The Current

Businesses paid to have Pokemon Go players directed to their locations, says author

Author and academic Shoshana Zuboff says we're living in an age of surveillance capitalism, where our very lives are the raw material that tech giants are turning into massive profits. That's money that we never see, but it's also a threat to democracy, she tells Anna Maria Tremonti.

We're living in an age of 'surveillance capitalism,' says Shoshana Zuboff

Shoshana Zuboff explores a new economic model that has arisen from our digital world in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. (Michael D. Wilson; Hachette Book Group)

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Pokemon Go gave its creators the chance to run a global, digital experiment on how to influence real-world behaviour for their own gain, according to one Harvard professor.

The mobile phone game places digital creatures in real-world locations. Players find and catch Pokemon using GPS and augmented reality software.

In choosing where to place the Pokestops where the creatures gather, the company was able to "herd game players to specific places: establishments, bars, restaurants, pizza joints, service establishments, places where they might fix your car, or retail shops," said Shoshana Zuboff, professor emerita at the Harvard Business School.

Some of those businesses paid to have players directed there, she told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

The company used "the incentives of the game to reward, punish us, shape our behavior, to actually get us to the places that were going to pay Niantic Labs for our presence, our bodies, our feet, falling on their floors," she said.

Players can also submit locations they want to be added as Pokestops.

It became a viral hit when it was released in July 2016 by Niantic, which began as a start-up inside Google itself but was spun off as its own company in fall 2015. It's an example of what she calls surveillance capitalism, a term she coins in her new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

Pokemon Go players used their phones to hunt the cartoon creatures in the real world, but businesses were paying the game's maker to direct gamers to their locations, Zuboff said. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

Our online activity generates data, she explained, which can then be used to predict our interests and place targeted advertising in our digital path.

But in recent years, tech companies have attempted to not only use our online engagement to predict our behaviour, but to directly influence it, she said.

"Here is Pokemon Go, promising these establishments footfall rate, predicting footfall rate, on the basis of actually now be able to intervene in our behaviour."

How did surveillance capitalism start?

Surveillance capitalism was invented by Google, with the development of online advertising in the early 2000s, Zuboff explained.

Looking for new revenue streams after the dot-com financial crash, the company realized it had collected a mass of data on people using its searches.

They discovered that they could predict, with a pretty high level of accuracy, what people were likely to click on.- Shoshana Zuboff

Google discovered that crunching that data through computer algorithms returned predictions about future behaviour — and this predictive process could be applied to how people interacted with online advertising.

"They discovered that they could predict, with a pretty high level of accuracy, what people were likely to click on," she said.

Zuboff said the tech giant told advertisers that "if you buy that product, and put your ads where we tell you to put them, you will make a lot more money."

By doing so, the company created a "lucrative new marketplace that trades exclusively in behavioural futures."

Google created a 'lucrative new marketplace' that focused on predicting our behaviour, based on our online activity, Zuboff said. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

The Current requested an interview with Google and received a statement that said the company "is focused on protecting our users' data," and has "policies that prohibit deceptive behaviour and misuse of personal data."

"The reality is that data is essential to providing our services … and to making them useful for you," the statement said. "Of course, we also use data to show relevant ads to you, so we can make our services free for everyone. But this does not mean we sell your personal information."

However, Zuboff argued that has been a "shift from monitoring and just collecting data to actuation — the idea that you actually shape and trigger, influence and modify behaviour in specific ways."

Zuboff described examples like Pokemon Go, and Facebook's attempt to influence the emotions of unwitting users, as a one-way mirror.

"They can see us, but we can't see them … they amass these huge knowledge troves about us, but that knowledge is not used for us."

The Current contacted Niantic for comment, but has not received a response.

Smart cities don't have to be undemocratic

Zuboff said the way Pokemon Go leverages users' data could be seen as a "dry run" for more complex, digitally interconnected "smart cities."

Toronto is the intended site for the Quayside project, billed as "a model of a city built for the rest of the century," with innovative technologies built into its infrastructure. Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Google's parent company Alphabet, was chosen in 2017 to develop the plans.

"They're going to be installing sensors in public spaces, in buildings, and … this is going to be transmitted just massive flows of raw data."

The proposed site for the new development, on the shore of Lake Ontario in Toronto. (Sidewalk Labs)

Deliberations about how that data is handled are being held behind closed doors, Zuboff said, adding that it's a threat to democracy. The Current contacted Sidewalk Labs for comment, but has not received a response.

"The big lie here … is that these things we're describing are all the necessary consequences of digital technology," she Tremonti.

It doesn't have to be that way, she said.

"It is easy to imagine the digital without surveillance capitalism. It is impossible to imagine surveillance capitalism without the digital."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.


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