surveillance capitalism

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The pandemic and the fragility of democracy are making cyber technologies clearly lean towards exacerbated control. The power diagram that settles is based on authoritative drawings

By Sergio Amadeu da Silveira*

The new coronavirus pandemic has awakened the voracity of surveillance device sellers. People tracking technologies are on the rise. The assumption is that data science will be critical to defeating the invisible enemy. By presuming the success of China and Korea in combating the new coronavirus, political leaders of liberal democracies, from right to left, were delighted with the ability to control digital devices and the statistical modeling of algorithms that extract patterns and make predictions. Cameras, software, sensors, cell phones, applications, detectors are presented as the most sophisticated weapons to fight the virus.

Surveillance and digital espionage companies linked to the repression apparatus of the States with extensive services rendered to the persecution of opponents, attacks on dissidents, combating terrorism, present themselves as saviors of the body of the species. Denounced for the sale of cell phone intrusion devices to dictatorships and intelligence services around the world, the NSO Group realized the opportunity to expand its sales and adhere to humanitarian practices in times of war against the virus.

The NSO corporation developed the spywarand Pegasus, software that penetrates target people's cell phones, allowing them to read text messages, collect passwords, access the microphone and collect other information from the device. Now the corporation cyberwar is offering governments around the world a solution to keep up with the evolution of the new coronavirus by implanting new software in cell phones.

The corporation's representatives claim that their system will allow governments to have a "heat map" showing the paths of the cell phones of those who have been infected. Thus, people can be warned and governments can carry out contagion predictions based on the calculations provided by the system's management software. On the map, cell phones appear with an identifying number. In this way, NSO claims to guarantee the necessary anonymity.

However, it is noticeable that the process of converting cell phone numbers into other numbers that would ensure anonymity can be easily reversed. In addition, the location of displacement in the territory can be carried out with great precision, since governments are requesting telephone data from telecommunications operating companies to feed the NSO system or other companies.

The technology used in mobile devices and the Internet is cybernetic, that is, simultaneously communication and control. The pandemic and the low clarity of the essential conditions of democracy are making cyber technologies clearly lean towards exacerbated control. The power diagram that settles in is based on authoritative designs. Cybernetic technologies accompany each and every individual whether in the open air or in confinement.

They already served to insert us into samples based on interests, behaviors, psychometric profiles and geographic data, obtained from social networking for marketing companies. Platforms like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft have grown up selling samples or targets that should be accurately reached by messages from sellers of products or ideologies. Why not use marketing technologies to fight the pandemic?

Thus, the National Union of Telephony and Cellular and Personal Mobile Service Companies, SindiTelebrasil, informed that the approximately 100 thousand connection antennas of mobile devices that make it possible to detect the movement of these devices in the territory allow extracting data that will be delivered to governments.

This data would be anonymized and would show the clusters of telephones, since Brazilian legislation does not allow the delivery of personal data that identify the owners of these cell phones. Not only geographers and social scientists know that in this moment of social isolation in big cities, buses, subways and trains are the main points of agglomeration, secondarily, markets and hospitals are other places that gather many people. In addition to this knowledge, sanitarians and urban planners know that precarious housing, slums, without water, without basic sanitation, will have great difficulty in applying the advisable sanitary measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

What will the visualization interface with the map of cell phones delivered to governments be for, if it will not be possible to trigger digital policing and security systems here? machine learning to act effectively on identifiable and identified individuals as in China and Korea? Or will subterfuges and exceptions in the name of biopolitics, of saving society, allow the governments here to act like the governments that used cybernetic technologies to make visible the carriers of the invisible Covid-19? But would that be necessary?

City halls know where the large population agglomerations are located in precarious housing. In them, the virus containment activity will require specific measures, not carried out in other countries, due to the singularity of the spatial organization of our cities and the urban designs of exclusion or precarious insertion of the most impoverished segments. In Brazil, social movements can probably collaborate more effectively than surveillance apparatuses in preventing contagion. But, a series of corporations that make their living from intrusion technologies and the data market – which the researcher Shoshana Zuboff named surveillance capitalism – are following the slogan “the crisis brings challenges and opportunities”.

