Surveillance Capitalism: A Threat to Privacy but Golden Egg for Tech Industry

Mar 5 , 2022
By Yehualashet Tamiru Tegegn

Both Karl Marx and Adam Smith never saw that personal data would be an integral part of the production cycle and source of exploitation. In the age of surveillance capitalism, this has changed, writes Yehualashet Tamiru Tegegn (, a lawyer, consultant and researcher.

The right to privacy is long-established. It is the right to be left alone as a negative aspect and self-development as a positive aspect. This right recognises that every person has autonomy and self-determination with respect to their personal data.

Ethiopians as citizens have a great perception towards their privacy.

“In Ethiopia, the privacy of a domicile is jealously guarded," Stanley Z. Fisher, one of the prominent foreign jurists on Ethiopia's legal system, noted. "The many fences put around houses, apart from the protections they afford against thieves and enemies, are also indications of how Ethiopians protect themselves from intruders.”

Clapham notes the same: “The individual home is regarded with great respect. No one, not even a relative, presumes to enter another's home without being properly acknowledged and escorted inside; when possible, private quarters are isolated from those where guests are entertained.”

This is precisely why the right to privacy is well recognised under the Ethiopian legal system starting from the 1955 constitution.

In recent years, we have witnessed the increase of technology-centred businesses in Ethiopia. Transportation and food delivery businesses can be cited as an example. There is a high probability other giant tech-based businesses will join the market sooner or later. This news is exciting for businesses, but also worrisome for data privacy, as we can see from the experience of other countries.

Often, the term privacy is used in legal documents in connection to access to documentary rights. For instance, Ethiopia's constitution enshrines that everyone has the right to the inviolability of their notes and correspondence, including postal letters and communications made through telephone, telecommunications and electronic devices. In a digitalised world, however, data privacy has got a different meaning as the capacity of data subjects or consumers to provide informed consent to the dissemination of their personal information.

The concept of data privacy is a relatively new concept that came onto the scene in the late 20th century with the birth of the internet. Before this, it was limited to physical existence and information was related to individuals’ documents and homes. This well-established and fundamental human right has been diminished because of the emerging surveillance capitalism.

Capitalism has undergone several changes. As a historically specific form of economic ideology and exploitation, capitalism started to grow in the 18th century during the Industrial Revolution but had roots in the medieval period in Western Europe. In the last two decades, the role and importance of constant capital and, therefore, technology has been increased at an unprecedented rate. Our daily life is highly interconnected with technological outputs: the computer, cellphone and TV. Recent studies demonstrate that the average person spends at least 8.6 hours a day using technology, more than the time we are recommended to sleep. In using these technologies, we are providing valuable data.

Two prominent economists, Karl Marx and Adam Smith, never saw data as a possible source for exploitation. For Karl Marx, any type of social production is the result of a triangular relationship between capital profit, which is the profit of enterprise plus interest; land, the rent gained from it; and labour wages. He calls this relationship the "trinity formula." Obviously, personal data is not in this production circulation. His counterpart, Adam Smith, seems to adopt that any production is the result of capital and labour, although the meaning and notion of the latter is broader than what Karl Marx put forward. Of course, personal data is not something he considered.

Professor Shoshana Zuboff in her book, “The Age Surveillance Capitalism: the Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power,” summarises this new phase of capitalism very well.

"Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data," she writes. "Although some of these data are applied to product or service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioral surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence,’ and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace for behavioral predictions."

In this digitalised world, the actual owner of our data is the tech companies and we are nominal data owners. The real power belongs to the data owner. It was not that long ago when the most powerful person on the planet at the time, President Donald Trump, was blocked by Twitter and Facebook. Because of this prohibition, mentions of Trump on those platforms went down by as much as 90pc and, of course, had a great impact on the outcome of the election.

Who had the power? Not difficult to answer.

Before submission of anything, the data holder is the absolute owner with limited exceptions. However, once the personal data is transferred to the tech company, the data subject has mere notional ownership while the real ownership lies with the tech company. The objective of tech companies in this transaction is the maximisation of profit and surplus appropriation value based on personal data processing.

Data is generated not only by actively sharing information, but also passively, with every click on the ‘world wide web.’ Recently, it was pointed out that Uber, a taxi-hailing firm; Facebook, the world’s most popular social media platform; Alibaba, the most valuable retailer; and Airbnb, an accommodation provider, use the data supplied by customers to predict their behavior.

For instance, Uber knows our whereabouts and the places we frequently visit. The concept of ‘invasion of privacy' is not the poking one’s nose in another person’s affairs, rather the manipulation of data collected from customers. This data manipulation is now becoming a lucrative business for giant companies as it enables them to create a targeted and tailored content advertisement business that affects end users’ choice. As they say, the most tenable way of predicting the future is to intervene at its source and manipulate it. This is well demonstrated in the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, whereby the data taken from the social media giant was used to assist the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump.

Because these tech giants are so powerful and ultimately dominate the market, it is hard for other similar businesses to penetrate the market. This, in turn, limits consumers’ choices and options. Adding fuel to the fire, competition laws do not apply to price-free products like those offered by these platforms. Perhaps one may wonder why a person is not required to pay a subscription fee when opening a Facebook or Twitter account. The answer is that the person who is creating an account is a product themselves. In simple terms, if it is free, the user is the product.

The traditional competition law mainly focuses on price regulation and control. Since these platforms provide the service for free, applying anti-competitive rules is far-fetched. For instance, under Ethiopian competition law, a consumer is defined as “a natural person who buys goods and services for his personal or family consumption, whether the price is being paid by him or another person.” This central element of this definition is the price aspect. No price for the product; no competition law application. This ultimately creates a monopoly in the market and delivers us into the arms of surveillance capitalism.

PUBLISHED ON Mar 05,2022 [ VOL 22 , NO 1140]

Yehualashet Tamiru (, partner at Ethio Alliance Advocates LLP.

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