Amid the slew of memes about FBI agents watching us through our laptop cameras and the ‘Birds Aren’t Real’ conspiracy theory rants on social media, I cannot help but sit back and laugh. Partially because this half-skeptical, half-humorous commentary is consistently entertaining, and partially because I forget that most folks attempt to ignore the nature and current state of digital surveillance in their everyday lives.
While NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and the controversy that arose in 2013 surrounding his leak of sensitive surveillance information piqued interest (and concern) among the public, the collection — and in some cases, sales — of bulk data containing our personal information are still being massively conducted.
The National Security Agency’s scope of data collection is a bit jarring, and their permissions include just about everything: conversations with your attorney typically covered under client privilege, phone and text messages, geographic location via cell towers, credit card networks, wire transfers, and more.
Yet, the NSA’s empowerment to gather such information under the ‘warrantless’ system of FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Section 702, the Patriot Act, and other legislative measures, is the least of my concerns as it pertains to how my personal information is used.
Sure, we could warn everyone about intimidation and compliance traps, advocate for slapping a sticker on your webcam, or preach to the value of encryption, but why? Tech giants, social media platforms, and other enigmas of capitalism are working alongside the government to gobble up any and all information they can, for in just a 6-month span in 2017, U.S. law enforcement filed 32,716 data requests with Facebook.
This isn’t even to mention the intrusivity of the advertising and marketing industry, which thrives on the monetization of personal information to ‘improve the customer experience,’ or in better terms, get us to cough up as much money and consume as many of their products as possible.
Again, the use of ad blockers, VPN applications, and opt-out programs within company databases may limit the scope of information acquired regarding your consumer behavior and presumed desires. Yet, there are still hundreds of data broker companies gathering your age, political views, socioeconomic status, and nearly 3,000 other specifying attributes in other ways.
Needless to say, anything that can be caught on a camera, via social media, in your internet browsing history, and other imaginable hubs of data, probably is.
While this is initially a scary thought, our generation has grown up with this reality. As frustrating as it is to feel exploited by corporations — often times unknowingly — these systems increase our quality of life and the convenience of consumption. The internet and data-sharing platforms are so heavily integrated in our modes of socialization and professional networks that, although hesitantly, one could argue we should simply embrace this reality.
The internet and other tracking forms will not be obsolete any time soon, as we need these tools more generally for safety, education, and societal engagement purposes. Thus, I argue that we need to enlighten ourselves rather than intentionally staying in the dark just because it is uncomfortable to confront the fact that we are being watched constantly. Big Brother is very real — though not quite within the bounds of Orwell’s 1984 characterization — and since we can’t (and to be honest, don’t want to) beat ‘him’, we may as well embrace the positive attributes of consumer experience optimization and consistent surveillance.
Sam is a senior studying journalism with certificates in development economics and environmental studies. What do you think about government surveillance? Do you believe corporations should be allowed to collect and sell our personal information? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org