Issue #22, Fall 2011

The Whole World Is Watching

In an increasingly monitored world, how can consumers and citizens reclaim ownership of their private lives?

Early in 2010, The Guardian reported plans by the British Police and Home Office for a remarkable new venture in domestic surveillance. Unmanned aerial drones, now used for tracking insurgents in Pakistan and Afghanistan, are to be adapted (unarmed, one hopes) to monitor Britain’s civil population. An initial aim of the project is crowd control during the 2012 London Olympics. Thereafter, these high-tech surveillance engines are to become a permanent feature of state security and law enforcement—much to the distress of civil libertarians and privacy advocates, who immediately objected to the plans.

But no one can say this is especially new. With an estimated 1.7 million video cameras deployed on the ground, George Orwell’s homeland can probably already claim world leadership in state-sponsored monitoring of its population. And the intensification of all forms of institutional tracking of individuals isn’t restricted to Britain—it is occurring the world over. All told, the United States has probably contributed more to these trends than any other country as both the creator and exporter of different means of government and corporate surveillance. The sheer variety of forms implicated in this monitoring is striking. They include real-time recording of consumers’ buying habits and finances; tracking of travelers’ movements by air, train, and road; monitoring of private citizens’ telecommunications; and the mass harvesting of tidbits of personal data from social sites like Facebook.

The seemingly relentless pace of innovation in surveillance cannot be ascribed to any one interest, policy, organizational purpose, or political mood. Instead, it suffuses all manner of relations between institutions and individuals, from the allocation of welfare-state benefits to the pursuit of suspected terrorists.

The result has been change in the very texture of everyday life. Being “alone” is not what it used to be. Our whereabouts, our financial transactions, our uses of the World Wide Web, and countless other data routinely register in the automated consciousness of corporate and state bureaucracies. More importantly, the results of such monitoring in turn shape the treatment we receive from these organizations—sometimes in ways that we know, and often in ways we hardly imagine.

Many observers dismiss these developments with a shrug: The fate of personal privacy in the face of institutional data-gathering may be hopeless, they hold, but such a development is not really serious. The collection of personal data supports all sorts of valued corporate conveniences and public policies, from easy credit to protection from terrorist threats. The fact that my most intimate medical information is held by a distant bureaucracy is hardly a loss, the argument goes, so long as the people who handle it don’t really know me in any personal way. And why should I care if government agencies track my communications, movements, or expenditures if I have nothing to hide? We ought to be grateful for these developments, and not challenge them with anachronistic values like privacy.

Such nonchalance shortchanges both the complexity of the changes we are enmeshed in and their repercussions in our everyday lives. In every realm of life, the flow (and restriction) of personal information confers advantage and disadvantage between parties, opening some possibilities and closing others. In face-to-face relationships, as elsewhere, we do not readily disclose information about areas of our lives in which we feel weak, troubled, or ashamed. Nor do we reveal information that could confer strategic advantage on the other party, like the maximum we are willing to pay in a purchase we are negotiating, for example. For all sorts of reasons, we cherish the ability to control sensitive information about ourselves.

Thus, even those who profess themselves unconcerned about privacy are apt to object when unauthorized use of their information works against them. They will not appreciate finding themselves the losers, for example, in “target pricing”—the practice in which online retailers raise or lower prices offered to different customers for identical items on the basis of their past buying habits. They will be displeased if they discover that their bosses have accessed their medical files from the company health-care plan, and used their medical data as bases for decisions on pay or promotions. They will feel aggrieved on finding themselves subjected to marketing appeals for embarrassing products or services—incontinence supplies, treatments for sexual dysfunction—on the strength of their past website visits or consumer choices. They will wax indignant if they discover that the prices they are quoted for insurance coverage are raised because the insurer has discovered that they have low credit scores, which supposedly correlate with greater likelihood of filing insurance claims. And they will be outraged if they find themselves victims of “universal default”—creditors’ policy of raising a customer’s rates in one credit account based on reports that the amounts of credit used in other credit accounts have risen.

In these cases and countless others, people resent receiving unfavorable treatment on the basis of information about themselves that they consider “nobody else’s business.” The trouble is, notions of what information constitutes anyone’s own “business” are in headlong transformation. We live in a world in which possibilities for accessing personal data are mutating in ways that institutions, unsurprisingly, exploit to their own advantage. What disclosures and uses of personal data are held “reasonable” under such circumstances is constantly up for grabs. That is why the need for serious public conversations about privacy is so urgent.

