasonable” it must be measurable and empirically verifiable. Anything that is not empirical is relegated outside the realm of reason. That means that fundamental human and moral questions about good, truth, beauty, right, wrong, just or unjust cannot be dealt with in a rational manner.

Love is reduced to a feeling or a chemical or neurological reaction. Right and wrong are reduced to personal opinion, and more often whatever is fashionable. Or morally right simply becomes whatever I can justify, which, as we all know, easily becomes pretty much about anything we want.

Primacy of the Technical

The primacy of the technical manifests itself in two ways. First is the idea that all problems are ultimately technical problems, even life, love, and death itself.

Second, and more directly related to the problem of surveillance capitalism, is the idea that technical competence determines moral justification, i.e., if something can be done, it is allowable. Look around at eugenics, population control, in vitro fertilization, gene editing, and cloning. As Benedict XVI explained in Spe Salvi, progress has been turned into a myth that has no limits.  But progress without a moral limits is at best ambiguous.  Benedict XVI writes:

Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.

I am not suggesting that no one in Silicon Valley is worrying about these problems. But it is hard to wrestle with the problems of technology and ethics when reason is limited to the empirical.


Can We Have Technology Without Intrusion?

It’s really not a big surprise that a techno-utopian culture that is stuck in the hall of mirrors that is empiricism would engage in intrusive data collection for power and profit.  As I’ve said before, when a group of philosophical materialists have “don’t be evil” as a moral code, run for the hills.

So the question is, can we have technology without intrusion?

That is the hope of people like Lanier. That’s my hope too.  But it won’t happen as long as companies like Facebook and Google continue to embrace “surveillance capitalism.” Nor will it happen as long as the free service model continues, and allows for no real responsibility from business. Most especially, it will not happen as long as empiricist rationality and the primacy of the technical continue to dominate our philosophical and moral landscape.




Michael Matheson Miller

Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute