Interventions in Surveillance Capitalism With Personal Data Spaces

This is a cross-post from Blink, the Surveillance & Society blog.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

A rather uniform logic seems to be at work behind the scenes of the digital economy: value creation is based on extracting data about users, turning data into behavioral predictions, and monetizing them through markets users cannot participate in. This logic, called “surveillance capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff, seems to have become institutionalized as the default mode of operation in the tech industry. To highlight how the flexibility of the market economy made surveillance capitalism possible, Zuboff quotes Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century:

“This will continue to be true in the future, no doubt more than ever: new forms of organization and ownership remain to be invented.”

Even if surveillance capitalism is the default, the Piketty quote also indicates that new market forms will continue to be experimented in the margins of the digital economy. Discontentment with how it now works has prompted initiatives from activists and technology developers, promising to empower users to take control of their data. The MyData Global Network is an example of a movement organizing around this idea, and “personal data spaces,” or PDSs, are concrete technologies being developed towards this end.

In practical terms, PDSs are intermediaries that operate between their users and third parties. They offer data storage services coupled with interfaces to manage data flows, and possibilities to run code. With the data portability rulings under the new EU general data protection regulation, the regulatory environment in the EU is taking steps in a direction that favors PDSs. We will likely see more efforts towards development of PDSs in the near future, and therefore it makes sense to ask: what is the intervention that PDSs aim at?

In my recent article in Surveillance & Society, “Personal Data Spaces: An Intervention in Surveillance Capitalism,” I look more closely at three PDSs to analyze their imaginaries of how the digital economy should work. The three exemplars are a “personal cloud server” called Cozy Cloud, a “digital life management” service called Meeco, and a “personal data store” called OpenPDS.

In the imaginaries of PDSs, users reap more of the benefits from data collection and use for themselves. PDSs offer users different entry points in the value creation process: starting from gathering data, into intermediating data between third parties, controlling analytics, and creating and sharing abstract information, such as intentions. Users are to become active subjects in value creation, instead of passive objects of data extraction. Users are envisioned as market participants who selectively redirect and share more, and more nuanced, data based on benefits received.
In this way, the aim of PDSs is to increase the quality and specificity of data that businesses can employ. While they do attempt to intervene in surveillance capitalism, they do not deny or counter its value creation: instead, they offer users access into the existing value creation processes.

For themselves, PDS envision a position of a platform provider that facilitates data exchanges, relying on market mechanisms to ensure that third parties develop beneficial services for users to choose from, once the technology to control data flows is in place.

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Lehtiniemi, T. (2017). Personal Data Spaces: An Intervention in Surveillance Capitalism? Surveillance & Society, 15(5), 626–639. You can read the article here.

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