Surveillance and privacy

There is, it is often contended, a price to pay to achieve this risk-free, crime-free, security-laden world: our privacy, one of the fundamental rights and civil liberty that belongs to all humans. It is a necessary tradeoff, as commentators and politicians remind us, if we are to prevent future harms (see Finn and Wright, 2012; Powell et al., 2018). In the case study of COVID-19 pandemic, online monitoring and tracking of the population was deemed necessary to prevent new outbreaks of the virus (HIMSS Media, 2020; Bean and CIO Network, 2020; Walker, 2020). The same logic applies to crime; we should be watched and monitored to be safe. After all, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.“ The utilitarian motto of the greater good for the majority is driving mass surveillance practices we see today. The digital era’s undisputable fact is that ‘we are living in a time when more information is gathered, collected, sorted, and stored about the everyday activities of more people in the world than at any other time in human history’ (Andrejevic, 2012: 91). DFTs greatly augment surveillance as the ‘focused, systematic and routine attention to personal details for the purpose of influence, management, protection or direction’ (Lyon, 2007: 14). A considerable proportion of contemporary surveillance is automated or volunteered. Our phones, computers, digital assistants, fitness trackers, and other smart things automatically observe and monitor our activities, habits, daily routines, where we shop, what gym we go to and for how long, and the list goes on. Many devices and machines that surround us continuously collect and share information about who we are and what we do. In addition, we often willingly share information about us on social media platforms, by using loyalty cards and ticking the Terms and Conditions box when downloading new software to our computer or smartphone.

While most of this surveillance appears to be non-strategic-—a routine, auto-pilot attendance to a person or factors associated with a person—it often involves a conscious strategy to gather information about subjects of surveillance (Marx, 2012). Contemporary surveillance spills across the society, ‘jolted’ by “security demands” and technology companies’ relentless marketing (Bauman and Lyon, 2013). Surveillance is no longer fixed and solid but liquid, reaching areas of social life where its presence was not prominent until now. Our lives are becoming increasingly transparent to employers, corporations, national and foreign government agencies, and other actors that have access to data. While our habits, relationships and actions grow visible, those that have access to data become increasingly invisible to us (Lyon, 2015), and so does the technology that enables it.

In the new world of big data, privacy is experiencing a major transformation. Poster argues that this has resulted in a super-panopticon, an ultimate version of Bentham’s and Foucault’s omni-seeing society3, ‘a system of surveillance without walls, windows, towers, or guards’ (Poster, 1990: 93). While this theoretical framework is arguably not applicable to contemporary digital society for reasons I will elaborate on later in the book, the development and use of emerging technologies is likely to augment this issue. Surveillance and privacy are set to experience even bigger makeover in years to come. Importantly, we are likely to give our privacy away. We will be obedient to a new ‘surveillant assemblage’ (Haggerty and Ericson, 2000) of DFTs—a growing network of heterogeneous smart things, databases, algorithms, and knowledge. This network will uncover us (or as Haggerty and Ericson suggest, our ‘data doubles’) to those who listen. Critically, the above process of breaking down the human is just the beginning.

 
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