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Machines Like Us

Watching me watching you (and liking it): surveillance isn’t all bad

Monday, 28 October 2013
by Ashlin Lee and Peta Cook

Over the past year or so, surveillance issues have become more visible to the public, especially forms of what Australian computer scientist Roger Clarke calls “dataveillance," or the systematic collection and analysis of individual’s personal data.

But is there an element of surveillance which an individual may find acceptable – or even desirable?

From domestic surveillance conducted in the US by the National Security Agency’s PRISM project to FAIRVIEW (the international version of PRISM) to ECHELON (the global surveillance system operated by the US, UK and Australia), numerous government programs exist to monitor our digital traces.

Understandably, many civil libertarian organisations are disappointed and angry about these kinds of systems, pointing to their negative consequences. But how ordinary citizens experience and understand surveillance is less clear cut.

I always feel watched …

Generally speaking, most citizens are aware that they are under some form of surveillance.

Surveys from the US and Canada show that many people claim a strong knowledge of the technological systems implicated in surveillance, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS). Awareness of highly visible physical measures of surveillance, such as closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras is also relatively high.

However, fewer surveyed individuals had a strong understanding of the privacy laws and regulations governing their personal data. This is particularly concerning given that many of the most pervasive sites of dataveillance occur through everyday, mundane digital engagements – most notably social media.

Anyone who has access to your social media profile may know what you are doing, when, with whom, and where – providing countless opportunities for surveillance. Such information may also go viral: we’ve seen it in Facebook parties that go awry, or in the unwanted attention some political candidates' personal hobbies receive.

Not all social media surveillance are so obvious. Companies also get enormous amounts of personal data by watching your browsing activity. This can be distributed and used by unknown third parties, including government or private enterprise.

A good example of this is targeted advertising, which uses an individual’s browsing history to target them with consumer items thought to be of interest.

Many of us can easily imagine a scenario of surveillance where the state invades every aspect of our personal life, as depicted in the film Enemy of the State or in George Orwell’s 1984. But this is hardly necessary given the amount an individual may share voluntarily – and perhaps without a thought – on social media.