Is surveillance capitalism better than a surveillance state? And does anyone really care?
First Published by Daily Maverick 168
South Africans have rightly been worried that downloading the government’s Covid-19 app might impinge on their personal privacy.
They should be worried – everybody should be – but that horse has bolted. Your data is probably already on the internet whether you knew it, or liked it, or not.
If it wasn’t part of the cache of 24 million South Africans and 800,000 businesses that were part of the Experian data breach last month, then they were hoovered up in the so-called masterdeeds cache in 2018, when the personal data of an estimated 60 million South Africans was found in an unsecured database.
The personal details of every South African, living and dead, was thought to be in that masterdeeds database. Last month’s Experian hack – or perhaps we should call it “con” given they’ve admitted they were duped into giving all this data to a “fraudster” who impersonated a real customer – was arguably much more current data. That it was Experian, the Irish-based credit agency, the largest in the world, which handed over an entire country’s economically active citizenry, just makes it worse.
To add insult to injury, really, is that the very act designed to protect us from this kind of thing – the years-delayed Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI) – was only law from 1 July this year. And companies have a one-year grace period to comply.
South Africans are just beginning to comprehend that digital personal data hygiene is now as important as washing your hands in the real world.
Can it track you?
The government hopes their Covid-19 tracing app will help people who get infected anonymously to alert anyone they were in contact with.
Gaurang Tanna, the app’s technical lead at the department of health, says it’s safe for three reasons: there is no registration (so you don’t give over your details), the app doesn’t use GPS, so it doesn’t know where you are; and it’s built using the exposure notification framework created by Apple and Google. The data is anonymised and secret keys are generated.
If someone tests positive, it only notifies other users of the date they were exposed: not even the time, he says, so individuals can’t be identified and victimised.
The app communicates through Bluetooth, specifically Bluetooth low energy, which uses “an almost negligible quantity of battery power”, he says.
But here is the problem, and one which you’d think our own government would know about. The mass of people who are travelling on public transport – on taxis, trains and buses – and who need this contact tracing arguably the most, generally don’t turn on their Bluetooth or WiFi. Why? Because it drains battery life. If you travel the distances most working class people do, anything that drains your battery is turned off. If any senior government officials caught public transport more often, they might know this.
A more pertinent question, which always has to be asked with the ANC in government, is: who built the app and how much did it cost? The gruelling party has developed a class of tenderpreneurs who can smell a PPE tender through the thickest cloth mask at a thousand paces.
Next, what exactly will the government do with all the data it has collected?
For the past few months, parents dropping off pupils at schools have been filling in literally millions of paper-based forms (with innumerable bits of relevant data on them – from names, address, and phone numbers to temperatures and travel details). But how is any of this ever going to be digitised?
This is the same government where the Gauteng health department (of the shameful Life Esidimeni tragedy) “inadvertently” awarded an R873-million tender to a businessman this month after he had quoted R87-million. That’s an alleged R800-million typo, according to the Sunday Times. Guess what – he just happens to be a former chair of the ANC Sandton branch.
Or the Eastern Cape department of health, which awarded a R1-million PPE tender to an East London man who had been dead for two years.
These are the departments which are supposed to do something with the data from the app. Mr Bean couldn’t get a job there.
The great irony is that we have been giving our data away, quite willingly, to a horde of data thieves with a voracious appetite for gorging on every personal detail of our loves, our likes, our dislikes, our passions, political persuasions and choice of which brand for whatever product. They are digital vampires. Digital bloodsuckers. Or, as we generally call them, Facebook and Google.
Bloodsuckers is a term of non-endearment given to mosquitoes who literally live off us. It’s an appropriate metaphor for the social networks living off our digital lifeblood; our online activity.
There’s a reason it’s called surveillance capitalism. Forget George Orwell’s 1984 fears about the government spying on us. It’s the social networks – and we handed them the keys to our private castles with glee.
In exchange for feeling like we’re “connected”, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat and all the other social networks show us endless snippets of “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure” as the creator of the Facebook Like button, Justin Rosenstein, described the now famous thumbs-up emoji in 2016.
The state of social media manipulation of our lives, and the indirect consequences of poor mental health and depression, are finally becoming widely known – ironically due to another US company whose algorithm is its secret sauce: Netflix.
Its new documentary, The Social Dilemma, has painted a picture of how Facebook, Google and Twitter have grown into the giants they are by purposefully tapping into our behaviour to get us addicted to checking for a new Instagram post, new tweet, new YouTube video. Social media has weaponised our own nature for its own needs – to generate vast profits.
“If the product is free, you’re the product,” former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris reminds us in the documentary. Describing his work there, he says: “Never before in history have 50 designers made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people.”
This month Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi, a vocal critic of Big Tech, slammed Facebook for its role in the 2016 presidential election debacle and the ongoing scandal around the QAnon right-wing conspiracy theory. Part of QAnon’s outlandish allegations are that the Democratic Party is involved in child sex trafficking.
“I don’t know how the Facebook board of directors or their top employees can look at themselves in the mirror,” said Pelosi. “Their business plan is to make money off of poison, and that’s the path they have chosen to go.”
Rock, meet hard place
Whether your data is harvested by a Facebook affiliate like Cambridge Analytica, or handed over in the millions by a credit agency to a “suspected fraudster”, or anonymously used on a Covid-19 tracing app, it’s still our data that we’ve got no control over.
The key question is: who do you trust more with your data? The government or Facebook? More accurately, who do you fear more? Is surveillance capitalism better than a surveillance state?
Does anyone really care?
Until 2016, it seemed the most Facebook and social media could do was waste time showing you funny cat videos and snooping on old school friends. Until it was weaponised and used to subvert democracy; to fill the world with hate speech, misogyny, antisemitism, crazy conspiracy theories, anti vaxxers, white supremacists; to stoke racial hatred and regional tensions. All the social media giants are guilty of this: Facebook (including its Messenger and WhatsApp messaging apps), Instagram, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube.
Ironically, South Africans seem more worried about the government’s Covid-19 app than the social networks and their surveillance capitalism. To use a safari metaphor: it’s like being afraid of the baby elephant when you haven’t noticed the mother charging down on you. Until it’s too late. DM/BM
Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.