Privacy: So Passé

The myriad eyes—public and private—monitoring our lives

Canadians are, by and large, private people. In our Canadian way, we do not make a big deal about this, but we have comprehensive privacy legislation at both the provincial and federal levels, and have had it for years. We are concerned about being watched and value our freedoms. Many regard violent events, including the recent attacks in Quebec and Ottawa, as rationales for surveillance, and we must be careful not to react in the moment, with inappropriate and ineffective solutions.

Video surveillance is not nearly as widespread in Canada as it is in some other countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, possibly reflecting a sense that things are safer here. And yet we should be concerned. We should be concerned about the obvious things—the growing presence of cameras on our streets and our shops, the ever-deepening linkages between our online and our offline lives, the extent to which monitoring is seen as a natural and obvious solution to every challenge that faces us. But what about the less obvious instances? The surveillance that is unseen, unasked for and unanticipated?

A new book from Colin Bennett, Kevin Haggerty, David Lyon and Valerie Steeves helps us understand both the obvious and unseen surveillance in our lives. It explains the origins of what many are calling a “surveillance society,” and explores the nuances and subtleties of the changes—technological, legal, political, and social—that have made it possible. The authors help us understand the implications of these changes, now and in the future.

Surveillance, defined as “any systematic focus on personal information in order to influence, manage, entitle, or control those persons whose information is collected,” is growing in Canada as elsewhere in the world. But our control over that growth has not kept pace with recent -developments. Both our legal system and our social system are ill prepared for a future that promises even more surveillance, in greater detail and subtlety, in the coming years.

The book originates in work coming out of the Surveillance Project, a federally funded research network that has been functioning for several years. It is based at Queen’s University and is one of the leading academic research projects in the world on the social implications of surveillance. Importantly, it involves a network of researchers from across the country, and a wide range of disciplines, reflecting the complex and interconnected world of surveillance in the 21st century.

The product is an accessible and concise book, which any interested reader could pick up, and its main contribution is a considered anatomy of surveillance apparatuses that avoids the reactionary and sensationalist panic of mainstream media. In turn, each chapter explores a different type of surveillance and the attendant impacts it has on our society, our democracy, our economy and our personal lives. It examines the regular concerns of commercial, police and governmental surveillance but also focuses on the growing phenomenon of technology-enhanced surveillance the public enacts on each other.

The book opens with a vivid illustration of the ubiquity of surveillance in our lives, based on an imaginary but absolutely realistic scenario involving a typical Canadian family. The tale pivots around the surveillance—seen and unseen—of a nine-year-old girl, Farah, and her extended family as they prepare for a trip. Many readers will see themselves and their loved ones in the situation portrayed, and may be surprised to see all the ways in which perfectly normal activities are entwined with a global surveillance apparatus with governmental, commercial and criminal arms. Farah’s family is a predominantly privileged one—her parents are a professor and a software developer—and much of the surveillance focuses on consumption habits and personal security, but the techniques and instruments are omnipresent and pervasive. From customer loyalty programs that track the family’s consumer behaviour to online video games that observe biometric data and physical responses to advertisements, to home security systems and enhanced travel security, and to Farah’s intricately monitored educational dossier that will affect her future career prospects and mandatory drug tests, very few of her daily activities go unnoticed by some organization or another. Her family even takes pains to tidy the house for the visits of a rather snoopy community health nurse, who has the power to report aberrant behaviour to social services, which could risk breaking up Farah’s -family. One hopes that a story like this spurs greater awareness of this situation, the first step to a fuller and more informed debate in this country.

Surveillance is often portrayed as a personal problem, the technology and the practice of watching that invades our privacy. Even the definition of surveillance used in this book focuses on “personally identifiable information” in making the distinction between what is surveillance and what is not. While the information may be personal, however, the implications go well beyond the individual.

This is because, although surveillance can certainly be an invasion of privacy, that is only part of the problem. First of all, much surveillance at a personal level is not problematic, as when parents watch over their children at a playground or when lifeguards scan a pool for misadventures in the water. Yet seeing surveillance as a personal problem—as in excusing it by saying “I have nothing to hide”—masks its more serious social implications.

As a democracy, our society depends on certain freedoms, enshrined in our charter of rights and freedoms. We need these freedoms of movement, of association, of speech, in order to be effective citizens. If surveillance impairs those freedoms, it impairs our democracy. That seems straightforward, but how could surveillance affect our freedoms?

I would argue that the social impact of surveillance is not dramatic but gradual, not instant, but incremental. If it represented an obvious attack on social and political freedoms, we might be more likely to see it and make the necessary adjustments. Instead, it has insinuated itself into our daily lives as part of a variety of initiatives that ostensibly provide safety (from crime and terrorism), convenience (paying with credit card chips), efficiency (faster border crossings for those eligible) and economic opportunity (targeted marketing). Each of these things, alone is unlikely to undo a century of work building a free and democratic society. Together, and gradually, they are the acid corroding the foundations of our political system.

