The Surveillance Society – can we ever be free?

Privacy is an important area of conversation, period. But today more than ever it’s the topic on everyone’s lips. It’s natural for us to desire that precious time alone. Being apart from others and the feelings that come with it (everything from guilt to pressure and from joy to stress and disappointment!) is relaxing and necessary for us humans. It’s nice not to be judged or assessed for what we do once in a while. However, our privacy is increasingly being scrutinised and pushed into grey areas as governments walk upon thin lines between infringing our privacy rights and protecting us against contemporary threats like terrorism. In this session we aim to question whether we can ever be truly free from government’s and large corporation’s watch today.

In TIME’s 2013 article, “the Surveillance Society”, writer Von Drehle makes a number of interesting points on contemporary surveillance. Privacy is for the most part an illusion, but a good one at that as it allows us to live without being “paralysed by self-consciousness”. It gives us room to be fully human, sharing intimacies and risking mistakes. However, Edward Snowden’s exposure of the NSA’s vast data-collection programs in 2013 highlighted that rising technological capabilities are breaking “the illusion of privacy”. Looking back at this case and the recent rise in debate on privacy ever since has led us to believe an Orwellian “surveillance society” is beginning to establish itself.

Graffiti in London. Source: thenextgreatgeneration.com

It’s hard not to draw similarities to the oppressed 1984 society to today. Leave your house and try to count how many surveillance cameras you can find. We recently asked one of our CTS bloggers based in London to count how many cameras he could spot on his fifteen-minute commute into the city for work one morning. They found cameras on almost every angle of every single building, from office to bank to shop and not to mention all public transport. They got to in-excess of 70 CCTV cameras on one road before he felt the numbers more than exceeded the backing needed to make our point. Surveillance Studies Net (SSN) adds to the debate by drawing attention to the “ubiquitous power of surveillance”. Not only is surveillance obvious but it’s also remarkably well hidden from us too. It is embedded within systems, structures and the interests they represent. Its application becomes taken for granted and its consequences go unnoticed. Thus, the issue of whether we can ever be free from this kind of control is complex as data has the ability to travel silently across international boundaries where it can be harder to identify and regulate.

A CCTV camera looking beyond to London’s Elizabeth Tower

In the UK alone there are over 20% of the world’s CCTV cameras. It’s a chilling statistic and it makes the UK the most watched country in the world with one camera for every 11 people. Surveillance merely begins with the camera. Now we are seeing a huge rise in affordable drones and satellites which are beginning to litter our skies. Our smartphones are supplying big corporations with masses of information and data about their owners which is bought and exploited. License-plate readers are stationed across our bridges, motorways and police-vehicles. They detail our speeds, our locations and track where we are going and for how long as we move around.

So with this huge build-up in data supplied from surveillance equipment, we can see the “awesome force of 0s and 1s” or the “binary digital magic that is the fuel for revolutionary change”, as nicely summarised by Von Drehle. Today this build-up of mass-data is known as IOT (the Internet of Things). It’s a highly engaging topic as it looks to be the future for us all as we use more and more tech devices that record data about the user. Whether you have a phone, a laptop or a car; you will be recording data that’s fed to internet service providers and companies like Google, Comcase and Verizon. The end result is that “Big Brother” or the multi-billion dollar corporations that arguably govern the world today have access to inconceivable amounts of information on us, painting a detailed picture of who we are, who we’re friends with, what we like to do, our sexual preferences – you name it. Suddenly, it’s hard to find a case for us being able to live freely from the eyes of others. Most would argue it’s simply 100% impossible as seen in the interesting article, “Think you can live offline?” by Fast Company.

Let’s take the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings as an example. Despite the utter chaos around the finish line when the two bombs exploded, police were able to post the terrorist’s faces on live TV and broadcast it across the world just hours after the incident happened. Von Drehle draws on this is his article, pointing attention towards how the bomber’s movements during the build-up to the event had been tracked, scanned and stored by numerous surveillance cameras.

And although their quick capture was a “triumph for law enforcement”, it left an “unsettling realisation in its wake: everyone else on those teeming Boston sidewalks was also being watch and remembered”.

A picture taken just after one of the explosives went off in Boston, 2013. Source: narcity.com

But despite this, on personal levels we have still grown accustomed to trading levels of privacy for ease-of-access and supposed benefits. For example, on the laptop I am typing this article up on right now, cookies track the things I search: the things I like, what I am interested in. which sports teams I support or which politicians I follow. It has access to the majority of all my passwords. Want to get into Facebook? No problem, one click and I am logged in. Need to pay for my basket in Amazon? Easy … click. I no longer have to keep remembering email addresses and passwords to access my most valued sites. Surveillance Studies Net (SSN) add to this by highlighting the ubiquitous power of surveillance. It is embedded within systems, structures and the interests they represent. “Its application becomes taken for granted and its consequences go unnoticed”. Thus, the issue is complex as data has the ability to travel silently across international boundaries and is even harder to identify and regulate.

Access to our most valued sites has never been easier. Source: everydayfeminism.com

We must fight to highlight the risks in terms of the consequences of mistakes, misidentification and loss of sensitive information, as made clear by the UK’s House of Common’s 2008 publication on “A Surveillance Society?”. The publication argues the importance of privacy in the social contract between citizen and state. And more surveillance undermines this assumption of safety between both parties and erodes trust. Pew’s Research study highlights the issue of who is gathering information and what information is being gathered. The study finds that it is considered to be an important dimension of privacy control by 88% of those in the study who do not wish to be observed without approval.

It would be extremely difficult today to follow in McCandless’ footsteps in 1992 and escape society without being watched. Source: theinertia

Clearly we can no longer be “free” in today’s society. We are always being watch or having our data analysed. Even as you’re reading this now, it proves you have shown an interest in blogs, in reading online articles and through the social media you may have used to access this web page. With the aforementioned technology tracking our phone calls, internet searches and movements, the argument towards trying to live without being watched is impossible. Albeit I am sure many of us would like to live that isolated life away from prying eyes and people once in a while! Instead we must prepare ourselves for the IOT future and get used to the masses of data we will be sending towards “big brother”. Let’s just make sure the data being recorded is carefully assessed by ourselves first and not aimlessly thrown around. Maybe we should think twice before allowing one-click access to sites and password recognitions? Otherwise we are at risk of being exploited by those who know more about us than we do ourselves.

We, at CTS, hope you enjoyed this article. It’s one of many more to come. You will be happy to know we are growing as a company and as a brand! We are currently looking for people to join our team of bloggers and help kick-start CTS into a popular blog worldwide. If you’d like to be part of this blog, kindly email admin@coffeetablesessions.com for more information on how you can get involved and be creative.

We look forward to hearing from you!

3 thoughts on “The Surveillance Society – can we ever be free?

  1. What’s up, its nice piece of writing regarding media print,
    we all understand media is a impressive source
    of data.
    This article is great! Im new in the imageing environment (LONG time in corporate) and I am working on conjuring
    up the fortitude to carry slr and just begin shooting RAWs!

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