Saturday, March 21, 2009

You are being watched

You are being watched

David Lyon is studying the ceiling in an Ottawa coffee shop, searching for hidden cameras. A leading figure in the fast-growing field of surveillance studies, the Queen's University sociologist is only too aware of the many ways we're all being watched.

Closed-circuit TV cameras, like the ones likely concealed in the coffee shop ceiling, are among the most common. Since 9/11, their use has exploded worldwide. Britain now has an estimated 4.2 million CCTV cameras — one for every 14 citizens. People in central London are now caught on camera about 300 times a day.

One estimate puts the number of public and private CCTV cameras in the United States at 30 million. So far, similar estimates are lacking for Canada. But experts agree camera surveillance has been growing steadily here as well.

"I find it mind-boggling when I see what they do in Britain," Lyon says. "Police officers on bicycles now have video surveillance cameras in their helmets," he exclaims, then blurts, "What kind of a world are we living in?"

A very different world. Enabled by computer technology and algorithms, driven by a mania for security, safety and certainty, and engineered by a class of mathematicians and computer scientists that author Stephen Baker has dubbed "the Numerati," surveillance is emerging as the dominant way the modern world organizes itself.

"We're seeing just an unbelievable intensification of monitoring capacity," says the University of Alberta's Kevin Haggerty, a surveillance expert. "There's an ability to connect all of this stuff across realms that is just a little unnerving."

Surveillance is a condition of modernity, integral to the development of the nation-state and to global capitalism, writes University of Victoria political scientist Colin Bennett in his new book, The Privacy Advocates: Resisting the Spread of Surveillance. "It is that important."

More than ever before, our lives are visible to others, from government agencies and security services to the owners of the websites we surf and the stores where we shop. They track us in public, in workplaces and online, compiling our personal information in massive databases and sorting us into categories of risk, value and trustworthiness.

Their accomplices are companies that mine our personal data using sophisticated technologies to extract and refine what they gather to slot us into ever-finer slices and segments.

CCTV cameras are just one of their tools. Others include radio frequency identification (RFID) chips, GPS location trackers, website cookies, facial recognition software and store loyalty cards. Computer programs used by security services can monitor and analyse billions of phone calls and e-mails in real time. We even make it easier for our trackers by willingly disclosing pieces of our lives on social networking sites like Facebook or in online contests and questionnaires.

"We are inadvertently handing over to centralized authorities an infrastructure of visibility the likes of which no society has ever seen before," Haggerty says.

"We're talking about something that is frequently invisible," says Lyon, director of the New Transparency Project, a $2.5-million research program involving leading surveillance scholars, including Haggerty. But it can do harm to real people, he says.

In one form or another, surveillance has always been part of human society. What's new is computer technology that has made it possible to integrate vast and diverse bits of information.

As well, our post-9/11 obsession with eliminating risk has produced an architecture of mass surveillance in which everyone is treated as a suspect. "We've inverted the relationship between the citizen and the state," says University of Ottawa criminologist Valerie Steeves. Our governments should be transparent to us, so citizens can hold them to account, she says. Instead, it's citizens who are being made transparent, because we're all viewed as potential risks. "We got it backwards."

The fact that we are increasingly identified as we go about our daily business means anonymity is under threat, Steeves observes. "And anonymity is essential if I'm going to be able to exercise free speech and freedom of assembly."

Moreover, the ubiquity of surveillance is creating societies of suspicion. "The presence of surveillance feeds the whole notion of the risk society and engenders more mistrust between members of society," says Jane Bailey, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

Yet most surveillance today isn't done for sinister reasons. It's usually well intended, designed to improve security or organizational efficiency. But those good intentions often have unintended consequences.

Surveillance is no longer primarily a function of the state. Businesses collect as much information about individuals as governments — or more. Google and Yahoo routinely track online behaviour and use what they learn for targeted advertising. Retailers collect personal information and track consumer purchases though loyalty cards that offer points and other rewards. Data brokers sort and sell our personal information to the highest bidder. And there are plenty of bidders.

"In the 1980s, I would have said that government was the biggest threat to privacy," says Bennett. "Now, I don't think you can tell the difference between the two. You can't really tell where one database ends and another one begins these days."

In Canada, governments have long tapped into consumer credit industry data. "Anything that the private sector is collecting can, in theory at least, be accessed by government," says Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in information law at the University of Ottawa. "It's all out there."

In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security openly uses information from the direct marketing and consumer credit industries to augment its profiles of individuals. The Patriot Act allows government agencies to access phone records.

The surveillance society is even further advanced in Britain and Europe. The European Union has endorsed proposals empowering police to conduct remote searches of personal computers. UK police no longer need judicial authority to access telecom records. In 2007, they used those new powers 500,000 times.

Britain is proposing a monster database containing information on every phone call, e-mail and Internet visit made in the U.K. The EU plans something similar, along with mandatory fingerprinting of all passport holders. Until it was scaled back last September, France was compiling a database on millions of citizens — politicians, religious figures, business and union leaders, and anyone "likely to breach public order" — that even included information on their sexual preferences.

According to Statewatch, a non-profit watchdog group, the EU "is set to become the most surveilled place in the world." That is leading it "further down the road to authoritarianism, a path which looks less and less likely to be reversible."

Surveillance isn't yet as widespread in Canada, thanks in part to more robust privacy laws. But Canada is lagging other nations in ensuring the security of personal information, says federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart. "No matter how well-meaning you are, if your technology is not secure, the confidentiality of the personal information will be lost."

As well, Canadian government agencies can access private sector information to track people for national security purposes. "It's kind of a seamless world in which traditional civil liberties have been suspended to some extent," Stoddart says.

"Privacy advocates are in despair," says Ron Deibert, director of The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk Centre. "Things have gone so far beyond the kind of worst-case scenarios they imagined that they just kind of throw their arms up. It really is hard to find meaningful protections for privacy these days in any sector of life."

Yet so far, there's been little public outcry about the explosive growth in private and public monitoring. In part, that's because many of us are simply unaware of the extent of contemporary surveillance.

"For most of us," Haggerty says, "the surveillance is a mile wide and an inch deep. Nobody's paying attention to it. But if you suddenly become a person of interest, there's just an unbelievable infrastructure of information that could be suddenly and almost immediately drawn upon."

Even if we understand we're being watched, many of us are willing to trade some privacy for perceive

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