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.
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