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Spies Like Us: Corporate Rewards, Warantless Wiretaps, and the Cultural Acceptance of Surveillance

by Staff


Tags: Goverment Surveillance, Invasions of Privacy, Internet Culture,

Spy CamThe urge to spy on others has been around since the dawn of man. In fact, it’s been around longer. Researchers at the German Primate Center in Göttingen have found that male monkeys will eavesdrop on other monkeys having sex. The idea is that males want “to make sure they don't miss out on the fun,” Catherine Brahic writes for the New Scientist.

Today, tools for eavesdropping are more sophisticated. Great Britain, for example, is home to at least 4 million security cameras. The civil liberties organization Liberty estimates that the average Londoner is captured on camera 300 times each day. Plans are in the works to emulate London’s surveillance infrastructure in New York. And the Bush Administration, infamous for keeping secrets, engages in warantless spying on US citizens. 

Public outcry against these state surveillance tools has been minimal. The Bush Administration’s resolve to skirt the courts when spying on citizens has even been praised by a number of right-wing commentators. Hal Niedzviecki writes for the Walrus, “Surveillance, no longer a symbol of totalitarianism, is seen as a helpful tool in our never-ending ‘war’ against an amorphous enemy who can appear anywhere, anytime.”

Culturally, Western acceptance of surveillance goes deeper than tacit acceptance of government spying. The erosion of American civil liberties has coincided with a boom-time for Facebook, blogs, corporate “rewards” programs, and other voluntary sacrifices of privacy. A new trend, according to Niedzviecki, is “lifecasting,” that is, people broadcasting their entire lives over the internet. On Justin.TV, for example, viewers can watch every excruciatingly mundane moment of San Francisco resident Justin Kan’s life.

Such wanton disregard for personal privacy signals to some that younger generations don’t care about privacy. That’s not exactly true, according to Daniel Solove, author of the book The Future of Reputation. Solve told me that concepts of privacy are simply changing: Younger generations no longer expect the “privacy of secrecy,” since that has become an unreasonable expectation. They assume that governments and corporations will invade their privacy. All they want is to know how their information is being used.

According to Solove, young people want their private information to be spread to specific groups of friends over Facebook, or to specific companies through corporate rewards programs. When tech-support hotlines ask for names, addresses, and phone numbers, many people are more than willing to give up that kind of information. Niedzviecki calls it “surveillance with benefits.”

What younger generations don’t want is for their information to be used in ways that they don’t expect. When Facebook installed the “News Feed” application, enabling users to see changes in their friends’ Facebook pages, users revolted. More than 280,000 users joined “Students Against Facebook News Feed (Official Petition to Facebook).” A similar revolt occurred when Facebook installed the application Beacon to use social networking information for corporate advertising.

Facebook successfully weathered both user revolts, and today the company claims 70 million active users. With every step, users are being conditioned to accept progressively greater invasions of privacy. Many users have learned to like it. “Over the past twenty years,” Niedzviecki writes, “ubiquity has become acceptance, and acceptance has become adoption and adaptation. We’ve adopted the logic of surveillance and adapted its goals and methodologies to everyday life.”

That adaptation manifests itself in the idea of the “attention economy.” Most users don’t pay any money to Facebook, but the company is worth an estimated $15 billion. The price tag reflects how much people pay attention to Facebook, and in today’s information-saturated atmosphere, that’s worth real money.

Ordinary people have accepted this logic, and have begun to apply it to their own lives. Bloggers realize that most of them won’t make money directly from their blogs, and reality television isn’t exactly a springboard to a steady career. Yet people spend countless hours working on blogs and trying out for reality television. All this for the chance to get people’s attention.

The idea that attracting the attentions of others is a goal in and of itself could help explain why people submit to surveillance so readily. If you accept that “Smart Shopper” and “Customer Loyalty” cards are designed to give consumers “rewards,” a little surveillance isn’t such a bad thing. If people’s attentions to your blog or Facebook page are a good thing, then there’s no problem with organizations monitoring your internet usage. And if the government’s goal is to protect you, then there’s no problem with sacrificing some antiquated notions of personal privacy. After all, everyone likes to be noticed.

Bennett Gordon

Image by Abraham Del Pozo, licensed under Creative Commons.