How data activists are working against the current architecture of surveillance capitalism

13 minutes to read
Shakaya Janse

Users of the online environment are often not aware of how their data is stored and collected in the age of surveillance capitalism. Organizations often are vague how they collect data and make use of it. Because of that, it is hard to understand what kind of effect this data collection can have on the individual or collective level.

Luckily some organizations are raising more awareness to these matters in the form of data activism. This paper will explore different types of organizations that fight against the current architecture of surveillance capitalism. Their position in surveillance capitalism is crucial to regulate data usage and prevent data exploitation from happening.

In the background, there will be a review about the knowledge of users surrounding data privacy. This aspect is crucial to mention since it becomes clear that role of data activism is needed to protect/educate citizens in surveillance capitalism.

Second, the case of Cambridge Analytica will be reviewed. This shows a clear example of data exploitation, where data has been used for the wrong purposes.

The three concepts, surveillance capitalism, sousveillance society, and modalities of regulation are relevent, will be explained and used in the analysis. In the analysis, the two organizations Data Justice Lab & GovLab will be analyzed. We look at the extent to which they contribute to data activism.

The modalities of regulation will be the framework to understand how these organizations operate when it comes to changing the current structure in surveillance capitalism. 

Data Dilemma

In the current state of technology, users have become more digitally developed. On the other hand they are also dependent on technology. For instance, we use Apple Pay to make payments or our Facebook account to use different types of services in the online sphere.

But to what extent goes the knowledge of citizens when it comes to sharing this information, and how is data privacy seen? Research from Hallinan et al. shows the meaning of citizens’ perception of data protection and privacy in Europe (2012).

Citizens indeed have a high value on data protection and privacy. Yet, deeper knowledge to more complex privacy matters was missing, other social norms are considered more important. Also, the collection of data done by different sectors is seen as an aspect that is a necessity and consequence of today’s era.

They acknowledge the loss of their control over the shared data and see a lack of transparency. While data privacy and protection are seen as important still, citizens see this aspect as a part of the society we live in. Therefore, users share their data without thinking of the bigger consequences, but in recent years, these consequences came to light. 

One well-known scandal regarding data usage of online users is the Cambridge Analytica case. Cambridge Analytica gained data information through the app “thisisyourdigitallife”, but the users of this app never gave consent to share their data with Cambridge Analytica (Schneble et al., 2018).

This dataset included a personality survey linked to a psychometric model and the person's Facebook profile. It also incorporated data from their friends, creating profiles similar to the individual who took the survey. In total over 87 million Facebook users' data was in the hands of Cambridge Analytica.

Eventually, this data was used to target American citizens for the Trump campaign. The problem lies in the fact that the app promised to utilize Facebook data for research, but sharing that data with Cambridge Analytica went against Facebook's rules. Millions of users' information was accessed without their permission, eroding trust among Facebook's active users. This situation highlights the potential consequences of sharing personal data online, even when users aren't fully aware of the impact it might have.

Surveillance Capitalism

This section will provide an overview of surveillance capitalism, a crucial idea. Additionally, the range of collecting data will become obvious. According to Zuboff (2019), surveillance capitalism is an economic development that uses digital surveillance to predict the user's future behavior. It became a formula amongst firms to exchange user data and generate money by predicting behaviour.

For users, this means their whole life becomes searchable, and rather than choosing which data to share, it becomes an ongoing process of data collection done by companies. ‘It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us.’ ‘The coda here is simple: Once I was mine. Now I am theirs.’ Algorithms, sensors, machine intelligence, CCTV, or platforms are used as tools that all together play an important role in surveillance capitalism and in the collection of data.   

The role of data activists becomes more clear with the theory of sousveillance. The research of Ganascia (2010) explains the meaning of a surveillance society. If you break down the word French word surveillance, it explains watching from above. The French word sousveillance means that the watchers are below those who are being watched.

In other words, the public gains back their power and now is watching those who are in control of the data collection. Also, the choice of data sharing becomes a decentralized process and that provides the following aspects: transparency of society, equality in the ability to watch and control others, and total communication where there is a fair exchange of information.

Data activists can be considered a part of this movement since they fight for more transparency from the government and private parties who collect data from citizens. 

The last essential theory for this empirical research is the modalities of regulation. Lessig (2006) explains that when it comes to regulation there are four types of modalities: law, social norms, market, and architecture. Law regulates if an element is legal, social norms will regulate if the element is accepted within society, the market will regulate the availability of that element and architecture will regulate how the element is built.