Classic visions of liberal society stress judicious limitations of institutional power, both governmental and corporate, coupled with preservation of individual autonomy and freedom of choice. We accept that institutions like the IRS have investigative powers sufficient to collect most taxes owed, most of the time. But we recoil—I hope—at an idea like unlimited IRS monitoring of all taxpayers’ e-mails and phone conversations aimed at registering key words associated with tax evasion. Such (hypothetical, but quite feasible) measures could be very effective in spotting underreporting of taxable income. But even greatly increased compliance with tax obligations is not worth such sweeping losses to privacy.

Restricting police searches to instances when there is “probable cause” or “reasonable suspicion,” or requiring court orders for government entry into private premises, reflects this same determination to balance public powers against the need to defend a private sphere of life. It is indispensable that properly designated government agencies have powers to collect specific personal information when evidence points to specific needs for it. But we should be alarmed at information-gathering routines where government investigators troll frictionlessly through broad categories of personal information—telecommunications, purchase records, travel data—just in case something interesting presents itself. In the fluid informational world that we inhabit, that is unfortunately the prevailing direction of change.

The costs of this drift toward ever-more-pervasive surveillance are felt not only by those personally targeted—those whose “confidential” medical records are disclosed, for example, or those whose travels are tracked by Homeland Security officials. The sheer existence of these surveillance systems generates chilling effects experienced by all members of civil society. In this respect, privacy values are holistic—like the values of freedom of expression. Even if I, individually, feel no hesitation about speaking out, I suffer in a world where others are intimidated against articulating their concerns, grievances, and visions of the public good. By the same token, public confidence that certain realms of life are defended from public scrutiny enriches civic culture for all.

Privacy advocates hardly wish to stop those determined to disseminate information about themselves from doing so (though we might want to insist on legal guarantees that would protect the right to reverse such decisions after the fact). What advocates seek above all is to enhance meaningful individual choice and control over release and use of personal data. We want to help find ways for institutions to get their work done while relying on as little personal information as possible. And where disclosure of personal data is deemed necessary, we seek to have specific data supplied for specific purposes—and no others.

The ultimate disaster, in this view, is a world in which any personal information provided in specific settings for specific purposes becomes available to all institutions for all purposes. We’re not there yet, and many voices are rising against the possibility. But the forces promoting such easy flow of personal data include some of our most powerful institutions.

Don’t Blame Technology

What has triggered this pervasive appetite for institutional tracking of what used to be called private life? And where are the resulting changes taking us?

Folk explanations often indict “technology” as the master cause, as though computing could by itself redirect human interests and intentions. And obviously one can point to many ways in which new departures in surveillance depend on developments in information technology. But not all systems that might be created for knowing more are likely to be created. Prevailing political interests are decisive in shaping which technological possibilities will become reality.

Consider the achievements of today’s systems for tracking and evaluating the so-called credit-worthiness of American consumers. This country’s consumer credit reporting industry ascribes to the great majority of adult Americans a three-digit score epitomizing their potential profitability as charge-account customers, credit card users, or mortgage applicants. As in virtually all systems of mass surveillance, credit tracking and scoring enables institutions to make ever-finer distinctions in their treatment of the people they deal with.

But note that American consumers have no remotely comparable monitoring system to help them choose among retailers, products, and services. This is hardly for lack of need. A consumer-friendly tracking system could furnish the same comprehensive, instantaneously available data to buyers that credit reporting provides to lenders and retailers. True, populist approaches to information technology have benefitted consumers in recent years: One can comparison shop for a new car on one’s iPhone, for example, or access user reviews of restaurants. But to do for consumers what the credit reporting industry does for retailers seeking data on consumers, a system would have to go much further. Instead of compiling a few reviews of products and services from self-selected consumers, a strong consumer-oriented system would have to elicit reactions from most users, or at least a highly representative sample of them. And these ratings should not simply reflect consumers’ immediate experience; they should provide reliable information on how satisfied consumers of long-lasting products are, say, after five years. For complex products like cars and computers, a system would provide information on how long different components will last, on average, before requiring major repairs. It would provide instant answers to questions like, “What are the average projected total repair bills on a new Chevrolet Volt over a five-year period? And how do these figures compare with those of other new models?”

