Exposed Before Digital Omniscience: A Theological Reading of Surveillance Capitalism

In 2010, the United States Transportation Security Agency (TSA) began deploying what are called backscatter x-ray body scanners at airports across the nation. These machines are capable of generating a detailed, “nude” image of a person’s body, seeing through the person’s clothing but revealing any objects they may have in their pockets or hidden in their clothing. The devices were deployed in part in response to the “underwear bomber” incident the previous Christmas in which the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to properly detonate explosives he had hidden in his underwear on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Privacy advocates argued that the body scanners were a violation of privacy, the equivalent of a strip search. The images would reveal not just a person’s body shape, but also potentially embarrassing features such as a prosthetic, a mastectomy, or a colostomy bag. Advocates also worried that the machines could store the nude images they produced, meaning the images could be disseminated without the person portrayed knowing or consenting. Later in 2010, Gizmodo published leaked images that had been stored by a less detailed body scanner used by U.S. Marshals in a federal courthouse in Orlando, Florida, although there has been no evidence that the TSA ever stored any of the backscatter x-ray images collected at airports. In response to public outrage, by 2012 the TSA began replacing the scanners with less detailed millimeter wave scanners or using software that converted the nude images into stick figure cartoons with indicators showing suspicious items. The European Union banned the machines that same year.

The rapidity with which these body scanners were removed from use demonstrates the popular revulsion against intrusive surveillance. Even as these technologies were introduced and just as quickly discontinued, however, a more extensive but less obvious form of surveillance had already begun penetrating our daily lives, with much less protest. In 2002, the executives at Google discovered that the “digital exhaust” produced when we search the web and click on hyperlinks, data that previously had been used to refine Google’s search engine, could also be used to generate ads targeted at specific users, an extremely profitable innovation. Other companies like Facebook and Microsoft jumped into the data surveillance game, as did the major telecom companies, starting a race to acquire as much personal data as possible and marking the emergence of what the social psychologist Shoshanna Zuboff has called “surveillance capitalism.”[1]

Digital surveillance is not limited to our computer screens and smartphones. “Smart” products such as personal assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, robotic vacuum cleaners like Roomba, and smart cars are collecting an astounding amount of data about our everyday lives which is then packaged and sold as data profiles used to target advertisements or generate profits in other ways. For example, Zuboff describes how the augmented reality game Pokémon Go, which is played on users’ phones, could be used to direct players toward businesses that had paid for the service. Similarly, insurance companies can use telematics, the onboard sensors on cars and trucks, to track customers’ driving, adjusting their insurance rates using complex algorithms.[2]

When data is shared with little oversight, bounty hunters, debt collectors, and even stalkers can purchase individuals’ GPS location data and other personal information. As our data is disseminated among countless companies, vendors, and agencies, we are likewise at increased risk of that data being exposed through a security breach. But these threats to our privacy are merely symptoms of the underlying disease in which the intimate details of our lives come to be seen as commodities, ripe for exploitation and control.

Although the American public rose up swiftly against backscatter x-ray body scanners, we have for the most part meekly consented to this less obvious but potentially more threatening form of surveillance that leaves us naked before an anonymous gaze. Brought up to fear government surveillance (fears that were confirmed by Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance of Americans’ communications in 2013), we ignored the warnings of thinkers like Deborah Johnson, who foresaw as early as 1994 that the greatest surveillance threat of the future would come from private institutions rather than Big Brother.[3] As Zuboff also notes, the surveillance capitalists successfully convinced the public that digital surveillance and commodification were the inevitable price we must pay for the technologies that enrich our lives rather than economic practices we can challenge and limit.[4] The allegations raised by the Catholic news site The Pillar that the former general secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) had used the gay dating app Grindr, based on GPS location data sold to an anonymous source, have focused Catholics on the issues of digital surveillance and privacy, but the questions concerning clerical accountability and hypocrisy raised by the episode have made it difficult to think systematically about the increasing risks arising from digital surveillance. A theological reading of our revulsion against the anonymous objectification of our bodies through surveillance can help us understand this less obvious form of surveillance that, although in a very different way from body scanners, leaves us naked and exposed.

