Digital Legacies: Surveillance

Julius Wiedemann explores how data collection systems have subtly embedded themselves into every facet of modern-day living, with their tradeoffs and potential for misuse.

by Julius WiedemannPublished on : Mar 30, 2021

There is little unknown today. We are observed in real time in most places - from the supermarket to the drug stores, from schools to the work environment, in the streets and on the highway. Nearly everywhere we walk past, but fundamentally every time we have a mobile phone turned on, we are being monitored and data is being collected. We are used to it by now, but most of us still do not understand that the trade-off we are doing when we are using services is that these services are not for free. What is being sold to a certain extent is our freedom. This might sound as if all these services are evil. It is not the case at all. We are all enjoying search engines and social networks, but also numerous websites are profiting from a freemium model, which works openly so.

CCTV systems are just a small part of how we are watched | Digital Legacies: Surveillance | STIRworld
CCTV systems are just a small part of how we are watched Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

The 2.8 billion people active on Facebook, the 1 billion active Instagram users, the 500 million people actively using Instagram Stories every day, the 340 million active tweeters, the 660 million LinkedIn users who log in each month, the two billion active YouTube members, and the 800 million active users on TikTok are all in the business of data. The more these companies add features that complement their data, the more they can predict how the user will behave. Location, credit card, utility bill, address, type of work, education, income, friendships, purchase behaviour, travelling, wish lists, and others constitute a wealth of data that can be used in endless ways. Countries are implementing new directives of how to manage user data, so that there are no hidden actions behind data collection and its use.

Many tools previously used for facial recognition and data mining by private entities are now used in the mass control of populations| Digital Legacies: Surveillance | STIRworld
Many tools previously used for facial recognition and data mining by private entities are now used in the mass control of populations Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

Privacy International, an advocacy institution, defines mass surveillance as “indiscriminate surveillance, which uses systems or technologies that collect, analyse, and/or generate data on indefinite or large numbers of people instead of limiting surveillance to individuals about which there is reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing”. Many tools previously widely used by private entities, such as face recognition and data mining, are now being applied for mass control of populations. And more than that, they are also used for censorship, fake news, and misinformation. The authoritarian governments will also have the advantage that they can cross check different databases without the burden of having to get it approved from any legislative body. The textbook of dictatorships always had the control over media as one of the first things. These days they pre-emptively understand media movements and can counterattack with numbers tactics.

Tools used to monitor posts about vaccination can also be used to monitor people organising a strike | Digital Legacies: Surveillance | STIRworld
Tools used to monitor posts about vaccination can also be used to monitor people organising a strike Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

The same tools that are used to monitor citizens’ postings about vaccination in a region can also be used to monitor people organising a strike. Again, dictatorships will always have the “upperhand” of allowing certain services to work as long as they leave a back door for scrutiny on the people using it, for reasons they do not agree or know. Democracy is a complicated exercise, and an experiment that has proven to create incredible human prosperity, but that demands a lot of effort from us to build institutions that benefit groups of people in the long run. And more often than not, we are short-sighted when we think about the future. Desperation is always a common thread, especially when we are living in economic hardship. And both companies and governments will use that.

From the first surveillance camera put in London to massive traffic control systems, we have come a long way | Digital Legacies: Surveillance | STIRworld
From the first surveillance camera put in London to massive traffic control systems, we have come a long way Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

From the first surveillance camera put in London, to massive traffic control systems that depend on cameras, we have come a long way. The key ingredient to counterbalance surveillance is not the elimination of it, but instead, a complete transparency about what is being collected and what is the objective of that surveillance. As many writers such as Yuval Noah Harari have predicted, we need to stay attentive to the use of technologies that inhibit our humanistic prosperity. Now over 70 years old, George Orwell’s novel 1984 has greatly inspired us to understand what these digital technologies could inflict on our society. In a review of the book, Time magazine had written that the author has “sought to awaken British and US societies to the totalitarian dangers that threatened democracy even after the Nazi defeat. In letters before and after his novel’s completion, Orwell urged ‘constant criticism,’ warning that any ‘immunity’ to totalitarianism must not be taken for granted: ‘Totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.’” Regardless if Orwell was completely right, knowing what we know today, it is wise to stay vigilant about the next chapters about this subject.

Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.

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