One can imagine several ways in which surveillance impairs freedom of speech, movement and association. Importantly, this impairment does not have to be absolute to be worrisome. Rather, the accumulation of small insults can have a long-term and more significant impact than otherwise anticipated. Take, for example, the impact on freedom of association of ubiquitous public surveillance. When you are out and about in public these days you may encounter people with views critical of the current government or its policies. Will you be less likely to stop and talk to them if you know that a camera is trained on the interaction? Would you worry that—whatever your motives and background—there is a risk of being incriminated by association? How many times would this have to happen, to how many people, before we would start to wonder about the reality of our democratic decision-making process? Similar “tiny cuts” to our democratic society occur every time someone opts out of a trip or a conversation because of the overbearing and simply tedious surveillance machinery that makes our conversations and collaboration—the basis of democratic society—too much work or too risky to bother with.

And this public surveillance is gradually becoming more sophisticated, technologically complex and intertwined with other surveillance initiatives. For example, the eerie title of the book is mirrored by the ever-accumulating, ghostly “data double” that shadows every citizen. These digital doppelgängers are the summation of the constant collection of biometric data, from the information about a citizen’s weight, height and eye colour when he or she applies for a driver’s licence, to the features of that person’s face posing, unsmilingly, for a monochromatic passport photo, to fingerprints and retina scans—all readable from the chips of enhanced identification cards (passports, health insurance cards, workplace identification cards). This mass of data is globalized, and readily distributed to any security agency, but is primarily used at border crossings to “prescreen” travellers and assess the level of risk and danger, and also the monitoring of where and when a person moves. It only takes a few markers of risk in their data double—whether behavioural, political, medical or financial—before a person’s movements can be radically restricted.

Surveillance, though, is not limited to the forces of government and security, and Transparent Lives demonstrates the massive scope of activities that are monitored, as in Farah’s story above. The book also describes the trends that have led to the expansion of surveillance in our society and its transformation from the occasional and exceptional to the ubiquitous. Drivers include the technological potential found in digital advances where surveillance represents an “add-on” to the provided services; the vast, growing economy of personal information, which data miners sell to advertisers to better target their marketing; the emphasis on risk management in both government and economic circles. All of these exist alongside and are intertwined with the growing mania for national security. Since these trends offer certain benefits to the general public, they are being compounded by the growing public acceptance (and even insistence) of surveillance.

In all, the situation looks bleak. The rapid expansion of surveillance is buoyed by these social, political and economic trends that the authors have identified, and our legal system is at pains to keep up. The ways technology has changed daily lives has led to an ambiguity over the distinction between public and private. As consumers are more likely to disclose personal information voluntarily on public forums such as Facebook, or use software without fully reading terms of service agreements, it becomes more difficult to determine what to protect. The blending of those commercial interests with extra-democratic security agencies has made awareness of our complicity tantamount to resisting the march of surveillance.

As trends and technologies proliferate with incredible velocity, it is difficult to parse whether the state of affairs after the Snowden leaks is improving. Encouragingly, recent developments suggest that we may have “hit bottom” in terms of gratuitous privacy invasion. First, there have been widespread backlashes against social media such as Facebook, whose experimentation with users’ news feeds to see how it affected users’ moods this summer resulted in an apology from the firm. Similarly, Apple has launched a discrete website championing its dedication to users’ security, claiming that it will no longer aid government or law enforcement agencies in cracking passcodes on mobile devices.

Moreover, a recent ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada, and a recently tabled private bill in the House of Commons show that our legislators and legal system are somewhat keen to define the legal basis behind these surveillance initiatives. In June 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that requests by police for subscriber information from telecommunication providers—similar to the infamous “metadata” that has been referenced in the many stories coming out of the Snowden leaks—must be accompanied by a valid warrant.1 Telecom providers, most recently Rogers, have considered this ruling and have committed to their customers that they will require warrants for all requests for subscriber information. And Liberal member of Parliament Joyce Murray tabled the CSEC (Communications Security Establishment Canada) Accountability Act, which would establish an oversight committee capable of monitoring our security agency’s activities, of which we know very little at the moment.

And while these reactions and rulings seem like the first steps toward climbing out of a colossal gulch, the bad news keeps burying us. Despite Apple’s stated concern for privacy, the company patented a device last year that would allow police to disable the camera functions on mobile devices within a defined area, effectively inhibiting the proper reporting of incidents like last year’s streetcar shooting in Toronto. Moreover, the celebrity phone hacking scandals should remind us that while our reliance on cloud computing deepens, personal data is always vulnerable to those dedicated enough to steal it.

It is hard to know yet whether these reactions, rulings and bills are part of a larger trend to protect privacy, but clearly Canadians have found compelling reasons to rethink their relationship to surveillance by both corporate and the state actors. We are gradually moving from ignorance and acceptance to awareness, negotiation and resistance. The best defences against mass surveillance, and the power citizens are relinquishing to the state and economic actors, are books such as Transparent Lives, whose mission is to raise awareness and provide concrete actionable information. It is strongly recommended to all readers with an interest in the impact of information technology on our society.