Thursday, April 5, 2018


We are being watched. And yet, although public security cameras are the most visible and obvious signs of surveillance, there are now many more efficient ways to follow an individual person. A few years ago, a German politician, Malte Spitz, made headlines when he asked for his records from Deutsche Telekom, and found that they had recorded his exact location in terms of longitude and latitude more than 35,000 times in one six-month period. And yet this is nothing new; cell phones only function when they can be located by the cellular system; the only news was that the information was retained. Indeed, there have been many sociological studies made using anonymous cellphone data to examine traffic patterns, pedestrian flow, and other broader areas of human society. Such data exists, and it would be a small leap indeed to link it with personal information.

Fear seems to predominate, and although we may all have a creepy feeling of being followed, few want to rock the boat by complaining. Fears over terrorism, indeed, have made many people feel safer with the cameras running.In London, one of the most surveilled cities on earth, some have estimated that there is one camera for every 14 citizens -- 421,000 in London alone. And yet there have been relatively few instances of vandalism of these cameras. In more rural areas of England, in contrast, roadway cameras designed to catch speeders -- the hated "Gatsos" -- have been frequently vandalized, with the means varying from spray paint and hammers to, in a number of instances, bombs. Are rural Brits angrier than urban ones? Apparently, a speeding ticket is more hated than the idea of being watched while one shops (or else rural folk are more likely to reach for a blowtorch or a sledgehammer).

But all this belies the strange truth of how our modern Internet's Big Brother came into being: we summoned him ourselves. Like Aladdin rubbing his lamp, we asked for all kinds of goods and services, little realizing that each of our requests created a valuable little bit of data about ourselves.  We asked for the convenience of on-line banking, of getting our medical test results, of qualifying ourselves for mortgages, all without having to leave home or sign a physical piece of paper. And it's those millions of acts that have made us most susceptible to invasions of our privacy, whether by the government, corporations, or the eager army of hackers. It's turned out that we Big Brother doesn't have to bother to "watch" us -- in many instances we're freely giving our information to him.

And we all know the story about the frog in the pot that was gradually heated up. We've gotten used to some of this intrusiveness, and are more willing today than we were yesterday to give up a little privacy in return for convenience. As one sign of this: Google's "new" feature (announced this week!) allowing people to share their own locations on Google Maps is in fact nearly identical to a feature Google killed eight years ago, known as Google Latitude. Back then, privacy concerns put the kibosh on the feature, but today it seems to be as welcome a development as sliced bread.

1 comment:

  1. I do agree that there is less paranoia about the surveillance industry. Personally, I stopped feeling agitated by all the pop ups on my computer of advertisements related to my search and purchasing activities. When it began I recalled being disturbed by the number of ads that were basically a digital trail that led to my cyberspace history. Now I just ignore it. The surveillance issue doesn't scare me as much as digital image/sound manipulation where people can be made to look as if they're saying or doing things that they never did. It takes selective editing of content to a whole other level. While it isn't surveillance per se, it is part of the overarching disinformation network, which influences popular sentiment and military/economic policies.