‘Privacy has been extinguished. It is now a zombie’

Interview: Professor Shoshanna Zuboff, who predicted that computers would change our lives, demands a right to sanctuary from data ‘theft’

These are uncertain times for Silicon Valley. Tech companies are firing staff who they hired in the pandemic.

Twitter, under Elon Musk, has repelled advertisers. Apple, a self-proclaimed privacy champion, wants to reduce the reach of Google. It’s possible to imagine that the digital wild west will become more genteel.

Yet for the critics of Big Tech, there is little relief. Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emerita at Harvard Business School, published The Age of Surveillance Capitalism in 2019 – a blast about how tech companies had made billions of dollars by sucking up private data. “We thought we were searching Google, but Google was searching us,” she summarised.

Today she’s frustrated that efforts to restrain tech companies are so fragmented. “We have fantastic scholars, researchers, advocates who are focused on privacy, others who are focused on disinformation, others who are focused on the nexus with democracy,” she says, when we meet in London.


This “Balkanisation” reduces the ability to pinpoint the “actual source of harm”: people’s data is treated as a costless resource, just as forests and other parts of nature were in centuries past.

Zuboff cites data that, in the US, which has no federal privacy law, people have their location exposed 747 times a day. In the EU, which she says has the “best regulation”, it’s 376. “It’s better, but it’s not nearly better enough.”

Mark Zuckerberg once promised you that a predictive model would tell you, on arriving in a strange city, which bar to go to and a bartender would already have prepared your favourite drink. That dream has faded only on the basis of practicality, not principle.

In a paper published in November, Zuboff argued that Apple and Google had strong-armed European health officials over Covid tracing technology. “It is possible to have surveillance capitalism, and it is possible to have a democracy. It is not possible to have both,” she wrote. Apple had created the illusion of acting as Robin Hood, when only democratic oversight could protect individual rights.

ChatGPT has shaken us up. It has shocked people, forcing us to recognise how far AI has come, with virtually no law and democratic governance to shape or constrain its development and application.

She sees its move against Google as simply an “expansion” of surveillance capitalism. Tim Cook’s promises to protect privacy can be withdrawn any time: “Users have no say.”

Tech surveillance matters, Zuboff argues, because it robs us of “life-sustaining inwardness”. Nor can individuals realistically opt out by themselves. What we need is a right to sanctuary.

Last year Brussels introduced the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, its most comprehensive tech legislation to date. The UK parliament is currently debating the online safety bill. Zuboff wants these to be stepping stones.

Normally in newspaper interviews, the journalist asks questions, and the interviewee answers them. An interview with Zuboff is different. You ask questions and, more often than not, she responds with first principles – step-by-step explanations of how she believes that surveillance capitalism has taken hold this century.

Zuboff is particular about how her ideas are described, about how things are set up, about what pen she uses. She mulls each detail. “Is it distracting for you if I stand? I’ll sit down. I usually walk and talk,” she says, when we start.

This particular mind is, in tech terminology, a feature, not a bug. It enables Zuboff to take the long view. In 1988, she published In the Age of the Smart Machine, which argued that computers would change companies in a way that previous technologies had not. She later ran Odyssey, a Harvard Business School education programme to help successful people decide how to spend the later part of their lives.

We’re two decades into the digital era but we have never, as democracies, taken stock of the meaning of these technologies.

Her opus on surveillance capitalism was her own late-career flourish. It was published when she was 67, after a lightning strike had burnt down her family home in Maine and after the unexpected death of her husband and sometime co-author, the businessman Jim Maxmin.

Zuboff argues that tech companies knew that the public would never support their data collection. “Right from the start, they were understood as things that had to be secret, had to be camouflaged from users, lest they provoke resistance.” She quotes a recent Google executive as saying: “Won’t it creep people out to know how much we are paying attention?”

Today tech companies “are becoming much more reluctant to patent their discoveries, because they don’t want the public to know exactly what they’re doing. They’re no longer in most cases making their own data available to researchers.”

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So Zuboff sees the need for a regulatory fishing expedition. The EU’s tech laws will create “new cadres of people with new mixes of skills that are going to go inside the corporations. Their brief will be to lift the hood, to understand what’s really going on. One of the huge problems that we have is that most of the information that comes out of the companies is intentionally designed to be misleading. Gaslighting is a rhetorical art form that is genuinely practised by these companies.”

