At the behest of the U.S., representatives of 100 nations will gather online to examine how they can sustain democracy. The Summit for Democracy has a packed agenda but ignores a major threat: Firms in the U.S. and elsewhere use large troves of personal data to manipulate our behavior, which is directly and indirectly endangering our autonomy, human rights, and democracy. This threat to democracy was and continues to be made in America, and America’s allies know it.
Americans developed, funded, and are perpetuating a new economic sector built on personal-data analysis. In return for free services, users grant firms such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook control of their shared personal data for use and reuse. These firms collect and monetize this data to create new products and services. They also sell their analyses and at times data sets to a wide range of governmental and corporate customers. Harvard scholar Shoshana Zuboff calls these practices surveillance capitalism, because these firms “repackage personal data as prediction products for customers who want to learn how we think, what we will do in the future, and even how we vote.” These practices undermine political and social stability. If individuals can be easily manipulated, whether through ads or with divisive content, they are less able to effectively participate in democracy and trust their fellow citizens.