All of this would cost money, though consumer savings would likely make up for the public costs. What’s more problematic is that such a system would require manufacturers and sellers to provide crucial data. They will, of course, insist that such information is proprietary—that is, they own it, and they’re not giving it up. The reasons for such resistance are obvious: Better information for consumers spells potential disadvantage for sellers.

The dramatic discrepancies between these two surveillance potentials—one an ultra-sophisticated reality, the other grossly underdeveloped—are by no means imposed by technology. They reflect sponsorship. This country’s lending and retail industries are simply better organized and more resourceful interests than consumers. Seeing the profits promised by discriminating among prospective customers based on finely grained information, the industry has willingly made the vast investments necessary to create, collect, massage, and repackage consumers’ account data for sale. Thus, creation and extension of large-scale surveillance follow well-worn grooves of political and economic power. Only institutions—and well-heeled ones at that—can mobilize the vast capital costs and cultivate the public acquiescence necessary to create comprehensive systems for monitoring large populations.

Surveillance and Symbiosis

Think of institutional surveillance as a kind of manufacturing process where the “products” are decisions about how to deal with individual consumers or citizens, and the raw material consists of personal information on the individuals concerned. Recent decades have generated a steady stream of new sources of these crucial raw materials, including the Internet and mobile telephony, the growing array of tax collection data, the intensified monitoring of air travel and other forms of transport, and the increasingly sophisticated automated monitoring of telecommunications. Analysis and exploitation of such personal data make it possible to target individuals with just the right ad at just the right moment, direct the right intervention from Homeland Security personnel, or provide the right form of medical care given a patient’s history and entitlements.

The cumulative effect is to render ever-wider domains of everyday experience subject to monitoring by distant institutional decision-makers. The more realms of typical Americans’ lives are subject to systematic documentation, the broader the scope for such decision-making. Near-universal registration of births and deaths became complete in the first quarter of the twentieth century. By mid-century, the IRS and Social Security had begun to track employment and incomes of most American adults. Around the same time, credit reporting grew to monitor the finances of perhaps half of American families.

Computing played no role in the advent of such monitoring, but it has since lent vast momentum to its development. The 1980s brought the beginnings of the Internet, eventually spawning new troves of information on users’ interests, communication patterns, and activities. The 1990s saw the explosion of mobile telephones, generating new systems of accounting for Americans’ movements and whereabouts, as well as their communications patterns. The new millennium has yielded mushrooming social networking sites, attracting willing new sources of personal information, along with the attentions of countless organizations determined to find profitable uses for it.

Issue #22, Fall 2011
Post a Comment

Murray Suid:

I'm pleased that Mr. Rule has launched this discussion. This introduction is beautifully done and really far-reaching.

Because many of those affected do not read scholarly articles--or anything else, for that matter--I'd like to see these issues present in other media, for example, on television and radio.

Concerning the material at hand: Mr. Rule seems to suggest that privacy is a natural right--or perhaps our natural state. But wasn't there a time--not that long ago--when most people lived in small communities and knew a great deal about each other? I wonder if privacy came about because of urbanization and isolation, a lifestyle in which people knew little even about their close neighbors. Perhaps the recent loss of privacy--as documented so well here--takes us back to a time of greater transparency, allowing us--for example--to recognize the bad guys among us.

True, the use of personal data by corporations and government is problematical both economically and politically. We can easily imagine negative consequences. But there are also positive ones, for example, discovering that a candidate for office is a deadbeat...or worse. (How many of our leads hide behind a wall of privacy!)

Murray Suid
Inverness, California

Sep 14, 2011, 4:32 PM

I am still surprised that the government goes to such great lengths for surveillance. I cannot understand how they justify this in the face of democratic freedoms. I understand the need to keep an eye on things for protection, but I am against surveillance on that scale. That's why I use Express VPN. We should all be checking our own backyards anyway.

Apr 24, 2013, 6:09 AM
John Lee:

I've found the exact same problems in my role as CTO. You wouldnt think that finance and investing advisors would be under government surveillance...But we are!

Wealth Dragons

Oct 24, 2014, 5:58 AM

Post a Comment



Comments (you may use HTML tags for style)


Note: Several minutes will pass while the system is processing and posting your comment. Do not resubmit during this time or your comment will post multiple times.