The 21st century has been profoundly shaped by the silent infrastructure of the surveillance economy, which sweeps up every last crumb of data our daily lives leave behind. These data points are collected and pieced together to create individual profiles of us. Profiles that can be leased to advertisers hungry for our attention, shared with governments for investigative purposes, and sold on to shady data brokers.
Our digital products and services have stopped working for us. Instead, we’re unwittingly working for them. We’re ranked, rated, profiled – programmed to act in ways we otherwise wouldn’t.
Forget having nothing to hide. The internet activity of every human being has become a hot commodity. Our data is being churned into an industry that’s worth more than oil. And it’s being used against us. To capture our attention, our money, and our votes. To predict what we’ll do next, and to influence our behaviour.
If information is power, and we’ve lost control of our information, what are we left with?
The internet once seemed like an endless horizon of possibility. A place for connection, for serendipity, for experimentation. A space not beholden to profit.
Today’s internet looks very different – having been captured by the market forces of the surveillance economy, whose fuel is every detail our personal lives. Though companies claim the purpose of data collection is to improve their services, so we shrug it off as a compromise for convenience, and hope that the law will take care of it.
Yet governments around the world have been slow to regulate. And many have implemented their own mass surveillance programs in the name of national security – listening in on communications, coercing companies to open their data troves, automating policing and court processes, implementing social credit systems, and rolling out facial recognition programs. In the process, they have turned law-abiding citizens into suspects without cause.
The loss of control over our data has been a slippery slope of decline. Much of it has happened without our knowledge or consent – but it’s become our problem, both individually and collectively.
What we’re losing is nothing less than our individual autonomy. Open democratic societies require vigorous debate and the free exchange of ideas. Constant monitoring robs us of the ability to selectively reveal ourselves to the world. It pushes us towards conformism instead of respecting individuality and difference. Knowing that our words and actions are being permanently recorded makes us less likely to think critically, speak up for what we believe in, experiment with new ideas and to flourish as human beings.
Maybe we haven’t yet been personally targeted, hacked, or discriminated against. But in this volatile climate, where everything can change in the click of a refresh button, the rights we have today aren’t a given. And the more we take them for granted, the more it harms the billions of people around the world who are already vulnerable: Minorities and marginalised communities, journalists, activists, lawyers, dissenters, citizens of authoritarian regimes, democracy advocates.
We can’t choose to opt out of the global surveillance society we’ve become subject to. But it’s not going to fix itself either.
What we can do is claim our agency. To equip ourselves with digital tools that allow us to regain a degree of control. To share strategies, spread the word, and take a stand. To let governments and tech companies know that privacy is not an inevitable sacrifice for progress. Not a trade-off for national security. Not a last-century value. And certainly not dead.
Around the world, a growing movement of individuals and organizations is coming together to counter the status quo. To assert their rights, and to speak up for those who don’t can’t. To resist the relentless data economy. To hold accountable those who abuse their power. And to keep fighting: For a human-centred internet, for the thriving of democracy, and for a future free from surveillance.