Everything is Naked and Exposed

In the Letter to the Hebrews, the author reminds the readers that God’s judgment is certain, and that God sees all: “No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account” (4:13). This is a clear evocation of the second creation narrative in Genesis. There, when God confronts the man after he and the woman eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God asks, “Where are you?” The man replies, “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.” And God replies, “Who told you that you were naked?” (Gen 3:9-12a).

Pope John Paul II expounded on the theme of “nakedness” in Genesis in the weekly audiences he gave that came to be known as “the theology of the body.” He notes that earlier, the Yahwist had made clear that, “The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame” (Gen 2:25). This seemingly offhand detail in the narrative actually denotes a profound truth about humankind’s condition, what John Paul refers to as humanity’s “original nakedness.” The human body “expresses the person in his ontological and existential concreteness, which is something more than the individual. Therefore the body expresses the personal human ‘self,’ which derives its exterior perception from within.”

The state of original nakedness, then, was one in which the man and woman saw one another and communicated themselves to one another with perfect clarity, openness, and simplicity (one might say “transparency,” although this is not John Paul II’s word).[5] Original nakedness allowed them to experience “participation in the vision of the Creator himself,”[6] to see one another as God sees them (see, e.g. 1 Sam 16:7; John 9:39). The man and woman not only see as God sees, however; their transparent communication of themselves to one another is a reflection or reproduction of the communion of Persons in God the Creator, it is the “image of God” present in them.[7]

As John Paul II explains, however, the experience of shame in the aftermath of sin radically transforms this reality. He focuses in on the man’s statement, “I was afraid, because I was naked” (Gen 3:12a). Here, “nakedness” is not purely literal: “It does not refer only to the body; it is not the origin of a shame related only to the body. Actually, through nakedness, man deprived of participation in the gift is manifested, man alienated from that love which had been the source of the original gift, the source of the fullness of the good intended for the creature.”[8]

This deprivation results in three forms of shame. The first arises from “insecurity of his bodily structure before the processes of nature,” the human person’s vulnerability in the face of the natural world and inevitable death.[9] The second source of shame is the loss of integration between the spirit and the body as the inclinations of the body become a temptation to sin. John Paul suggests that the man and woman sew together fig leaves (Gen 3:7) to hide from one another this loss of integration.[10] The third source of shame is the loss of trust in one other as a result of sin, or in other words “the original capacity of communicating themselves to each other . . . has been shattered”: “Obviously, our first progenitors did not stop communicating with each other through the body and its movements, gestures and expressions. But that simple and direct communion with each other, connected with the original experience of reciprocal nakedness, disappeared.”[11] Their sense of shame is not just caused by their own loss of integration, but also from the loss of trust arising from the knowledge that the other has lost this integration, as well. Although expressed in terms of shame at their nakedness, this rupture is not limited to sexual lust. He explains it in terms of the “threefold lust” found in 1 John, “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:18): we seek to expose the intimacies of others to satisfy our own desires, to objectify or commodify others, and to dominate them.[12]

These three lusts remain part of our concrete existence, but do not define us. When Jesus addresses us, it is not an accusation or condemnation, but rather an invitation to hear the echo of “the beginning” in our hearts:

[The person] is called in that truth which has been his heritage from the beginning, the heritage of his heart, which is deeper than the sinfulness inherited, deeper than lust in its three forms. The words of Christ, set in the whole reality of creation and redemption, reactivate that deeper heritage and give it real power in man's life.”[13]

As a consequence, the Christian is called to a life of truth, the transparent communication of oneself to others, but mindful to protect those aspects of the self subject to shame.

Thomas Aquinas develops an analogous account of truth and what we might call privacy. He cites the Letter to the Hebrews—“everything is naked and exposed to His eyes”—while making the point that the innate human desire for knowledge, which can only be fulfilled in God, makes humans like to God.[14] Ironically, Aquinas makes this point, that the human desire to see “everything naked and exposed” is God-like, as part of his discussion of the vice of curiosity, the inordinate pursuit of knowledge. Indeed, the citation is included as part of an objection that the pursuit of knowledge cannot be inordinate precisely because it is God-like, to which he responds that it becomes inordinate when it detracts from the pursuit of the “sovereign truth,” that is, the knowledge of God.[15] Aquinas goes on to explain that the pursuit of knowledge becomes inordinate under a number of conditions, for example, when it is directed toward sensual pleasures that distract us from the good, when it is directed to the affairs of other for malicious purposes, and when our knowledge becomes a source of pride.[16] Although in a sense reflecting our creation in the image of God, our desire to see things “naked and exposed” can become a form of idolatry.

