Privacy Policies, PRISM, and Surveillance Capitalism in MaC

I recently published my first journal article in a special issue of Media and Communication (MaC) on Post-Snowden Internet Policy. (Unfortunately, the editors misgendered me in the editorial).

In my article, Corporate Privacy Policy Changes during PRISM and the Rise of Surveillance Capitalism, I analyzed the privacy policies of 10 internet companies to explore how company practices related to users’ privacy shifted over the past decade.

What did I do? The Snowden disclosures in 2013 re-ignited a public conversation about the extent to which governments should access data that people generate in the course of their daily lives. Disclosure of the PRISM program cast a spotlight on the role that major internet companies play in facilitating such surveillance. In this paper, I analyzed the privacy policies of the nine companies in PRISM, plus Twitter, to see how companies’ data management practices changed between their joining PRISM and the world learning about PRISM. I drew on my experience with the Ranking Digital Rights research initiative and specifically focused on changes related to the “life cycle” of user information — that is, the collection, use, sharing, and retention of user information.

How did I do it? I collected company privacy policies from four points in time: before and after the company joined PRISM and before and after the Snowden revelations. Google and Twitter provide archives of their policies on their websites; for the other companies, I used the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to locate the policies. I logged the changes in a spreadsheet and classified them into substantive or non-substantive changes. I then dug into the substantive changes and categorized them based on how they affected the life cycle of user information.

What did I find? Seventy percent of the substantive changes addressed the management of user information and data sharing and tracking. The changes related to management of user information provided additional detail about what companies collect and retain. The changes related to data sharing and tracking offered more information about companies’ targeted advertising practices. These often appeared to give companies wider latitude to track users and share user information with advertisers. While these policy changes disclosed more details about company practices, the practices themselves appeared to subject users to greater tracking for advertising purposes.

What are the implications of this work? Collectively, these privacy policy changes offer evidence that suggests several of the world’s largest internet companies operate according to what business scholar Shoshana Zuboff calls the logic of surveillance capitalism. Participating in PRISM did not cause surveillance capitalism, but this analysis suggests that the PRISM companies further enmeshed themselves in it over the past decade. The burgeoning flow of user information into corporate servers and government databases exemplifies what legal scholar Joel Reidenberg calls the transparent citizenry, where people become visible to institutions, but those institutions’ use of their data remains obscure. This analysis serves as a reminder that public debates about people’s privacy rights in the wake of the Snowden disclosures must not ignore the role that companies themselves play in legitimizing surveillance activities under the auspices of creating market value.

Read the journal article (PDF) for more details!

Citation: Kumar, P. (2017). Corporate Privacy Policy Changes during PRISM and the Rise of Surveillance Capitalism. Media and Communication, 5(1), 63-75. doi:10.17645/mac.v5i1.813

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