Week of 16 November 2020
Your smart TV is probably watching you as you watch it, and Facebook almost definitely knows you better than you know yourself. Welcome to the era of “surveillance capitalism”, where our personal experiences are being converted into behavioural data and monetised. How did we get here and what can we do about it? Let’s take a Deep Dive.

🗃️ Surveillance capitalism is the commoditisation of our personal information. Capturing our data and selling it to the highest bidder is often how "free" service providers such as search engines and social media platforms make their revenue—we are the product. 

🛍️ Some of the data is used to improve user experience, but much of it is sold to companies eager to know and influence our current and future needs. The issue lies with tech companies seeing our private data as a free resource for the taking—often without our consent. 

⚖️ Surveillance capitalism tips the scale of knowledge, power and wealth in favour of the information collectors. Critics say it could one day eliminate happenstance and human agency, especially if it works with processes that we heavily rely on in our day-to-day lives.


“Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us. Once we thought of digital services as free, but now surveillance capitalists think of us as free.”

— Shoshana Zuboff, author, professor, social psychologist, philosopher and scholar




700,000 In 2012, Facebook secretly conducted an experiment on nearly 700,000 of its users to see if having certain emotional words in their newsfeed would impact their status updates or posts they like after.

US$2.2 million TV maker Vizio was fined US$2.2 million in 2017 after it was found to have not properly sought the permission of its users to collect and resell information on their viewing habits.

US$19 billion In 2018, American companies spent some US$19 billion to acquire and analyse customer data.

10 million In 2019, it was revealed that Microsoft has a facial recognition training database containing more than 10 million images of nearly 100,000 people that it plucked from the internet without consent. 


According to a survey, what percentage of Internet of Things (IoT) users are fine with seeing advertising on their devices, presumably in return for lower prices?

A. 55 percent
B. 65 percent
C. 75 percent

Scroll to the bottom of the email for the answer.


Google is said to have invented surveillance capitalism in 2001, in response to growing investor pressure following the dot-com bubble bursting in 2000. The tech giant began harvesting surplus information about its users, on top of other information such as their web-browsing activities, to predict their interests and target them with related advertisements. 

At the same time, between 2001 and 2004, the year Google filed for a US$2.7 billion IPO, the technology giant saw its revenue surge by 3,590 percent.  


5 Stories To Get You Up To Speed
  1. 'The Goal Is To Automate Us': Welcome To The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism
    The Guardian

  2. High Tech Is Watching You
    The Harvard Gazette
  3. You Are Now Remotely Controlled
    The New York Times
  4. The Internet Of Things Will Bring The Internet's Business Model Into The Rest Of The World
    The Economist
  5. How Silicon Valley's 'Surveillance Capitalism' Is Enriching Its Leaders And Making Us Their Pawns
    South China Morning Post


How Tech Giants Follow Us Around The Internet

 The Financial Times’ global business columnist Rana Foroohar discusses how surveillance capitalism has altered the way influence is asserted today


From refrigerators to cars, smart gadgets are a gold mine of user data—and they are becoming increasingly essential in our daily lives. As we advance deeper into an IoT world, what will become of our privacy? The chart below shows how complicated the situation is already, with the word count of the fine print for smart gadgets typically hitting the thousands. 

The Economist


At the latest edition of the Gen.T Stream virtual conference, data scientist Christopher Wylie, who is perhaps best known as a whistle-blower in the 2018 Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal, discussed the power of data and how companies can use it to tackle social and environmental issues.


The Expert To Know

Shoshana Zuboff
It was retired professor Shoshana Zuboff who coined the term “surveillance capitalism”. In her pivotal book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, which was published in 2019, she described the concept as unilaterally claiming “human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data”. Zuboff was one of the first tenured women at the Harvard Business School as well as the youngest woman to receive an endowed chair.


An Honouree To Know

Stephanie Sy
Stephanie Sy founded data science consultancy Thinking Machines, which builds machine learning models for private and public organisations such as the World Bank and Unicef. Her ultimate mission is to use AI to make us all happier and healthier.



Did you miss our Deep Dive on Could The Revival Of Home Workouts Kill Gyms? Read it here


Gotta Catch ’Em All
Who would have thought that we would actually be pawns for profit in Pokémon Go—an innocuous game that has been downloaded more than a billion times? While we attempt to catch the imaginary creatures we've loved since childhood, we're also being herded to places like McDonald’s and Starbucks that have paid the game for footfall. 


The Future Of Retail

That's it for this issue. Have a productive week!

The Deep Dive is a weekly close-up look at an idea, issue or trend that’s shaping Asia’s future. This issue was written by Chong Seow Wei, with editing and production by Samantha Topp and Lee Williamson.

We’d love to know what you think of this issue, and future topics you’d like us to cover. Please send your comments to And if you missed it, don’t forget to check out last week’s Deep Dive, on Could The Revival Of Home Workouts Kill Gyms.

The answer to the quiz is B (65 percent).

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