Who Watches the Oversharers?

Today Brian D. Buckley posted his response to a question I posed about whether government surveillance would still be bad if it were guaranteed to be secure and benevolent. As it was my question I thought I would respond.

I share Brian’s belief that – absent the possibility of malice – official surveillance is acceptable, possibly even useful.

For me, the legal question is irrelevant: leaving aside the fact it is a hypothetical, so the specifics of any legal system can be assumed not to apply, a legal system is a social product of social needs not a statement of absolute rules, so illegality is merely a label applied to acts which were (and might still be) attacks on a stronger perceived social need. The need, as Brian correctly identifies, is to not be watched against our will.

But is this need a product of false logic?

Many of us voluntarily share huge areas of our lives with the world: we not only tweet about our breakfasts, take pictures of our lunch, and review the restaurant that made supper on Facebook, we also link all these together both automatically (by connecting accounts) and manually (by cross-posting). And we usually do it with geo-tagging enabled. Why then do we object to the government knowing where we eat, or any of the other things we voluntarily share with strangers?

The question is further clouded by strong evidence it is not about consent. Most shops have surveillance to help in both reducing and prosecuting theft, but we do not hold protests against that.

The answer might lie in analysing when we do object. Earlier this week I read an article about council’s being challenged over the use of parking enforcement cameras. Many of the comments on the article repeated the argument that the cameras should be used for stopping crime not increasing revenue from fines. Leaving aside the question of whether illegal parking is a crime, saying a camera is there for parking enforcement does not magically stop it recording someone breaking into cars, or blank footage of other crimes; there might even be an argument that parking restrictions are likely to be in places where many people want to gather, so the cameras are where the surveillance would be anyway.

Maybe the real reason we object is because they (whoever “they” are) are gaining a benefit from watching us.

But we only object when we know about it.

My wife’s Mac will happily suggest, with great accuracy, who each person is in a photograph. That same technology can be – and possibly is – integrated into the surveillance systems of shops. By linking this with the data from previous purchases, which you volunteered with a store card or loyalty scheme, a sales assistant could be sent over to start a conversation about products that would interest you.

If you are feeling nervous about that, ask yourself why a system that removes the need to spend time explaining to the assistant what you want is making you nervous. Is it because there is a problem with a shop knowing what you bought from them? Or is it because you think it gives them an advantage over you?

If you do think it gives them an advantage over you, do you keep your purchases secret? Or do you tweet about your great new toy on a phone that embeds both the brand of phone and your location in the tweet?

So maybe my question should not have been whether benevolence makes surveillance acceptable, but rather why, if we are so paranoid about motives, we are so bad at protecting ourselves.

Do you object to people knowing things about you that you have freely shared? Do you take active steps to not leave a data picture?


2 thoughts on “Who Watches the Oversharers?

  1. For me the issue of consensuality is paramount.

    I have windows in my house; I also have shades over those windows. The fact that I sometimes open the shades doesn’t mean that I have lost the right to object when someone peeps under the shades to see what I am doing when I don’t want to be seen.

    I assume that whatever I post on-line is public knowledge. When I publish data on equipment that belongs to another person there is no expectation of privacy. However, there is quite a bit that I don’t post on-line because I don’t want it to be public.

    In any event I think your question is purely hypothetical. The phrase “absent the possibility of malice” doesn’t apply to human beings. There is always the possibility of malice. Giving someone a badge and a gun doesn’t change human nature.


    1. It is definitely hypothetical: if there is malice then there is clearly good reason to object, but I wanted to explore whether there were other principles to privacy.

      I agree that sharing some things does not remove a right to keep some things secret: my suggestion was that we cannot share everything with the world then be shocked when someone puts the story together. By keeping your virtual curtains closed you have already realised the need to control that which you do not want to be public.

      You are right that giving someone a badge and a gun does not make them a better person (or a worse one), although I might be more optimistic than you on whether malice will always be part of that nature.


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