Week 10: Surveillance


Privacy/surveillance. Not an easy topic to address. We are instinctively for privacy — yet happily give away information about ourselves to marketers on social media quizzes. We yearn for safety but oppose mass surveillance. We fear identity theft but want the convenience of online shopping and banking.

Dear those in ICM810 as well. We have been talking about Edward Snowden and  mass surveillance quite a bit. For those new to the issue, here is the story.

I have tried to provide a somewhat different approach here that hopefully can complement but not overlap those discussions.

I’ve tried to design this session with connections to cybercrime and Dark Net and Dark Web, our requested session next week. Of course, you will also find connections to Bitcoins and even freedom of expression, as well as to our upcoming (last) session on digital rights.

But most importantly: Note the governance issue: Who governs us online? Please screen this talk as an interesting prologue to the issue.


Cultures of Privacy

Privacy is culturally defined. Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that it is one of our basics rights just think of how the concept has changed in the past decades, including reality shows and social media revelations.  As a historical look at privacy in the U.S. notes,

In challenging public tastes and journalistic decisions with some success, nineteenth-century privacy advocates showed how standards of civility can be used to limit civil liberties. Constitutional protections for expression can be overshadowed by community norms and demands for personal dignity. The firm “no law” language of the First Amendment sometimes has been overcome when journalism is classified as threatening to society and broadcast content is considered a violation of the public interest.

Controversial issues of informational and decisional privacy have permeated the legal system, but the roots of the right remain in rather nebulous standards of social politeness and personal spirituality.

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In addition, the very rich and complex text by some of the world’s leading sociologists, After Snowden, explains the current shift in our culture, in terms of the state/corporation-citizen relationship. Our data doesn’t relate to us as subjects, persons, individual being. Our data=utility.

[T]he concept of suspect is now thoroughly transformed, for we are no longer able to confine it to its juridical sense, which refers to criminality, nor are we able to confine its meaning to its socio-political iteration relating to enmity or potential subversion.

What is clear is that the subject of surveillance is now a subject whose communicative practices are seen by the surveillance agencies as of potential informational value or utility, where this value might be related to security or the economy. It is hence not that we are all suspects now, but rather that our data inputs and networks might be deemed of value, understood in terms of utility, at some point in the future. As the subject communicates in cyberspace, there might be some awareness that the communication network is variously being monitored, registered, stored; however, there is a lack of knowledge as to the informational utility accrued to that communication by the surveillance agencies.

How the mass surveillance of communications might impact on behavior is clearly a pertinent question…

Not an Isolated Issue

How do we behave under surveillance? Remember the idea of Chilling Effect and the Spiral of Silence — the connection to Freedom of Expression? As that reading indicated, privacy issues and freedom of expression dilemmas are interlinked. This first empirical look at the relationship between Internet and telecom-based mass surveillance and self-censorship, was conducted last year in the University of Oxford. This is what the researcher told the Washington Post:

It concerns me that surveillance seems to be enabling a culture of self-censorship because it further disenfranchises minority groups. And it is difficult to protect and extend the rights of these vulnerable populations when their voices aren’t part of the discussion. Democracy thrives on a diversity of ideas, and self-censorship starves it…

Many of us feel that we have nothing to hide. Well, go ahead and read this short column by a Time magazine journalist:

Hacking Myself Is the Most Surprisingly Humiliating Decision I’ve Ever Made

National Responses to Global Problems

You’ve heard this one before. In regulatory terms, privacy (as well as many media-related issues) have been nationally governed — but the changes sweeping the “culture of privacy” are becoming very similar all around the world, thanks to our global nature of online culture.

This discrepancy between global challenges and national responses is clear, e.g., from the UNESCO survey on Internet Privacy and Freedom of Expression. I highly recommend the report if you want a solid, basic, understanding of the the issue, and its relationship to other governance issues, such us FoE:

  • The report lays out concrete challenges, due to platforms and services (from cloud computing to the mobile internet), as well as due to different data collection processes (from cookies to geolocation).
  • It also discusses different stakeholders — governments (macro), intermediaries (meso), and private people (micro).
  • It has  wonderful conclusive sections (4-5) that focus on many issues relevant to criminal justice and law enforcement.
  • The UNESCO report gives examples from various countries, but given it’s from 2012, I’d like to refer to a more recent project by Privacy International.  PI’s  State of Surveillance reports have more up-to-date information.


