Surveillance has become pervasive. What can be done?
Do you have a mobile phone? Do you ever use Facebook or Google? Do you have a credit card? Do you ever walk on a city street or enter a shop? If so, someone is collecting information about you, using it to better understand your thoughts and behaviours and possibly to influence them.
As you scroll through a website, you’re being targeted with ads, and some of the ads are chosen according to your previous web use. Nothing to worry about perhaps, unless your web use provides clues about your medical conditions, relationships, addictions, political leanings and personal finances. How long you pause over a picture on the web can be, and is, used to learn more about what makes you tick.
If you subscribe to a customer loyalty scheme, for example at a supermarket, then a record is maintained of every purchase you make, providing information to inform future marketing. Banks and credit card companies have a lot of information about your financial activities.
It has become a cliché to say that we’re being watched, yet it is true far more than ever. Measures taken to control covid-19 are in addition to everything being monitored before.
For decades, I’ve been following studies of surveillance and privacy. This is important for anyone concerned with social control and how to resist. In societies with authoritarian governments, data is collected by authorities in order to maintain power and prevent challenges. In societies with less formal repression, vast quantities of data are collected by both companies and governments. This is a big risk if the wrong people gain power. Indeed, it’s already a big risk.
Many scholars, commentators and insiders have written about the surveillance society. There have been numerous powerful exposés. I’ve long thought that this is an area simply waiting for a social movement to emerge and counter the increasing power of watchers. That was true in the 1980s, yet no movement has emerged in the following decades. Why not? Perhaps because many of the tools of surveillance are part of everyday life, have obvious benefits and are used voluntarily. A mobile phone has many practical uses. It can also be used to track your movements throughout the day, record when you’re awake and how many steps you take, and collect data on who you connect with, when and how long.
The big surveillance organisations — governments, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple and others — do everything they can to make you believe your data is safe in their hands. After all, it’s in their interest to do so. In this context, it’s valuable to turn to critiques. There are many to choose from. Here I tell about a new book by Carissa Véliz titled Privacy is Power. It has many attractive features.
Privacy is power
Véliz begins by describing a typical day, pointing to all the ways that data about you might be collected, mostly without your knowing or noticing. While driving, texting, banking and just walking around the streets, your data is being collected, and not always with your interests at heart.
The next step is to point out that data can be misused. Your credit rating is downgraded because of a mistake or you miss out on a job because of something online about someone with the same name. There are biases in the algorithms used to analyse data. Then there are malicious uses, for example identity theft and credit card fraud. But there are deeper issues.
Véliz presents a simple yet powerful idea: stores of personal data are toxic. She makes an analogy to asbestos, which is an exceedingly useful material for buildings and other purposes because it won’t burn or degrade. The trouble is not when it just sits there in the walls of a building; it’s when it escapes, becoming a serious health hazard. Data is similar. There are vast quantities of it sitting in computers around the world, and it can be used for beneficial purposes like medical research. The problem is when it escapes. Then it’s toxic.
A famous case involved Ashley Madison, an online service for affairs and discreet married dating. Except it turned out to not be so discreet when a vast quantity of data held by Ashley Madison was hacked and posted online, to the embarrassment of those exposed.
Then there are the cases of exposures of credit card information, passwords, medical records and other data. Toxic indeed, both when the information is accurate and when it is inaccurate.
Part of being free is being able to experiment with ideas and actions. Not all of them turn out well, but in the old days it was possible to tell inappropriate jokes or hold prejudices, yet to learn, change and move on. With the recording of so much of what we do and say, the past can hold us hostage. A racist or sexist comment can be held against you decades later. Of course, we should be held to account for serious wrongs. The trouble with having vast stores of personal information is that it is too easy to target someone, using a minor fault as justification for adverse actions.
A teacher challenged the principal of her school. To get back at her, a search discovered a student complaint about her teaching made five years previously, so trivial that she had not been told about it at the time. This illustrates two points about toxic data. First, small bits of accumulated data can be used in undesirable ways. Second, it was the principal who had access to files on teachers, while the teachers did not have access to files on principals.
Privacy is often seen as strictly a personal matter. My interest is in my privacy, not in yours. Véliz disagrees. She says we all benefit from everyone else having greater control over data about them and how it is used. In other words, privacy has vital collective dimensions.
Suppose you use encryption for your communications and for the data on your phone. If no one else is using encryption, then your use of it may make authorities suspicious. They might wonder what you’re hiding and make special efforts to access your data. But if lots of people are using encryption, then you’re less likely to be singled out. Your privacy is enhanced by others’ privacy.
Another example is genetic information. If a close relative of yours has their DNA tested to determine their ancestry, that same information will have many overlaps with your own DNA profile. If your relative’s genetic data is compromised, then so is yours.
If there are security cameras on every street corner, you can try to escape surveillance by using a disguise or by not going outside. Getting rid of the cameras benefits your privacy, and everyone else’s.
“Our interdependence in matters of privacy implies that no individual has the moral authority to sell their data. We don’t own personal data like we own property because our personal data contains the personal data of others. Your personal data is not only yours.” (p. 79)
What to do?
Véliz offers numerous recommendations for greater privacy. At an individual level, there are quite a few things you can do. Avoid Facebook if you can. Use a search engine that doesn’t track your searches: not Google, perhaps Duckduckgo. Don’t carry around your phone unless you really need it. Don’t join loyalty programmes at shops.
If asked for information beyond what should be needed, make mistakes: “Whoops, I got confused when writing my birthdate.” Ask permission before posting information about others. That includes baby photos on Instagram.
Individual-level steps to greater privacy are, in many ways, the easy part of the process. These are things under your control. You can’t evade all surveillance, but you can definitely reduce the amount of toxic data about yourself.
The bigger challenge is collective steps. The longest chapter in Privacy is Power is about measures that Véliz thinks should be taken to ensure greater privacy. She devotes many pages arguing why personalised advertising should be stopped: it involves sacrificing privacy for very little benefit individually or collectively. She continues with a variety of other recommendations, including stopping the trade in personal data, making data collection opt-in rather than opt-out, stopping the use of algorithms to make inferences about people, deleting data and reducing government surveillance.
These are all worthwhile. The question is, what will bring them about? We can hardly rely on governments and big corporations to suddenly change course and start taking measures to empower citizens by ending their current data-collection practices.
I remember the struggle over the Australia Card, a personal identification card proposed by the government in the 1980s. This triggered the rise of a remarkable opposition movement uniting left-wing and right-wing groups, and the Australia Card proposal was withdrawn. Not long after, though, the government introduced the Tax File Number, for purposes of paying income tax, solemnly promising that the number would never be shared with other government departments. The promise obviously meant nothing because before long people’s numbers were shared with numerous other government departments.
It’s not likely that governments and corporations will voluntarily cut back on their data collection. The evidence that security cameras in public places reduce crime is questionable, but this seldom leads to cameras being removed. Cameras are widely used by repressive governments to monitor the population. In a free society, it would be wise to avoid technologies that governments could use for repression and select ones that empower the population. So far, this has not been the pattern for surveillance technologies.
The one thing that has a chance of making a difference is a social movement based on an aware and aroused public, with campaigners taking direct action against surveillance. This is happening to some extent with personal devices, for example to use of secure phone software.
What will trigger the formation of a powerful anti-surveillance movement? That is unclear. Anyone potentially interested can benefit from reading Privacy is Power and getting ideas about what needs to be done.
Thanks to Kelly Gates, Olga Kuchinskaya, Julia LeMonde and Qinqing Xu for helpful comments.