On the spot

How do you control your own data? I do everything that a person can do. I use encrypted services, I use a VPN. I rarely deploy apps on my phone unless absolutely necessary.

Will tech companies sue the EU over new regulations? The standard MO is litigation. They want to tie individuals, agencies, groups up in court for as long as possible. They have the capital to be able to do that. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023

Zuboff rarely uses short answers or plain terminology. Nonetheless, she is direct about content moderation – companies’ attempts to remove harmful content – which she describes as “quicksand ... an utterly losing proposition, designed in fact to keep us occupied as long as possible so that they can keep getting away with what they’re really doing.”

She is more positive about age-appropriate design, where platforms are engineered to minimise harm to children and to collect less data from them. The UK pioneered age-appropriate design, but after Brexit will miss out on Brussels’ “more muscular power” against surveillance capitalism, says Zuboff. She also sees “a move to weaken and denature the existing data protection regime with a data protection bill that favours the big tech companies and perpetuates the misbegotten idea that democracy must get out of the way.”

The problem for privacy advocates is that their cause seems to offer too few advantages and too many drawbacks. For most European citizens, the biggest impact of privacy legislation is annoying cookies pop-ups. Regulation seems impractical: the UK and France have both wanted to place age limits on porn sites, but have so far failed to find effective ways of doing so.

Similarly, Zuboff criticises Apple and Google for taking control of Covid tracing, but what if their system simply worked better than the centralised ones favoured by European health officials? She laughs at the suggestion. But she admits regulation is hindered “because we can’t get inside [tech companies] to know what’s really going on. We’re regulating with blinders on ... We don’t understand our adversary well enough.”

Zuboff insists that her attack is not against technology itself, but the economic logic that underpins it – “theft”. She holds out the possibility that we could use data and prediction for the common good.

The counterargument is that there are basic trade-offs. Tech services, whether for predicting text answers or the fastest driving routes, can only work by accumulating data and reducing our privacy.

I ask what she makes of Musk’s ownership of Twitter. “We’ve got politicians, lawmakers, elected officials, as well as the entire citizenry, focused on one man and asking the question, ‘what will he do?’ Our political stability, our ability to know what’s true and what false, our health and to some degree our sanity, is challenged on a daily basis depending on which decisions Mr Musk decides to take. I regard this as fundamentally intolerable . . . These spaces cannot exist solely under corporate control . . . We’re two decades into the digital era but we have never, as democracies, taken stock of the meaning of these technologies.”

In an information civilisation, our information spaces must exist under public law and be governed by democratic institutions ...

Musk has put Donald Trump back on Twitter. The former US president’s suspension from Facebook will end “in the coming weeks”, its parent company has said. Zuboff is aghast. “It should not be a decision that belongs to individuals such as Musk or Zuckerberg or anyone else.” The implications for democracy are too great.

“In an information civilisation, our information spaces must exist under public law and be governed by democratic institutions . . . With luck and determination we will look back on the days of the information oligarchs like Musk and Zuckerberg as the first primitive missteps of a new civilisation.”

She compares the west’s tech giants to China’s surveillance state. “This is a world in which privacy has been extinguished. Privacy is now a zombie category. None of us have privacy, even as we thought about it in the year 2000.”

Her sense of dystopia is visceral. “Somebody just invented a type of paint that you can put on your face that confounds facial recognition. Young people on Reddit are very excited about this. This is terrible, Henry!”

The abolition of surveillance capitalism requires new laws that allow societies to decide “what becomes data in the first place, what we share, with whom, and to what purpose”.

Instead, tech marches onwards, particularly in the form of artificial intelligence. “ChatGPT has shaken us up. It has shocked people, forcing us to recognise how far AI has come, with virtually no law and democratic governance to shape or constrain its development and application.” AI’s development has relied on stealing human data, she argues.

She points hopefully to the EU’s proposed AI Act – “the first law to assert democratic governance over the application of AI”. But it’s hard not to feel that, even when Silicon Valley stumbles, it is still a step ahead.