Privacy is Big Business

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One aspect of privacy and business is online advertising.  That issue we may know quite well, and may approve of: Customization means better consumer experiences for us. Here’s a simple, basic run-down of the kind of challenges advertising and data gathering may cause in terms of governance of data.
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Yet another aspect is the core business of getting the data and providing protection from hackers — for governments and big businesses. The above images are from the The Global Surveillance Industry report (2016) by Privacy International. As you can see, this is big biz: Surveillance involves many kinds of technologies = products. That means markets for those products. The number of commercial companies conducting surveillance has grown dramatically in the past decade. Some call the surveillance companies “Digital Mercenaries”. Governments did already negotiate about the inclusion of surveillance technology into the most comprehensive international treaty on export controls, the Wassenaar Arrangement. They did not put these negotiations into force. One of the largest companies in this field is based in Italy and called The Hacking Team. They are not always successful…
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Your Assignment: From Macro to Micro

Please read this treatment on surveillance from the Harvard Law Review, from a (US) legal perspective (in Google Drive). Please comment below how some of the macro-level — legal — considerations mentioned in the text relate to  the micro-level, to your everyday, specifically. 1 paragraph. Due, as always, within a week.

13 thoughts on “Week 10: Surveillance

  1. Our intellectual property and privacy have been at stake for a while now due to our willingness to provide it. Our freedom of expression provides us with the right to experiment and question social ideas, systematic surveillance stunts our exploration and development as a human. Grasping the legality of our current digital situation has been difficult on a global scale. In court, the plaintiff can challenge secret government surveillance if they can prove that it was done. The problem lies in the government’s eagerness to tell the truth. When an individual is being charged due to evidence that was taken without their consent, they are subject to an unjust trial. We as a society must be informed to the extent of which we are being surveilled to ensure full transparency. Our property, know known as data, is at risk of being stolen each time it is bought or sold. As technology advances so will our means of surveillance, before it gets out of hand regulations must be established to protect our civil liberties.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The most relevant surveillance that occurs in my life that’s mentioned in this piece is the ability for social networking and retail websites to collect my data and use to it recommend services and products that I might want to buy. This kind of data collection definitely has it’s pros and cons, for instance I love being shown products that are the most relevant to me but it is kind of creepy to leave a retail website and see their ads on Facebook soon after. It seems a bit unethical but I truly think that there will never be a time when private companies aren’t collecting our behavioral and buying data because it translates to so much potential revenue for them. The biggest question would be where do we draw the moral line between seemingly harmless surveillance and data collection (that’s used to predict our consumer behavior) and data collection just for the heck of it? People are much more likely to protest “public surveillance” by governments than the surveillance that private companies partake in, when I think they are equally invasive. How we frame surveillance clearly has a huge part in what we’re okay with and what we aren’t.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “The justifications for surveillance by public and private actors are significant, but so too are the costs that the rising tide of unfettered surveillance is creating.”

    This statement rings true on both the macro and micro level. For instance, the costs, both figuratively and literally are rising at a rapid rate. It is now available at the micro level, for individuals to pay for online security. Various services provide consumers with data security by using independent servers. This trickle down from major corporation data security is an example of macro surveillance all the way down to individual services that guarantee the same security.

    It’s a great feat, putting the power back in the hands of consumers at the micro level. However, the fact that online security services must be paid for is the major problem. Security has never been a concern until recently, with snowden and many others exposing government agendas.

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  4. As everyone knows, we are being constantly monitored in the name of counter-terrorism after 911. This is a legal and large-scale surveillance in the United States. In this review, the author mentions that governments investigators in antiterrorism cases possess a powerful tool known as the National Security Letter (NSL), which means FBI can access a wide variety of individuals’ information with a very low threshold. Namely, at least for me, i am a totally transparent person since i entered this territory. For example, i can hardly remember the road so that i have to use Google Maps almost everywhere. Hence, they could track my activities as long as i go out if they want to do that. Technically, i have no privacy in this country that boasts it is the freest one in the world.

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  5. In today’s world everyone sees surveillance as a positive aspect towards security.Despite the security of states and individuals privacy being in contradiction, every person needs his own privacy.The fact is that the expansion of technology in this last two decades has brought its benefits as well as its shortcomings. Nowadays, we are witnessing a worldwide debate which is about the issue of the government surveillance, which is done by a variety of different intelligent agencies. The increasing number of people in our planet is leading to various global threats such as: economic rivalry, politics, terrorism threats, and cyber-attacks, which has pushed many western governments to spy on their own citizens.
    I still recognize where the line must be drawn and allow for public concern regarding the violation of their amendment rights. Take for instance when the material/data of a journalist is classified by the U.S. government as threatening to society and the broadcasting of its content is considered a violation of U.S. Homeland Security.I believe that when it comes to a controversial case or issue, it should be addressed on a case by case basis. Full or even partial submission of our amendment rights should not be required of American’s for every instance that the argument “in the best interest of Homeland Security” is exploited.

