The Age of Surveillance

“Today’s world would have disturbed and astonished George Orwell.”                                        —David Lyon, Director, Surveillance Studies Centre, Queen’s University

When Orwell wrote 1984, he imagined a world where pervasive surveillance was visual, achieved by camera. Today’s surveillance is of course much more about gathering information, but it is every bit as all-encompassing as that depicted by Orwell in his dystopian novel. Whereas individual monitoring in 1984 was at the behest of a superstate personified as ‘Big Brother,’ today’s omnipresent watching comes via an unholy alliance of business and the state.

Most of it occurs when we are online. In 2011, Max Schrems, an Austrian studying law in Silicon Valley, asked Facebook to send him all the data the company had collected on him. (Facebook was by no means keen to meet his request; as a European, Schrems was able to take advantage of the fact that Facebook’s European headquarters are in Dublin, and Ireland has far stricter privacy laws than we have on this side of the Atlantic.) He was shocked to receive a CD containing more than 1200 individual PDFs. The information tracked every login, chat message, ‘poke’ and post Schram had ever made on Facebook, including those he had deleted. Additionally, a map showed the precise locations of all the photos tagging Schrem that a friend had posted from her iPhone while they were on vacation together.

Facebook accumulates this dossier of information in order to sell your digital persona to advertisers, as does Google, Skype, Youtube, Yahoo! and just about every other major corporate entity operating online. If ever there was a time when we wondered how and if the web would become monetized, we now know the answer. The web is an advertising medium, just as are the television and radio; it’s just that the advertising is ‘targeted’ at you via a comprehensive individual profile that these companies have collected and happily offered to their advertising clients, in exchange for their money.

How did our governments become involved? Well, the 9/11 terrorist attacks kicked off their participation most definitively. Those horrific events provided rationale for governments everywhere to begin monitoring online communication, and to pass laws making it legal wherever necessary. And now it seems they routinely ask the Googles and Facebooks of the world to hand over the information they’re interested in, and the Googles and Facebooks comply, without ever telling us they have. In one infamous incidence, Yahoo! complied with a Chinese government request to provide information on two dissidents, Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao, and this complicity led directly to the imprisonment of both men. Sprint has now actually automated a system to handle requests from government agencies for information, one that charges a fee of course!

It’s all quite incredible, and we consent to it every time we toggle that “I agree” box under the “terms and conditions” of privacy policies we will never read. The terms of service you agree to on Skype, for instance, allow Skype to change those terms any time they wish to, without your notification or permission.

And here’s the real rub on today’s ‘culture of surveillance:’ we have no choice in the matter. Use of the internet is, for almost all of us, no longer a matter of socializing, or of seeking entertainment; it is where we work, where we carry out the myriad of tasks necessary to maintain the functioning of our daily life. The choice to not create an online profile that can then be sold by the corporations which happen to own the sites we operate within is about as realistic as is the choice to never leave home. Because here’s the other truly disturbing thing about surveillance in the coming days: it’s not going to remain within the digital domain.

Coming to a tree near you? BlackyShimSham photo
Coming to a tree near you?
BlackyShimSham photo

In May of this year Canadian Federal authorities used facial recognition software to bust a phony passport scheme being operated out of Quebec and BC by organized crime figures. It seems Passport Canada has been using the software since 2009, but it’s only become truly effective in the last few years. It’s not at all difficult to imagine that further advances in this software will soon have security cameras everywhere able to recognize you wherever you go. Already such cameras can read your car’s license plate number as you speed over a bridge, enabling the toll to be sent to your residence, for payment at your convenience. Thousands of these cameras continue to be installed in urban, suburban and yes, even rural areas every year.

Soon enough, evading surveillance will be nearly impossible, whether you’re online or walking in the woods. Big Brother meets Big Data.

What We Put Up With

The sky was new. It was a thick, uniform, misty grey, but I was told there were no clouds up there. I’d never seen this before, and was skeptical. How could this be? It was the humidity, I was told. It got like that around here on hot summer days.

The year was 1970; I was 17, part of a high school exchange program that had taken me and a fair number of my friends to the Trenton-Belleviille area of southern Ontario. We’d been squired about in buses for days, shuffling through various museums and historical sights, sometimes bored, sometimes behaving badly (my buddy Ken, blowing a spliff in the washroom cubicle at the back of the bus, would surely be considered bad form), sometimes, not often, left to our own devices. On this day we’d been driven to the sandy shores of Lake Ontario, where what was shockingly, appallingly new, much newer than the leaden sky, was out there in the shallow water.

Small signs were attached to stakes standing in the water, just offshore. They read, “Fish for Fun.”

I couldn’t believe it. How could this be allowed to happen? How could people put up with this? As a kid from a small town in northern Alberta, I’d never seen anything like it.

It was a kind of accelerated future shock, as if I had been suddenly propelled forward in time to a new, meta-industrialized world where this was the accepted reality. In this cowardly new world, lakes would be so polluted that eating fish caught in them was unsafe (at 17, I’d caught my share of fish, and always eaten them), and this was how people dealt with the problem. With a lame attempt at cheery acquiescence.

When I think about it, my 17-year-old self would have had a great deal of trouble believing numerous of the realities that we live with today. Setting aside all the literally incredible changes wrought by the digital revolution—where we walk around with tiny computers in our hand, able to instantly send and/or receive information from anywhere in the world—here are a few more mundane examples of contemporary realities that would have had me shaking my teenage head in utter disbelief:

  • Americans buy more than 200 bottles of water per person every year, spending more than $20 billion in the process.
  • People everywhere scoop up their dog’s excrement, deposit it into small plastic bags that they then carry with them to the nearest garbage receptacle. (Here’s a related—and very telling—factoid, first pointed out to me in a top-drawer piece by New York Times Columnist David Brooks: there are now more American homes with dogs than there are homes with children.)
  • On any given night in Canada, some 30,000 people are homeless. One in 50 of them is a child.

There are more examples I could give of current actualities my teen incarnation would scarcely have believed, but, to backtrack for a moment in the interests of fairness, pollution levels in Lake Ontario are in fact lower today than they were in 1970, although the lake can hardly be considered pristine. As the redoubtable Elizabeth May, head of Canada’s Green Party, points out in a recent statement, many of the worst environmental problems of the 70s have been effectively dealt with—toxic pesticides, acid rain, depletion of the ozone layer—but only because worthy activists like her fought long and hard for those solutions.

jronaldlee photo
jronaldlee photo

The fact is that we are a remarkably adaptable species, able to adjust to all manner of hardships, injustice and environmental degradation, so long as those changes come about slowly, and we are given to believe there’s not much we as individuals can do about it. Never has the metaphor of the frog in the slowly heating pot of water been more apropos than it is to the prospect of man-made climate change, for instance.

It’s not the cataclysmic changes that are going to get us. It’s the incremental ones.