SSC Virtual Seminar: David Eliot & David Murakami Wood, Surveillance Studies Centre

Minding the FloCs: Alphabet’s AI-first strategy and transformations in surveillance capitalism

Seminar recording available here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

12:30 – 2:00 pm

*Due to the limited capacity of the online-meeting platform, we have to adopt a first-come-first-serve principle. We will send the seminar link and password to registered participants.

Please RSVP to Joan Sharpe by Monday, October 18, 2021.


In 2020, Google announced their intention to transition away from unpopular, privacy-invasive third-party cookies. In their place, they proposed the use of a new AI-driven technique, Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoCs). They claimed that this new ‘privacy-centric’ technology was 95% as effective for targeted advertising as the current system. We will talk about two significant areas of concern with regards to FLoCs.

Firstly, Google holds that FLoCs are less privacy-invasive because the individual user is not subjected to intensive, long-term profiling. Further, the user’s raw data is never exported from their device or shared with Google. But this process represents an improvement only if privacy is conceptualized as the right not to have one’s raw data extracted and stored. A corporation gaining an intimate understanding of users by other means without their direct consent still presents numerous ethical and data justice concerns.

Secondly, FloCs are a small part of a much larger strategy for Alphabet, Google's parent company. Alphabet is shifting focus to the creation and sale of AI devices and systems, as CEO Sundar Pichai said, Alphabet is “moving from a company that helps you find answers to a company that helps you get things done.” This signals a change in the 'surveillance capitalism' analyzed by Shoshana Zuboff, moving away from the exploitation of the ‘data exhaust’ generated by users - and this is potentially an industry-wide shift. Training AI requires a different form of data than targeted marketing, and this intertwines and interferes with current attempts to politically regulate data accumulation and use via legislation such as the European Union (EU) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the recently proposed AI Regulation.

About the speaker:

David Eliot and David Murakami Wood, Surveillance Studies Centre

Everyone welcome!

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