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  6. In regards to surveillance, present American laws only contain some protections against the government, which limit them from surveilling citizens in certain cases. However, with leniency given to government entities as well as private sectors, their extreme abuse of power is overlooked because all actions are defended in the spirit of protecting citizens from acts of terrorism and the likes. After events, such as the attacks that occurred on September 11th, surveillance was proclaimed a necessity that all had to endure for the greater good of the public. If not accepting of this transition, you are looked at suspiciously or as one who is unpatriotic. This idea has slipped into the fabric of businesses such as Facebook, Google, etc. and has caused for activities that use to be personal to be activities that could one day be up for public speculation. The government and private companies continue to gain more and more access to our personal information via our mobile devices, social media platforms, etc. An example of how this in turn affects my everyday life is when I download new apps on any of my devices. When initially installing an app, it always directs me to grant it access to specific pieces of information I may have on my phone such as my location, photos, my family and friends’ contact information, etc. in exchange for full access to the service it provides. Instead of being able to use these apps freely, I have reveal not only information about myself, but also others I may know to use their service. It may seem small, but granting such permission to do so has left it open for my information to be distributed and used for other means beyond my knowledge.

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  7. “The bottom line about surveillance and persuasion is that surveillance gives the watcher information about the watched. That information gives the watcher increased power over the watched that can
    be used to persuade, influence, or otherwise control them, even if they do not know they are being watched or persuaded.”

    In the digital world we have earned many great new commodities. We are able to access information from pretty much any corner of the world, we are able to connect with others and share knowledge and information. The knowledge we earn and share can further help individuals to become empowered and solicit further progress. However, is the information we access and share “legitimate” was it organically thought of ? or was it somehow placed in your screen by algorithms/surveillance? I try my hardest not to think too much into this and avoid paranoia but it is very difficult. As I am typing there is a piece of paper blocking my webcam because I know this can be accessed by somebody else. When I get into my car in the morning, I used my GPS, it tracks everywhere I go. There is no reason to hide my whereabouts, where I shop online, what sites I visit, etc. There is also no fear because I am not doing any illegal activities. My concern is about my thoughts, are they organic? original? or did I think of them because I read an “alternative fact.” This is how individuals or organizations can control the “watched” as mentioned in the above quote; making him/her/them/us powerless. Information in the modern world is very powerful, more so than in the past due to the fast pace of our technologies. But who does it really empower, when information is fed to the people in a customized way; we might be listening to only what is appealing. Think of information as an Instagram filter, you don’t like it we can change the saturation up a bit, add some contrast and some warmness to make it pretty.

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  8. By JW: Week 10 Post

    In regards to our privacy and surveillance, i honestly feel like our privacy has not been private for many years. Every time the internet becomes more advanced we as people continuously give up more pieces of our privacy due to the more information that is released to the public. I do believe that everything we do is under a constant surveillance everything we do is constantly being tracked as well as out civil liberties and everything around us. When information is taken without consent it is unfair to hold the individual accountable if though it was released by them.


  9. These Macro structures of surveillance are ultimately comprised of humans, imperfect humans. With access to in-depth, personal information of individuals, watchers are bound to come across people they know, may not like, or want something from. Or even worse, they may be paid to find specific persons within surveillance data for malicious purposes. Richards explains that the ability to watch persons without their knowledge makes us more vulnerable to blackmail, persuasion, discrimination, and coercion. In court, you can take legal action against the watchers only if you can prove it – but individuals are only able to prove it if the government, or the surveying body confesses to it. Government investigators are allowed to use National Security Letters to take personal data from institutions the individual has an account with, and it prohibits the institutions from disclosing its existence. This combined with increased incentives to conduct surveillance and aggregate data is why our civil liberties are at stake if we do not find ways to create checks and balances within our legal system. Richard also makes indications that point out the depth of behavioral advertising, and the chilling effect of our political discourses knowing that we are being watched.

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  10. There are two prongs to this surveillance issue; first we have the legal side then the gov/private companies whose actions or lack thereof affect “me” or everyday people. On a Macro scale the lack of legal recourse is a setback, courts according to the report feel that “surveillance creates no harm” and it is with that understanding that courts dismiss challenges to the various programs that monitor the everyday transactions, conversations and whereabouts of people or me. An important note is that the programs that can be challenged are the ones that we know about or have been made public. In finding out about a program there are laws in place to protect against government surveillance but these laws provide minimal protections. So there truly is no safety and security in our everyday lives. Moreover, besides the legal we have the private business/company side who generate wealth and fortunes from surveillance and tracking our movements online etc. This leads back to the individual or me in the sense that we are living in a world were everywhere we go, everything we buy, every website we visit is profitable… information can be bought and sold. If I visit the Nordstrom website and make a purchase…I will get pop-ups and recurring emails to visit the Nordstrom site again. This all because data is being collected and tracked.


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