Surveillance Capitalism, Google and the Power of Defaults

2 minute read

Surveillance capitalism is the idea that we have entered a new phase in how capitalism works.

Mining doesn’t focus on natural resources anymore, but on data. Our labour is less valuable than our use of services and devices that can extract value from us.

Google is one of the biggest players in surveillance capitalism. Almost everyone uses their products, yet almost nobody pays for them. Google makes money by giving away their products and selling what they learn about their users.

Almost all of Google’s services are built to enable this, from searching to email to maps. Often, they have given the user some power over how they handle their user’s data. You can turn off location tracking, stop tracking searches and turn off synchronising data onto Google’s servers. You can, but you need to go through the effort of doing all of this, while living with the small inconveniences that follow. Google can also make sure that they design things so that the default option is to give out your information and changing that requires opting out, effort that you need expend. I recently ran into one example of this kind of design.

Android 6.0 includes an option screen for location settings. It has three options: using just your GPS, adding Bluetooth and WIFI recognition to GPS or using just Bluetooth and WIFI.

Location settings options in Android 6.0

When you turn on location services, you get a prompt asking whether you consent to information being collected by Google. This includes information on devices not owned or operated by you, like the hotspot at the cafe you sit in, or the Bluetooth devices you pass by on the street.

If you disagree with Google collecting your (and everyone else’s) data, you simply have to click on the DISAGREE option. This will turn off the “high accuracy location” services and use just your phone’s inbuilt GPS for location tracking (the actual accuracy with “high accuracy” enabled might not be better – some users report that it makes things worse).

However, whenever you turn on the location services, this prompt will pop up. Each time you want to know where you are, Google will ask for you consent. The prompt is easy to ignore for the first few times, but it gets increasingly annoying and will happen until you give up and agree.

There used to be an “don’t ask me again” option, but it was removed for Android 6.0. There are dozens of customer support threads online, where Android users ask for help in getting rid of this annoying pop up. Some of them have answers, but solutions offered aren’t very helpful. Why would they be? The dialog is working perfectly for Google, slowly but surely annoying users to agree to Google’s data collection.

I previously wrote a case study about how surveillance capitalism affects the design of new services, using ResQ as an example.