The precarious state of privacy often fails to stir public attention. For example, the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA), a piece of legislation granting police and intelligence agencies sweeping surveillance powers in the UK, is said to have passed into law “with barely a whimper.” What explains this lukewarm response? How does the US install bulk surveillance programs like Total Information Awareness (TIA) or the UK pass privacy threatening bills like the IPA (sometimes called the “snooper’s charter”) without receiving the level of attention that one might expect from a society which claims to value privacy rights?
To help answer this question, I spoke to Kade Crockford, the director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM). I spoke to Crockford because of her expert knowledge on issues related to privacy, security, and surveillance as well as her recent experience leading a campaign against the Boston Police Departments’ plan to buy social media spying software. Crockford played a central role in the pro-privacy advocacy which likely encouraged the Boston PD to scrap their plans. I thought that Crockford could offer insights into why surveillance practices aren’t earning a critical response and how to reverse this trend.
Early in our conversation, Crockford acknowledged that the public is quite passive in their response to surveillance bills and privacy violations. According to Crockford, this passivity comes in two parts: (1) fears of crime and terrorism and (2) a failure to realise the role that surveillance plays in our daily experiences and entitlements.
- Fear of crime and terrorism
When I asked her why the public doesn’t seem especially concerned about threats to their privacy, Crockford suggested that I compare those threats with other more “visceral” threats such as crime and terrorism. “It is really obvious to people that they don’t want to be murdered, because you can think about yourself dead on the ground or you don’t want to be robbed because you like your stuff, and its tangible and right in front of you.” These fears, Crockford argued, keep citizens preoccupied with crime and terrorism, and tolerant of surveillance which is often thought of as a tool used to keep them safe. “Nobody is going to object to [surveillance],” Crockford explained, “because [nobody] wants to be killed.”
Crockford was, unsurprisingly, critical of this fearful point of view. “The reality is that terrorism is exceedingly rare to the point where it is non-existent in the vast majority of places in this country […]. It is just an infinitesimally small risk of dying in a terrorist attack.” According to Crockford, this suggests that the effect, and perhaps purpose, of state surveillance has less to do with anti-terrorism and more to do with “what [law enforcement agencies] have always done, which is to harass and incarcerate black and brown people typically because of drug crimes.”
- The impact of surveillance on daily life
The second reason threats to privacy receive only a lukewarm response concerns a lack of awareness about the power and impact of knowledge-production through surveillance. “Most people who just go about their ordinary lives not really thinking about how much knowledge is power. It’s cliché, we say knowledge is power… but people don’t actually understand what that means… they don’t actually know what can happen when you amass [sensitive knowledge] about other people.”
To illustrate her point, Crockford referred to the passive attitude most people take to data about their online shopping. “People often say I don’t really care if Google monitors me because, yeah it’s a little weird when I go to this one website and I look for a pair of shoes and then I go to another website and the shoes have followed me all around the internet. Yeah, that’s a little weird, but it’s just shoes. What people don’t realise is that that same process that is used to collect information about what kinds of shoes you want and then target you with advertising, can also be used to narrow, constrict, and effectively control choices that you would be much more freaked out about.”
“For example,” Crockford continued, “political choices that you are making, choices that are determining what University you are going to, or if you are going to go to University instead of going into vocational training, choices related to what kinds of credit score you are going to get or whether or not you will be approved for a home mortgage loan. These are the kinds of things that people simply do not understand. These decisions are made by other people for them, based on information that is collected about them.” Crockford was referring to the way that surveillance data is used to categorise people, and grant or deny them access to opportunities ranging from the educational and occupational to the economic and political. For instance, our access to political information is increasingly shaped by algorithms which collect data about our online history and then influence our newsfeeds, which may have a serious impact on political opinion and democratic elections.
Despite the powerful role that data can play in integral parts of daily life, Crockford explains that most of us aren’t aware that any of this is going on: surveillance is conducted without the traditional, obvious trademarks of binoculars or cameras. Instead, our information is collected from a distance, without consent, and through digital processes. All we see is “what’s in front of you on Google.com.”
Crockford confirms many of the concerns that surveillance scholars have discussed in recent work about the developing surveillance societies around the world: the loss of privacy is becoming a norm, and lack of awareness about the resulting impacts means citizens are not voicing much concern. Education about the consequences about the benefits and risks of surveillance is much needed.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.