What You Don’t Know about Surveillance

Based on report by ITU in 2013, over 2.7 billion people are using the Internet, which corresponds to 39% of the world’s population. Among all the adult internet users, nearly 3 quarters use social media, which became an indispensable component of daily life, especially in the US. According to Pew Research, from 2005 to 2013, number of social media users across all age groups almost increased 10 times and continued to boom exponentially in 2013. However, with phenomenal scale of internet and social media usage worldwide, privacy and surveillance issues has been a growing concern that calls for global attention.



In article “Who’s Watching Whom? A Study of Interactive Technology and Surveillance” published in 2011, Lee Humphreys identified 3 types of surveillance present in social media usage: voluntary panopticon, lateral surveillance, and self-surveillance. 13 years after the founding of Dodgeball, social media platforms evolved dramatically, the three concepts still apply to social media dynamic now, but they manifest themselves in much more complex ways. Accommodated by interface like Timeline, platforms such as Facebook still serves the function of a digital diary/journal for “self-surveillance”, as users post status, images and videos to keep record of daily activities. They allow users to review their life track later in a chronological order, not only for their geographical footprint, but  potentially to adjust their narrative/presentation of selves. As location-based service now became a common function on majority of mobile social platforms, researchers found out that the market penetration of checkin service is becoming more and more shallow. “Lateral surveillance” is less about location tracking but takes place on multiple levels and in diverse context: parenting is possible by monitoring kids’ Facebook status, career path is readily accessible on LinkedIn, private social life is vividly exhibited on Instagram…


However, most of the concerns about privacy were raised around the “voluntary panopticon” that Lee mentioned in his article. “Voluntary/participatory panopticon” means that “people willingly participate in the monitoring of their own behavior”(Humphreys, 577) because of perceived benefits. As social functions infiltrate all types of digital products that could possibly touch upon every aspect of our daily life, users have almost no secrets under the surveillance of marketers. For example, weight management service “Weight Watchers” could collect data of users’ body and lifestyle; financial service sites like Mint could have access to users’ most confidential financial condition. Though voluntarily disclosing personal information empowers marketers to learn about users’ “personal preferences, activities, and background” (Humphreys, 584), most users are not disencouraged from using these social media platforms. According to Lee’s research, users usually value the convenience offered by those digital services more than their privacy concern. In addition, marketers’ purpose of surveilling is to understand their consumption interest and then advertise to them more effectively and manage their consumption accordingly, thus they care less about a user as a person but mostly as a sales target with buying power. Even though marketers’ surveillance is becoming more and more evident as we see display ads on websites generated from users’ “digital enclosure” (Lee, 583), studies by advertising experts still prove that people find themselves benefit from the convenience of accessing products they are interested in.

Nevertheless, different from surveillance by markers, state surveillance on internet users is much more subtle and sophisticated that most users are unaware of its presence. It was not until Edward Snowden revealed the PRISM surveillance project that such issues raised heated debate and global attention for the first time. PRISM is a clandestine mass electronic surveillance data mining program operated by NSA, which collects data of communications based on demands made to Internet companies such as Google. The revelation of PRISM was shocking to the public since major Internet companies like Google is dominant at search engine service that reaches billions of users all over the world. Such massive data collection definitely cast great threat to internet usage. However, it may only be one of the state Internet surveillance projects among all the countries. Web Index  reported that surveillance is believed to exist in nearly 30% of 81 countries included in their report. When Lee conducted his study, Internet users may be confident to consider themselves savvy and are able to protect their private information against surveillors. However, it is reasonable to speculate that savvy users may choose to opt-out of internet/social media usage in order to protect privacy.



Surveillance creates an asymmetrical power relationship, and the surveillor holds the upper hand over those survilled. Though internet users voluntarily disclose their personal information in exchange of convenience, privacy issue could always be a potential discouragement of internet usage. It is clear that there is growing awareness among young people that privacy does matter, and the popularity of Snapchat may just be a proof of that fact. If a political movement agains state surveillance on Internet is too far from happening, probably more social media services as such would emerge as another way of battle privacy invasion online.


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