During a visit to our nation’s Capitol, I explored the Mall’s museums, which is my habit anytime I visit Washington. Like our National Parks, these museums, free to the public, are one of each citizen’s greatest national treasures. I had learned ahead of time of a lecture series and book signings for a program, “Inventing the Surveillance Society“.
We are being watched. When we enter a building, place a phone call, swipe a credit card, or visit a website, our actions are observed, recorded, and often analyzed by commercial and government entities. Surveillance technologies are omnipresent—a fact underscored by the Boston Marathon bombing dragnet and the revelations of widespread domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency. We live in a “surveillance society” driven by a range of innovations, from closed-circuit TV cameras to sophisticated data mining algorithms. How did our surveillance society emerge, and what is the effect of ubiquitous surveillance on our everyday lives?
The question is how to find the right balance between privacy and security. The keynote speaker, David Lyon, director, Surveillance Studies Centre, Queens University, addressed the crowd assembled in the museum’s Warner Brothers Theatre with “Google’s Goldfish: Living with Surveillance.”
I sat next to a film maker for PBS. We both laughed when the keynote speaker suggested that a way to begin to reveal what we have created is to start calling things by what they really are. He held up a smartphone and said this is really a “personal tracking device.” My laughter faded as I began to understand how I had unwittingly participated in surveillance by letting Google and many other search engines have my personal information. Then it further dawned on me that I had shared my genetic material with 23 and Me! Who gains access to that information? Even when information is stripped of identifying data, it can still be trace back to me. Again the speaker demonstrated how the surveillance methods of pattern recognition are tracing my relationships: who do I communicate with; whose websites do I visit; who is on my Facebook friend list and so on.
I was not able to stay for all the presentations, leaving about 4:30, exhausted from a day of gloomy predictions from the DoD agencies at my workshop who portrayed an increasingly dangerous world where not just states, but individuals and groups have weapons of mass destruction.
What have we created? Blindly participated in developing?
Since the 1990s with the advent of digital technologies the U.S. military and government with communications industry have evolved a set of agreements and legally authorized processes to tap into phone and email data, internet metadata and use it to look for patterns to combat terrorism.
During the Keynote address, my purse fell open spilling out my license, my credit cards, my medical i.d.s under my seat. I tried to gather it all up, but during the lecture I imagined that some card I missed was under my seat somewhere. Everyone who came to sit behind me I looked askance to determine whether they might steal some personal information from me.
A featured speaker that evening was the author of The Watchers which chronicles the development of surveillance in the U.S. over the last 25 years.