My previous posts have examined specific actions that the US government and/or corporations have taken regarding citizen’s privacy and the use of their information. The Internet has given these two bodies unprecedented access to our personal information and the tools to collect, store, and analyze it. However this is not a black and white issue and labeling the citizens as simply victims over-simplifies the issue.
We often focus solely on how government and businesses are tracking us. I’d like to step away from that for a moment to examine some of the complexities involved in privacy and surveillance. We keep digital records of ourselves day in and day out: search histories, photo albums on Flikr, Photobucket, Picasa, and Facebook. Instant message programs like Skype log our chats and store them for our later perusal.
Lee Humphrey, in his paper, Who’s Watching Whom: A study of Interactive Technology and Surveillance, describes Oscar Gandy’s theory on the relationship between surveillance and technology. Gandy draws from Jermey Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon.
The Panopticon is a conceptual building designed by Jeremy Bentham in 1791. It would confine each individual to a small cell. However every cell would be viewable from one central room , allowing for absolute control and surveillance. He hoped the design could be used for factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, madhouses, and jails.
Gandy posits that the growth in databases incentivizes a culture of surveillance and monitoring. He claims that information technology “facilitates the surveillance by an unseen corporate and bureaucratic observer.” The information that is gathered is then used to define and control access to goods and services, which are implicit in a modern capitalist economy. Gandy made this claim in 1993 long before Facebook, Amazon, Google and the number of other companies and technologies that record our online activities. Gandy argues that with this information the population can then be categorized based on inferred economic and political value.
To better understand the issue of privacy we must realize that it is not a simple issue. Humphrey defines four forms of surveillance but only places three in his list. The first form of surveillance is the general concept of a non-transparent body, like a state or corporation, monitoring the populace with impunity.
I. Voluntary Surveillance: This occurs when people provide their consent in being monitored. This is exemplified by consumer societies willing participation in the monitoring of their consumer tendencies
II. Lateral Surveillance: This is the nontransparent monitoring of citizens by each other. This occurs every time you decide to ‘stalk’ someone on Facebook.
III. Self-surveillance: This is the act of recording your own data so that it can be replayed or viewed later. Self-surveillance allows us to reexamine events that took place in the past and replace our interpretation of them with a new one that is informed by the second viewing. This means that the participants can examine their own behaviors in a way that was not possible before.
The issue of privacy is very often oversimplified during the common dialogue. Luckily for everyone scholars and academia exist to examine all the little nuances that are ignored throughout our daily routine. Humphrey performed a yearlong study on Dodgeball, the precursor to Foursquare and Google Latitudes. This case study is great example of the three forms of privacy and how the average user generally does not conceptualize how skewed their idea of privacy is. Dodgeball was a Google owned service that recorded and distributed location-based information of the users.
Humphrey found that the users were, in general, not concerned with their privacy because they, “felt they had control over their information and to whom it was sent and because they were experienced and savvy internet users.” During his interview process he found that some users were unconcerned about their privacy because they could control when they would share their location and to whom. This ignored the fact that Google and the Dodgeball service were monitoring them, thus making their understanding of their privacy naively narrow. For the most part Humphrey found that the users information did not go further than the user’s selected friends. However, they did not have control over the dissemination of their information to corporate entities.
But what could corporations possibly do with our feed of location check-ins? This information can be linked with other databases giving marketers and corporations a more holistic view of their consumer. This is an example of voluntary surveillance.
The Dodgeball case study also examined lateral surveillance. In order to function the service required lateral monitoring. The issues that come up in relation to this were more apparent to the users. There existed users who never posted their location and merely eavesdropped on the other users locations. Humphrey points out the lateral surveillance could also lead to stalking, but found that, again, users were unconcerned. Here is the response from one interviewee.
I just figure there are some people who are just more into checking in all the time and some people are lazier. So if you have someone who’s lazy and never checks in, are they surveying me? Not really, I’m willingly checking in. There’s no surveillance aspect to it at all because it requires that a user input a check in. There is no kind of surveillance. I never feel like it’s a stalking or whatever. You know, and in my circle, it’s at least 50% female. Although you know that’s probably not reflective of Dodgeball in general because I’m sure girls are afraid of the stalking aspect. You know, when you sign up for Dodgeball they explain all the ground rules. They do go way out of their way to try to calm people’s concerns. They go, ‘‘Look, we’ve prevented all these ways so that no one can really stalk you.’’ And you know that’s good enough for me. But then again I’ve never really been stalked so I can’t say it’s high on my priority of what I’m afraid of. I’d probably be more complimented. ‘‘Oh you’re stalking me? That’s so cute!’’
(Irwin, Los Angeles)
Finally, we’ve arrived at self-surveillance. Dodgeball provided a recording service so users could go through and look at their behavior and see patterns. “The self-surveillance that Dodgeball facilitated allowed users like Irwin to see where he had been in ways that were previously much more difficult to do. Not only did Dodgeball keep an itemized list of his social outings, but also it created a visual representation of outings on the Google Map. By combining his map with the maps of his friends, he could visually compare and contrast social outings,” writes Humphrey. This allows users to develop a connection between the data and their physical reality.
Perhaps the specificity of this study makes it not as applicable to everyone. However, it was clear from the study that mobile social networks encourage all three forms of surveillance. It doesn’t matter if you’re not using a service like Dodgeball or Foursquare. Allowing Twitter and Facebook to track your geographic location on your phone creates the same environment.
I believe that the lack of concern that Humphrey found in his study reflects the unsophisticated thoughts that are held by many online users regarding privacy. In order to have a real discussion about privacy rights the general public needs to have a more comprehensive understanding of the nature of their privacy and how it has been compromised.
Who’s Watching Whom? A Study of Interactive Technology and Surveillance.Lee Humphreys. Journal of Communication. 61.4 (Aug. 2011) p575.