Because we are created to know and share the truth, Aquinas states that we are obligated to speak the truth in our communications to others.[17] This is why, in his view, lying is always wrong. But this is not the same thing as saying we must always reveal the truth, since in some cases it may not be prudent or just to do so.[18] We share our intimate details and moral failures with friends, family members, and trusted professionals like doctors, clergy, financial advisers, and attorneys. We place our trust in these individuals, and we impose sanctions of different kinds if they betray our trust. In this understanding, truth is a relational concept. Sharing information is a matter of justice depending on the relationship between the two parties. Surveillance capitalism turns this on its head, as information becomes a commodity, exchanged based solely on commercial reasoning with little regard for who winds up with it.

The Lust of the Flesh

Zuboff introduces Joseph Paradiso, a professor at MIT and a visionary in the field of ubiquitous computing. Paradiso imagines a world in which sensors have been placed nearly everywhere: in our homes, on the streets, in offices, and in the natural environment. Artificial intelligence will process and analyze this data, and human beings will be able to interface with it in a variety of ways, making this “digital omniscience” comprehensible to the finite human mind through a “browseable environment.”[19] Although recognizing Paradiso’s brilliance, Zuboff warns that he is dangerously naïve concerning how these technologies that expose our intimate lives to observation could be exploited.

In his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the American sociologist Erving Goffman argues that our social interactions involve a series of personas or roles that we take on, an approach to understanding human behavior he called dramaturgical analysis. Although unlike Goffman, we would want to affirm that there is a core self (a “conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience,” to use Christian Smith’s phrase[20]) behind these roles, Goffman’s analysis helps us understand the role self-presentation plays in public interactions. He also distinguishes, however, between the “stage” of public performance and the “backstage,” the region of our life where we express greater familiarity and intimacy than we do in public, but also where we engage in those activities that express our vulnerability and fragility as creatures: eating, sleeping, using the bathroom, having sex, and so on.[21] It is no coincidence that the backstage is where we most often choose to expose the three sources of shame outlined by Pope John Paul II: the vulnerability of our bodies, our moral weaknesses, and the fragility of intimate human relationships.

One of the most insidious aspects of surveillance capitalism, striving toward the “digital omniscience” envisioned by Paradiso, is that the backstage becomes the target of surveillance, dissolving the boundary between private and public. Our sleeping patterns, heart rates, and temperature preferences are collected as data to be studied. Our browser and search histories, locations, and even our conversations are recorded, exposing our idiosyncrasies, moral failings, and the intimate details of our lives to anonymous scrutiny. For example, the gay dating app Grindr was caught sending users’ HIV status to third party vendors. As previously noted, the general secretary of the USCCB was forced to resign after GPS location data sold by a third party showed that he had been using Grindr. Amazon has admitted that thousands of its employees listen to conversations overheard in families’ homes by the Alexa personal assistant.

Zuboff notes, “Home need not always correspond to a single dwelling or place. We can choose its form and location but not its meaning. Home is where we know and where we are known, where we love and are beloved. Home is mastery, voice, relationship, and sanctuary: part freedom, part flourishing . . . part refuge, part prospect.”[22] Surveillance capitalism, in a sense, threatens to render us homeless. Zuboff describes how young people who have grown up immersed in social media come to perceive themselves as performers in front of the gaze of an audience, even their private lives on display for approval and judgment.[23] The subsuming of the backstage by the stage leaves little room for the vulnerability and intimacy needed to develop a secure sense of self.

The Lust of the Eyes

The apps, web sites, and products that collect our data sell it to companies called data brokers who process it and bundle it into personal profiles. Although we are told that our “personally-identifying information” such as our names, Social Security Numbers, and so on are not collected, these data brokers nevertheless can personally identify our information using our IP addresses (the distinctive numbers used to identify the devices we use to connect to the internet so that we can receive data from other devices) or numbers created for this purpose called mobile advertising IDs. We can also be personally identified through our GPS location data, which is collected through our phones and which identifies where we live and work. Data brokers use these personal data profiles to generate targeted ads that are sent back to our devices, but they also sell this information to other advertisers or other companies for research purposes.

