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Shoshana Zuboff: ‘Privacy has been extinguished. It is now a zombie'

January 30, 2023

Excerpts of Interview in the UK Financial Times

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” ...

Today (in January 2023) 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.”

“It is possible to have surveillance capitalism, and it is possible to have a democracy. It is not possible to have both,” she has written.

“Users have no say”

Individuals realistically cannot 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 an online safety bill. Zuboff wants these to be stepping stones.


(FT) 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.... She mulls each detail.

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. 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.” 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.”

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 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...

(S)he 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.

(What does she think) 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... 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....

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. 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.


Yes, they're following you...

Surveillance Capitalism

Surveillance capitalism is an economic system centred around the commodification of personal data with the core purpose of profit-making. The concept of surveillance capitalism, as described by Shoshana Zuboff, arose as advertising companies, led by Google's AdWords, saw the possibilities of using personal data to target consumers more precisely.[1]

Increased data collection may have various advantages for individuals and society such as self-optimization (Quantified Self),[2]...

societal optimizations (such as by smart cities) and optimized services (including various web applications). However, collecting and processing data in the context of capitalism's core profit-making motive might present a danger to human liberty, autonomy and wellbeing. Capitalism has become focused on expanding the proportion of social life that is open to data collection and data processing. This may come with significant implications for vulnerability and control of society as well as for privacy.

Economic pressures of capitalism are driving the intensification of connection and monitoring online with spaces of social life becoming open to saturation by corporate actors, directed at the making of profit and/or the regulation of action. Therefore, personal data points increased in value after the possibilities of targeted advertising were known.[3]

Consequently, the increasing price of data has limited accessibility to the purchase of personal data points to the richest in society.

Read more:


Capitalism, surveillance, digital technologies, democracy, collective action, twenty-first-century society, social inequality, power, internet, surveillance capitalism


See also:

Commercialization of the Internet -

Criticism of capitalism -

Data mining -

Free and open-source software -

Mass surveillance industry -

Surveillance § Corporate -

Targeted advertising -

Privacy concerns with social networking services -

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Digital Rights

Digital Rights @GreenPolicy360

Digital Rights/Wikipedia

Internet Privacy/Wikipedia


American Principles Project -

Atlantic -



BSA/The Software Alliance -


Cloudflare -


Daily Dot -

Digital Bill of Rights -


Economist -

Esquire -


Fast Company Labs -

Fox -



Ghostery -

Guardian -


Hackers News Bulletin -

Hunton Privacy Blog -


Inside Counsel -



Linkis (Ridder) 'You Leave a Trail w/ Everything You Do Online', Fix This with Linkis - (video)




New America Foundation/Kevin Bankston -

NPR/On Point -


Online Magna Carta -

Online Publishers Association -

Open Architecture Network -

Open Technology Institute -

Open Internet Tools Project


Pando -


PC World -

Pew Institute -

ProPublica -


Reader Supported News -

Reset the Net -


Save the Net -

SearchNet Networking -

Section 215/"Patriot Act" -,_Title_II

Section 702/"FISA" -

Social Concept Consulting -


TechDirt -

The Hill -

ThinkProgress -


UN / The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age-June 2014 -


VentureBeat -

Vox -

Web We Want -

Wim – If You’re Not Paying for It, then You’re the Product -

Wired - How to Save the Net -