Common smart technology is already being implicated in wider systems of control. Photo: Troy Rawhiti-Forbes

Our data provides windows – and backdoors – into our lives

Fitbit data was recently used to undermine a woman’s rape claim in court. NSA director James Clapper revealed earlier this year that smart home devices are likely to be used by US intelligence agencies to identify, monitor or track citizens in the near future. Your watch, refrigerator and dishwasher, too, are already implicated in wider systems of control.

It is no longer all that controversial for Westerners to say that we live in a surveillance society. Once characterised by authoritarian, non-democratic regimes, most of the “free world” now readily submits to the routine collection, storage and analysis of personal data, whether it’s for the purposes of governing a population, or influencing people’s behaviours (such as where we go or what we buy).

A surveillance society is one in which the public and private sectors are increasingly blurred; where data of all sorts is open to “secondary uses” that surpass their original function. In other words, data collected by one agency or organisation for particular purposes is re-appropriated, shared or sold onto another company for different uses.

While this data is often de-identified (that is, personal information is removed), secondary uses raise new concerns around what social scientist Martin Innes calls “control creep” – the extension of control systems into previously untapped terrains of social life.

Often couched in the rhetoric of terrorism prevention, control creep appropriates the promise of democratic freedom for the purposes of conducting or intensifying surveillance in new ways. Fuelled by narratives of fear, suspicion and uncertainty, previously unthinkable or unnecessary security measures are legitimised to manage situations or events with little relation to their original or prescribed purpose. Control creep usefully describes how the state garners public approval for new surveillance tactics citizens might otherwise normally oppose.

It’s not just state surveillance ‘creeping’ into our everyday lives, either. Commercial surveillance is also growing. Edward Snowden’s release of the NSA’s files in 2013 demonstrated how much of the NSA’s collection techniques mimicked those long practiced by corporate marketers. The difference lies largely in their presumed purpose: governments justify the routine tracking of citizens’ personal communications as a matter of “national security,” while commercial firms package “dataveillance” in terms of convenience, efficiency and ensuring a “relevant customer experience.”

The Snowden revelations gave the world some insight into how far-reaching control creep extends into our everyday lives. Platforms like Facebook or Twitter afford unprecedented forms of social connection, yet are now the primary means by which intelligence agencies and marketers alike come to “know” us. Our thoughts, values, beliefs and actions expressed under the pleasurable guise of social connectivity become resources for governance and control.

Control creep serves as a form of governance when information collected for one purpose is used for another. For example, the FBI has combed supermarket records for the purposes of identifying Iranian terrorists, while New Zealand’s GCSB utilised the surveillance program XKeyscore to spy on the rivals of politician Tim Groser as he competed for the position of director-general of the World Trade Organisation. Airport no-fly lists come to depend upon the aggregation of formerly distinct datasets, including government administrative data, one’s travel patterns and behavioral analysis to restrict certain passengers from travel.

It’s not just state surveillance ‘creeping’ into our everyday lives, either. Commercial surveillance is also growing.

But what about celebratory innovations like smart cities, smart homes, that seek to improve our lives in immeasurable ways? The “internet of things”, virtual reality and programmes driven by “big data” also depend on the tracking, collection, storage and aggregation of formerly discrete datasets. These often include an individual’s personal information, habits, routine communications and location. The sensor networks only become “smart” as they get to “know” you better (perhaps better than you know yourself).

On the surface, these innovations seem far less nefarious than the indiscriminate collection practices of state agencies. But control creep means that surveillance in one context has increasing value for control in another. Body monitoring devices and smart home technologies, both vastly different types of self-surveillance tools, already serve purposes outside their original function.

The reality is that more surveillance does not necessarily yield better results. And what’s lost in the desire to expand surveillance is the failure to understand the reasons surveillance is required in the first place. The structural root causes of national security threats like terrorism go unexamined as short-term solutions dependent on larger, aggregated datasets aim to identify, predict and control the unknown. There is little evidence that a preventative approach is working. But much evidence does suggest that innocent people continue to erroneously targeted, and that the constant scaremongering around ISIS or other security threats are contributing to widespread discrimination against Muslims in so-called “free” countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

So far, more data has not unilaterally meant better information and knowledge. And before we celebrate the way digital connectivity offers us more control over our everyday lives, we might instead question the ways that all this data might be controlling us: what does it now mean to be “free” or secure in the face of ever-expanding surveillance?

Visit Kathleen Kuehn at Victoria University of Wellington

*This story first appeared on Summer Newsroom

Dr Kathleen Kuehn (Twitter: @kathleenkr) is a Senior Lecturer in the Media Studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington, specialising in digital privacy issues.

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