Politics dictionary

surveillance capitalism

[ ser-vey-luhns kap-i-tl-iz-uhm ]

What is surveillance capitalism?

Surveillance capitalism is a term for the form or aspect of capitalism primarily based on the collection and sale (and other use) of personal data to generate profit.

The word surveillance in the term refers to large-scale collection of personal data by corporate digital networks. Much of what’s considered surveillance capitalism centers around the sale of personal data—about a person’s activities, preferences, and health, among other things—to advertisers for use in targeted ads. The commodification of such data also involves more indirect ways of generating profit.

Methods of data collection include the mass-scale data gathering done by large tech companies such as Google and Meta (formerly Facebook) as well as many other types of digital tracking, including those that are less visible or even unknown to the people being tracked. Much of this data collection takes place as people engage with (or are somehow tracked by) digital networks during everyday activities, such as web browsing and searching, shopping online (and sometimes even in stores), and using fitness trackers and even some medical equipment.

Those who use the term often argue that surveillance capitalism is pervasive and dangerous due to the actual and potential consequences of collecting and selling vast amounts of personal data. Such data is also leveraged by corporate entities to develop algorithms and prediction models that can be used to attempt to predict and influence public opinion and behavior.

For these reasons, surveillance capitalism often raises concerns about privacy and the threats that large-scale data gathering can pose to democracy and its systems and institutions.

Related words

FISA, stonks, forever chemicals

Where does surveillance capitalism come from?

surveillance camera

In the term surveillance capitalism, the word capitalism refers to a market-based economy. The word surveillance is meant to indicate that it’s the form of capitalism (or an aspect of capitalism in general) that centers around the tracking and collection of personal data, often without people’s knowledge. In other words, it’s capitalism in which data is the central and most valued commodity.

The term surveillance capitalism was coined by author Shoshana Zuboff, who first wrote about the concept in 2014 and made it the topic of her 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

According to Zuboff, surveillance capitalism was “invented by Google in 2001,” which is likely a reference to the fact that Google first began profiting from advertising revenue that year.

Awareness of the term surveillance capitalism and the concept it refers to have steadily increased since 2014 along with concerns about personal data collection and privacy.

Examples of surveillance capitalism

You know, one scary thing that nobody tells you about becoming a father is that...all of a sudden your commercials change to baby stuff on Hulu. Surveillance capitalism is real, folks.
@DZRishmawy, July 2021
In essence, surveillance capitalism is a process that relies on the constant gathering of online data by tech companies. The data that is generated is the byproduct of our everyday web browsing, app usage, and digital consumption — the videos we watch, the memes we react to, and the news that we consume.
Ayaan Shams Siddiquee, The Daily Star, June 2022

Who uses surveillance capitalism?

The term surveillance capitalism is most often used in critical contexts, especially by those focused on its consequences for privacy and democracy.

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of surveillance capitalism like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of surveillance capitalism that will help our users expand their word mastery.