A defining feature of surveillance capitalism, therefore, is the commodification of what had previously been thought uncommodifiable: human experience. In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, John Paul II describes the labor struggle beginning in the nineteenth century as a long effort to affirm that human labor is not simply a commodity, but an expression of human dignity (§4, 19, 34). The commodification of labor represents a form of alienation (§41). Surveillance capitalism represents a new form of commodification and alienation, in this case alienation from our own experiences as they are digitized and sold to anonymous third parties. As Zuboff laments, “[W]e are exiles from our own behavior, denied access to or control over knowledge derived from its dispossession by others for others. Knowledge, authority, and power rest with surveillance capital, for which we are merely ‘human natural resources.’”[24] But have we not consented to this exile? After all, every time we agree to the terms of service for a new app or web site, we consent to the privacy policies that spell out how our data will be sold and disseminated.

In his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum on the conditions of the worker, Pope Leo XIII insisted:

Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner (§45).

Likewise, Pope John XXIII made much the same point seventy years later in his Mater et Magistra:

[Work] must be regarded not merely as a commodity, but as a specifically human activity. . . . [Work’s remuneration] must be determined by the laws of justice and equity. Any other procedure would be a clear violation of justice, even supposing the contract of work to have been freely entered into by both parties” (§18).

Because our work is an expression of our being as a person, it cannot be treated simply as a commodity, even if we consent to it under the unequal bargaining positions characteristic of labor negotiations.

Although we could easily live without this or that particular app, we use the internet and social media to communicate ourselves to others and participate in the common life of society, in that way a fully human activity like work. For this reason, legal scholar Nancy S. Kim argues that these “wrap contracts” or “clickwrap agreements” represent an unfair imposition on consumers.[25] Privacy policies sometimes use confusing language about what information will be shared with third parties. More insidiously, terms of service agreements are written in a way to discourage their being read. A 2008 study found that it would take about 244 hours to read the terms of service for the websites visited by the typical person in a year (a number that has surely grown since then), or more than half the time the average person spent online. Terms of service agreements also bind consumers to the privacy policies of any third parties who receive their data, which can number in the thousands, and may not inform them who those third parties are. These onerous conditions are presented on a “take it or leave it” basis, forcing consumers to sign away their privacy or else become digital outcasts. In this context, “consent” is an empty concept.

The “imperious and ancient” dictates of justice demand a better way of managing our data. We should be able to opt out of selling our data to third parties without being excluded from the twenty-first century public square. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for example, affords individuals precisely this right. We should also be able to identify the entities to whom our data is sold and have some sense of what they do with the data. The State of Vermont, for example, has created a registry of data brokers requiring them to meet certain data protection standards, and the GDPR allows individuals to access the personal data sold by brokers.

The Pride of Life

In Zuboff’s view, the most alarming consequence of surveillance capitalism is the ability to use the data that has been collected from us to manipulate our behavior. She explains:

Machine processes are configured to intervene in the state of play in the real world among real people and things. These interventions are designed to enhance certainty by doing things: they nudge, tune, herd, manipulate, and modify behavior in specific directions by executing actions as subtle as inserting a specific phrase into your Facebook news feed, timing the appearance of a BUY button on your phone, or shutting down your car engine when an insurance payment is late.[26]

Social media algorithms can likewise be exploited, both intentionally and not, in ways that encourage political extremism and the growth of conspiracy theories like QAnon or those regarding the COVID-19 vaccine.

Zuboff paints a terrifying picture of how the “digital omniscience” envisioned by Paradiso could be paired with state power in a country like China,[27] but she perhaps exaggerates the powers of control exercised by the surveillance capitalists on their own. Targeted ads are at worst annoying, at best an efficient means of connecting consumers to the products they want, but hardly a threat to human liberty. The graver danger is that we adopt the “instrumentarian” view, that our actions are a sequence of “behaviors” in response to stimuli, a series of “moments” to be digitally captured and shared, as our own.