In this research that regulated element is data collection. All four modalities will tell how data collection is regulated. The importance here is that all of these four modalities are connected. If there is a change in one, then there will be a change in all of them. This theory will be used to see how data activists make use of regulation, and then how these modalities will be changed.

Activism Analysis

The data in this research will be collected from two sources.

The first source is from the website of the GovLab. On their website, their projects, core values, and ways of working will be collected and analyzed.

The second source is the website of the Data Justice Lab. Also on this website, their projects, core values, and ways of working will be collected and analyzed. This data will be needed to build Lessig's modalities of regulation framework. The data and the framework will show how both companies are contributing to data activism. 

Method: Critical Discourse Analysis 

To research this case and make meaning of the data, critical discourse analysis is used. Research from Le & Short (2009) described that discourse analysis has the main mission to examine social injustice that can manifest in all types of practices. In their research, they explained the definition of Critical Discourse Analysis from Fairclough (2003). He raises the following question:

  • How do existing societies provide people with the possibilities and resources for rich and fulfilling lives? 
  • What possibilities are there for social change that would reduce these problems and enhance the quality of the lives of human beings? 
  • On the other hand, how do they deny people these possibilities and resources? 
  • What is it about existing societies that produce poverty, deprivation, misery, and insecurity in people’s lives? (Fairclough, 2003, p.202).

The first two questions will be answered to understand how data activists are fighting for privacy matters. The last two questions will be used to understand a current problem happening in the Metaverse.

GovLab vs. Data Justice Lab

Who are these two companies?

Data activism is one movement within the world of sousveillance. “Data activism takes place at the crossroads of the technological and communicational logics feeding capitalism. It attempts to wrestle the socio-technical power of data from the hands of dominant groups to promote social and economic justice” (Renzi, 2015).

Data activism can come in different forms. The companies, the GovLab, and the Data Justice Lab will show two different forms.  

The first organization is GovLab. GovLab describes its mission as the following: “The GovLab’s mission is to improve people’s lives by changing the way we govern” (The GovLab | About, 2022.). Govern can be understood as having power over a country or an organization.

The GovLab refers to changing the way organizations govern themselves to solve social issues. This can be spotted by the way the GovLab operates. The GovLab has the following activities: to create and test prototypes for platforms, connect a network of individuals to improve governance, train entrepreneurs to work with open innovations and analyze government innovations and their impact on society.

Their organization wants to create a change in terms of collaboration and have multiple projects when it comes to working with open data. Data activism is spotted by creating a social change by changing the way companies govern and work with open data. 

The second organization is the Data Justice Lab. The Data Justice Lab has a different way of operating, but that also contributes to data activism.

The Data Justice Lab seeks to advance a research agenda that examines the intricate relationship between datafication and social justice, highlighting the politics and impacts of data-driven processes and big data (Data Justice Lab, 2020). There are different aspects that the organization researches, but it is not limited to those.

These aspects are data discrimination, digital labour, prediction, and preemption, data ethics, algorithmic governance, social justice-informed design, uses of data by social justice groups, data-related activism, and advocacy. Where the GovLab is building new structures, it can be seen that the Data Justice Lab is rather working to research the current structures in surveillance capitalism. Their role when it comes to data activism is to bring the current problems to light. 

Both of these organizations are working hard on different projects, but for this research, only projects that are connected to surveillance capitalism are included. 

Social norms

Social norms show how a certain element in society is accepted. In this case, it is about how data collection is accepted within society.

 In the background information was seen that individuals acknowledge the loss of their control over the shared data, but they see this as an aspect of the society we live in.

These social norms could be challenged and regulated. Both the Data Justice Lab and the GovLab are raising awareness when it comes to social norms. Both of these organizations are regulating social norms is in the form of research. The Data Justice Lab does several types of research when it comes to big data.

However, two specific pieces of research focus on surveillance capitalism: Data Harm Record & Data Policies: Regulatory Approaches for Data-Driven Platforms in the UK and EU.

The Data Harm Records show harm caused by algorithmic systems that can be found in surveillance capitalism. In the research, there are different layers of data harm described with detailed examples. Data Policies researched critical issues around digital platforms and their governance, with also a focus on data regulation.

The GovLab also raises social awareness with the project called Responsible Data for Children. This project is intended to identify challenges when it comes to data collection and usage surrounding children and to encourage a discussion within society.

These projects collect different pieces of information about surveillance capitalism, and its effect on society. While these projects do not directly change the structure of surveillance capitalism, it brings the effects of surveillance capitalism to the surface. These projects play an important role in raising awareness in society, and with more information coming to the surface, social norms will eventually change. 


