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

| 4/21/2008 3:55:57 PM

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.”

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