Zuboff cites Alex Pentland, another MIT scientist, as a “high priest” of instrumentarianism:

As we go about our daily lives, we leave behind virtual breadcrumbs—digital records of the people we call, the places we go, the things we eat and the products we buy. These breadcrumbs tell a more accurate story of our lives than anything we choose to reveal about ourselves. . . . Digital breadcrumbs . . . record our behavior as it actually happened.[28]

The view that our actions are potential data points waiting to be analyzed before we can understand reality “as it actually happened” is nothing new, but rather is deeply embedded in modernity. As Alasdair MacIntyre notes, however, it is not clear how we can narrate the story of our lives without taking account of what we choose to reveal about ourselves through our actions: “There is no such thing as ‘behavior’, to be identified prior to and independently of intentions, beliefs and settings.”[29] It is only through the stories we tell about our lives that our actions become intelligible.

The fragmentation of experience fostered by digital media makes it increasingly difficult to envision such a coherent narrative, however. The commodification of experience characteristic of surveillance capitalism and embedded in social media interfaces tempts us to see life as a trail of digital breadcrumbs, but a trail that leads us away from home rather than towards it. According to MacIntyre, we despair when the events of our lives are no longer intelligible to us, when we cannot perceive a narrative with a beginning or end.

As a faith community, then, we must nurture this sense of narrative coherence, helping one another see our lives as the unfolding of a unique story embraced in the broader narrative of God’s creation and redemption of the world. We can regain our bearings by looking back, with John Paul II, to “the beginning” when we first experienced the gift of being and God’s original plan for creation in the “nakedness” of our bodies, the transparent communication of ourselves to one another, while cognizant of those things we should keep secret out of “shame” but with the expectant hope that one day we will see one another as God sees us, “naked and exposed.” This theological grounding can help us think through the questions regarding privacy and transparency raised by surveillance capitalism and that we can no longer ignore.

[1] Shoshanna Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2019), 63-97.

[2] Ibid., 212-14.

[3] Deborah Johnson, Computer Ethics, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994), 84.

[4] Zuboff, Age of Surveillance Capitalism, 15-16.

[5] Pope John Paul II, “The Fullness of Interpersonal Communication,” General Audience, December 19, 1979.   

[6] Pope John Paul II, “Creation as a Fundamental and Original Gift,” General Audience, January 2, 1980.   

[7] Pope John Paul II, “By the Communion of Persons Man Becomes the Image of God,” General Audience, November 14, 1979.  

[8] Pope John Paul II, “Real Significance of Original Nakedness,” General Audience, December 12, 1979.  

[9] Ibid.

[10] Pope John Paul II, “A Fundamental Disquiet in All Human Existence, “ General Audience, May 28, 1980.

[11] Pope John Paul II, “Relationship of Lust to Communion of Persons,” General Audience, June 4, 1980.  

[12] Pope John Paul II, “Dominion over the Other in the Interpersonal Relation,” General Audience, June 18, 1980.   

[13] Pope John Paul II, “Power of Redeeming Completes Power of Creating,” General Audience, October 29, 1980.   

[14] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 167, a. 1, obj. 1.

[15] Ibid., II-II, q. 167, a. 1, ad 1.

[16] Ibid., II-II, q. 167, aa. 1-2.

[17] Ibid., II-II, q. 109, a. 3.

[18] Ibid., II-II, q. 110, a. 3.

[19] Zuboff, Age of Surveillance Capitalism, 206-8.

[20] Christian Smith, What is a Person? (Chicago: UCP, 2010), 61.

[21] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor, 1959), 112-32.

[22] Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, 5.

[23] Ibid., 453-61.

[24] Ibid., 100.

[25] Nancy S. Kim, Wrap Contracts: Foundations and Ramifications (Oxford: OUP, 2013).

[26] Zuboff, Age of Surveillance Capitalism, 200.

[27] Ibid., 388-94.

[28] Ibid., 422

[29] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: UNDP, 1984), 208.

Featured Image: Photo by Lianhao Qu on Unsplash.


Matthew Shadle

Matthew Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He is the author of The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective and Interrupting Capitalism: Catholic Social Thought and the Economy.

Read more by Matthew Shadle

Christ and Digital Media

Aaron Riches, Assistant Professor of theology at Benedictine College, liturgically deconstructs the acceleration of images in the digital age.

858px Robert Rauschenberg Tracer 1963 11 20 17 Sfmoma 40482628341