Social Injustice in Surveillance Capitalism

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Jonathan Cinnamon


A rapidly accelerating phase of capitalism based on asymmetrical personal data accumulation poses significant concerns for democratic societies, yet the concepts used to understand and challenge practices of dataveillance are insufficient or poorly elaborated. Against a backdrop of growing corporate power enabled by legal lethargy and the secrecy of the personal data industry, this paper makes explicit how the practices inherent to what Shoshana Zuboff calls ‘surveillance capitalism’ are threats to social justice, based on the normative principle that they prevent parity of participation in social life. This paper draws on Nancy Fraser’s theory of ‘abnormal justice’ to characterize the separation of people from their personal data and its accumulation by corporations as an economic injustice of maldistribution. This initial injustice is also the key mechanism by which further opaque but significant forms of injustice are enabled in surveillance capitalism—sociocultural misrecognition which occurs when personal data are algorithmically processed and subject to categorization, and political misrepresentation which renders people democratically voiceless, unable to challenge misuses of their data. In situating corporate dataveillance practices as a threat to social justice, this paper calls for more explicit conceptual development of the social harms of asymmetrical personal data accumulation and analytics, and more hopefully, attention to the requirements needed to recast personal data as an agent of equality rather than oppression.

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