In an increasingly monitored world, how can consumers and citizens reclaim ownership of their privacy?
Early in 2010, The Guardian reported plans by the British Police and Home Office for a remarkable new venture in domestic surveillance. Unmanned aerial drones, now used for tracking insurgents in Pakistan and Afghanistan, are to be adapted (unarmed, one hopes) to monitor Britain’s civil population. An initial aim of the project is crowd control during the 2012 London Olympics. Thereafter, these high-tech surveillance engines are to become a permanent feature of state security and law enforcement—much to the distress of civil libertarians and privacy advocates, who immediately objected to the plans.
But no one can say this is especially new. With an estimated 1.7 million video cameras deployed on the ground, George Orwell’s homeland can probably already claim world leadership in state-sponsored monitoring of its population. And the intensification of all forms of institutional tracking of individuals isn’t restricted to Britain—it is occurring the world over. All told, the United States has probably contributed more to these trends than any other country as both the creator and exporter of different means of government and corporate surveillance. The sheer variety of forms implicated in this monitoring is striking. They include real-time recording of consumers’ buying habits and finances; tracking of travelers’ movements by air, train, and road; monitoring of private citizens’ telecommunications; and the mass harvesting of tidbits of personal data from social sites like Facebook.
The seemingly relentless pace of innovation in surveillance cannot be ascribed to any one interest, policy, organizational purpose, or political mood. Instead, it suffuses all manner of relations between institutions and individuals, from the allocation of welfare-state benefits to the pursuit of suspected terrorists.
The result has been change in the very texture of everyday life. Being “alone” is not what it used to be. Our whereabouts, our financial transactions, our uses of the World Wide Web, and countless other data routinely register in the automated consciousness of corporate and state bureaucracies. More importantly, the results of such monitoring in turn shape the treatment we receive from these organizations—sometimes in ways that we know, and often in ways we hardly imagine.