Regulating with architecture means changing how a current structure is built. In the case of surveillance capitalism, it means regulating how companies are currently working with big data. The Data Justice Lab is not regulating the mode architecture. The GovLab has four projects that regulate the current construction of surveillance capitalism., Data Stewards Network, and Data Responsibility & Contracts for Data are the four projects. The Data Stewards Network is used for unlocking privately-held data to solve public issues and to bring data leaders together.

Data Responsibility is providing tools, methodologies, and frameworks so that privately-held data can be shared responsibility and systematically across sectors. Contracts for Data is providing the legal framework for data collaboration across sectors, misunderstandings, and transaction costs. is a resource developed where information on all of these three projects can be found, but also data exchange happens. The form of data activism in these four projects is by action and changing the architecture of the surveillance architecture.

In the current structure, the data is private and used for making sales, but the GovLab is trying to unlock this private data and use it to solve public issues. Therefore, these projects are considered to change the current structure of surveillance capitalism. 


The mode market shows the availability of different types of structures. The current structure of surveillance capitalism can be considered a type of market structure.

Here companies work with private data to make sales. But the GovLab is also creating a new market on the base of working with open data. In total there are three projects: Open Data 500 Global Network, Open Data Demand & Open Data Impact. Open Data Demand is a project where open government data is used to improve individuals’ lives.

Open Data Impact is a project where the effect of working with open government data on a global scale is researched. Open Data 500 Global Network is a study where the economic impact of working with open government data is researched. The form of data activism in these three projects is both action and research.

The reason these projects fit with the mode market is due to working with open data and to better people’s lives. Compared to big data usage in surveillance capitalism, this is a different type of market. Also, in the other projects the GovLab is trying to unlock private data but in these projects working with open data is already the starting point.

Therefore, these three projects could be considered to create a new market. The Data Justice Lab has no projects that work with the mode market. 


Law can be considered to be the most influential regulator. When the law is regulated, the other three modes also will be affected. Therefore, a regulation of law is essential to make a change happen.

While a few projects of the GovLab are working with lawmaking, currently there is no project surrounding the regulation of law and surveillance capitalism. This also goes for the Data Justice Lab. What can be concluded from this is that the law regulator is missing.

A change can only happen if all four modes together are regulated. Without the regulator law, a change in the current structure of surveillance capitalism simply will not happen.  


This research paper explored two different types of organizations, the GovLab & the Data Justice Lab, that play a role in data activism and that are working against the current structure of surveillance capitalism. The starting point was to understand the current problem in surveillance capitalism.

In the background information, it became clear that individuals have missing knowledge about privacy issues, and other social norms were more important. They believe that the loss of control over shared data is something that is a part of the society we live in.

However, the scandal of Cambridge Analytica showed how data exploitation should be an important issue to fight since collected data of individuals was used without consent. This scandal happened due to the current structure of surveillance capitalism. But this structure could be regulated and changed. Currently, some organizations are working to change this structure.

There are different ways in which structures like these could be regulated. The four modalities of regulation are for instance an example, which has four aspects: law, social norms, market, and architecture. These four modalities flow together and if one changes, all of the other modalities will transform.

Sousveillance is a good example of how control of surveillance capitalism can be taken back. Sousveillance, to watch from below, has aspects such as transparency of society, equality in the ability to watch and control others, and total communication where there is a fair exchange of information.

Data activism is a form of sousveillance where organizations or individuals are working against companies/governments who have power due to access to data.

The four modalities of regulation from Lessig were used as a framework to see how the GovLab and Data Justice Lab are regulating the current structure of surveillance capitalism. The GovLab is rather taking action, while the Data Justice Lab is researching the (negative) effects.

Currently, the Data Justice lab is only regulating with the mode social norms. Two projects are creating social awareness by bringing more information to the surface and showing the negative effects of algorithmic use. The GovLab is creating social awareness by researching the relationship between data collection and children.

Yet, the GovLab is also taking action to change the current architecture, but also to create a new market. They do this with several types of projects. The architecture is being regulated by unlocking the privately owned data to create social change. A new market is created by using open data usage as a starting point to better individuals’ lives.

The last mode of regulation, law, was not present. But to create a change, all four of the modes should be regulated. Therefore, a big change in the structure of surveillance capitalism will not happen without the regulation of the law. 

A suggestion should be made to include the regulation of the law. Both of these organizations are already playing an important role when it comes to regulating the current structure.

Therefore, both of these organizations could consider working together and creating regulation of law or involving another organization who is working on the law regulation. Only if these four modes are in balance, the current structure of surveillance capitalism could change and prevent data exploration from happening. 


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