Researcher Rafael Evangelista recently wrote that there are three scenarios for the post-pandemic world. The first would be the one that foresees a return to normality and the overcoming of the crisis in a few months. The second is what involves the intensification of the dispute between the authoritarian world and the defense of democracy. The third is the one who believes in expanding the accelerationist ideal, proposed by the “wizards” of Silicon Valley, which will deepen society's dependence on platforms, uncritically used by different social segments.

Of these three proposed scenarios, the first is just rhetorical and not based on evidence. The third is based not only on speeches, but on the various actions of technology corporations in search of opportunities opened up by the crisis. The second is based on the belief that democratic movements and leftist forces will be able to confront the authoritarian and totalitarian aspects of neoliberalism to a high degree.

The exceptional measures adopted, the so-called “flexibility” of rights, wage cuts, disrespect for basic citizenship principles, privacy violations, to face the virus and the crisis may remain and even expand. Destroying the necessary stability for the public service, the neoliberal dream, already appears to be possible: just claim a situation of extreme need. War communication may become the default for neoliberal leaders. It is currently only adopted by the extreme right. Military techniques known since the times of Hernán Cortés in the conquest of Mexico can be successfully applied. Why not explore more the contradictions and disagreements between social groups to destroy their resistance? Nothing like playing the precariat and those who never had minimal rights against social segments with few rights. Nothing like calling rights that should be universalized privileges. Meanwhile, the wealthy are enjoying themselves with the increased concentration of income, wealth and power.

The defense of democracy cannot wait for the end of the pandemic. As the philosopher Byung Chul Han warned, the virus will not destroy neoliberalism. Everything indicates that digital policing will be able to consolidate itself. The fight against neoliberal totalitarianism cannot be successful if we do not raise our resistance now. The virus of neoliberalism needs to be fought, as it is as or more deadly than the new coronavirus. Its modernizing and accelerationist expressions cannot continue to deceive and numb democratic thinking so much. With social isolation, platforms that collect personal data and sell them on the market in samples for marketing modulation move forward to become not only the great intermediaries of entertainment, but also of Education. This cannot be accepted as something natural, nor as an exceptional solution.

We cannot fail to denounce the governments that will keep elementary education at a distance in a country where 78% of individuals who earn up to the minimum wage access the internet exclusively through cell phones. Of these, the absolute majority have prepaid plans. Also for this reason, the proposal to concentrate the registration of the aid of BRL 600,00 through the “app” of Caixa Econômica Federal is even cynical.

As in Brazil, prepaid was not protected against blocking and disconnection during the pandemic, the poorest will find it difficult to use the cell phone when their franchise is used up. Precisely the most impoverished, homeless people, will be the biggest victims of completing online registration. In addition, more than 20 false information collection applications promoted by criminal militias that also operate in the digital world have already been detected.

Universities should not consider it normal to hand over their teaching systems and their communication structure to North American or Chinese platforms whose business model is to sell samples of profiles obtained based on extracting patterns from their users. With the large number of people taking part now, the platforms will be able to collect information on the actions of educators with their students. They will also be able to clearly capture the academic performance of each student. Such data is valuable for public policies, even more valuable for platforms to improve their possibilities for modulating behaviors, converted into data streams.

We are in a moment of expansion of asymmetries. We live what Mayer-Schoenberger and Cukier called datafication, that is, the transformation of behaviors and actions into data that can be created and captured synchronously and asynchronously so that predictive analyzes can be carried out. Limits must be placed on the data market. We can organize resistance to the formatting of subjectivities by platforms.

We need to think about the reversal, the reconfiguration of this process. It is central to the communication and articulation of contemporary society. We need to think about digital networks for the construction of common practices, to face neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is a decades-long pandemic that has infected even the leftist forces that should be fighting it. Now is the time to increase the social body's resistance to the virus and neoliberalism. We faced at least two pandemics.

* Sergio Amadeu da Silveira is a professor at the Federal University of ABC. PhD in Political Science and researcher of digital networks and information technologies.

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