Under (benign) surveillance

Surveillance has two faces, it is enabling and constraining.

When we sign up on social media or everywhere on the web really, it’s like we are giving away part of our freedom. The worst part of this is that, in order to have fun, we don’t really think about possible future impacts. Surveillance is an instrument of disciplinary power (Foucault, 1977). Although businesses like Facebook each collect data for their own marketing and accumulation purposes, a certain share of these data are traded and decentralized collection resulting in a centralized power leading to privacy loss at the expenses of users around the globe. This may be the case of the so-called Big Data, a very peculiar kind of data that helps to predict the direction of entire populations.

Dr David Garcia, chair of system design in Zurich, run an experiment on how powerful Big Data are in the prediction of tastes and characteristics of social network users’ friends who WERE NOT on the social media network. The results do show that information from your friends on a social network could accurately predict your marital status, location, sexual orientation or political affiliation — information that you may not want anyone to know, let alone in a social network you’re not even on. “You are not in full control of your privacy,” he concludes. If your friend is on a social platform, so are you. And this is definitely Big Data’s fault.

This type of data can be compared to mass surveillance. Mass surveillance is a distinctive and consequential feature of our times; whether carried out by government agencies or private-sector organizations, it is an art of control that makes it safe for something to move freely.  it shapes the ways we approach and interact with major institutions. Surveillance in this sense does not necessarily entail harmful intent.

Likewise, big data doesn’t necessarily need to be harmful but can also be benign. 

To collect Big Data is to document the significant value that can potentially be unlocked. It will enable scientific breakthroughs, new business models, and societal transformations “a revolution that will transform the way we live, work, and think, big data is a tagline for a process that has the potential to transform everything.”

So much data about us is stored that we do not even know about. Surveillance is a property of any social system and so is gathering useful data; the modern state would make use of surveillance in the sense of gathering information about the subject population in order to allow overall organization and improvement. Therefore, in no way those can be seen as crimes if used to certain (benign) extent.

The inhabitants of the digital age may need to stop thinking about just how much they control their personal information, and where the boundaries of their privacy are. The threshold has been exceeded and the (data) ship sailed a long time ago. No chance to go back. Then we might as well not bother so much.


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