Who Is Watching You Right Now? 

In our current society, most people in public and private spaces are continuously being watched or monitored. The use of surveillance technics has been used for hundreds of years, ranging from human tracking to electronic methods that collect personal and public information. In the distant past, it was to protect food supplies and territory. Today large corporations, nation-states, nonstate actors, and private citizens monitor people and places to ensure security, fight crime, and even detect disease proliferation.

Despite their best intentions, a variety of these actors also use surveillance systems for unethical purposes, creating a sense of distrust and suspicion among populations of people. This new age of digitalization has exacerbated both opportunities to surveil and the distrust in systems that follow us by electronic means. Worse, modern surveillance systems allow service providers, online merchants, and criminals to not only tail us but profit off our trail. As people expand their digital footprint, these entities pick-up the breadcrumbs in the form of data nuggets. They use these valuable bytes of information to feed profit centers. For the most part, it is all done without the awareness of the data owner.

Data Has Great Value

Some data is collected by tracking our browsing histories, IP addresses, purchases, and social media posts. This is a sure sign that without restrictive laws, most companies will use our data as they see opportunities for profit. The company’s best interest will always come ahead of the security and concerns of the consumer. It also points out that it is incumbent on the person being surveilled to limit their digital trail. There are no systems in most countries to help them shake the bots following close behind. So, we need to protect ourselves on the street and our data in cyberspace. This is a feat that may prove difficult in a world where cameras hang on every corner and systems monitor every keystroke we make on our computers.

Of the top ten surveilled cities in the world, eight of them are in China, followed by London and Atlanta. With approximately 168 cameras per 1,000 people in the city of Chongqing, it has become the most surveilled city in the world. Whether you’re commuting from work or going out to dinner, the 2,579,890 street, traffic, and transportation cameras in Chonqing are monitoring your every move. It would be almost impossible for someone not to be caught on tape at least once, if not more, per day. This raises serious ethical concerns of whether capturing personally identifiable images without informed consent should be permissible. Whereas, critics of regulations say a user commits to surveillance when using apps, does that apply simply because you live in a city?

Yet, with terrorist attacks, such as 9/11, people are sympathetic about the need to understand the movement of people for the protection of society. The monitoring of crowded streets, metros, and office spaces is for the most part a public good. The question is where do we draw the line? This dispute has persisted for many years and may still not be answered until the end of time.

The Issue 

What exactly is a person’s right to privacy as opposed to the need to protect a society? Some advocates say policing practices utilizing surveillance as the enforcement mechanisms for community management is a good thing. Just like you use receipts when filing taxes or prove your identity when gaining access to services. The issue is the use of the information being collected. When it comes to security, most people acquis to security surveillance used strictly as a tool to prevent or solve a crime. The problem emerges when the information is applied for activities outside of the stated use. You can fight what you can see. The biggest critics of surveillance are typically old enough to know of enough scenarios involving government overreach. Having witnessed what amounts to data theft from legitimate entities, most policy advocate can validate their skepticism personal data will not always be used appropriately. 

Surveillance Desperation

When the government (including police) surveil the internet, it is typically as important they do it as it is for them to protect cities against terrorism. The driver for this surveillance is that we lack sound security and enforcement mechanism for the worldwide web. Of the clear web systems, most websites and nefarious users have open reign to buy and sell items that have been long outlawed outside of the digital world. This includes selling people. Therefore, surveillance prevents the destruction of our society by attempting to police digital systems as if they were in the kinetic world. 

Even if there is a need to protect people on the internet, where should the line be drawn? Most critics have an issue with what is being done with the information after it is collected.  This same question applies to companies who collect data for an entirely different purpose. Most companies advise that collecting data from surveillance allows them to provide better service and more targeted products. The European Union tried to address this with their GDPR laws. The European’s goal is to give people an opportunity to opt-out of practices designed to surveil people online and capture their data. The law even provides for a right to be forgotten. This is not the case for most of the world, even as we use the same internet.

So, while it is difficult to dispute that bustling cities should decrease the number of surveillance mechanisms, it is even harder to challenge government surveillance on the internet. It will be critical to maintain the limited security position law enforcement has to tame at least some parts of a lawless online system. This will be a fact until there is an internet policing policy of some type. 

The bottom line is if you are collecting data from surveillance activities, there must be a punishment for not protecting or misusing it. However, to enforce even this type of legal scheme, the government will need to increase surveillance.