The Internet still doesn’t understand what surveillance actually is


When George Orwell and Ray Bradbury penned books such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 to warn the world that Big Brother is watching, they probably never would have guessed that most people would grow to like it.

Government surveillance and intrusion is a tale as old as timefrom Biblical stories of King Herods infanticide during the birth of Jesus Christto COINTELPRO tracking the moves of civil rights activists such asMartin Luther King. Indeed, most snooping isnt part of an elaborate, fantastical program; its just considered business as usual. As Trevor Timm noted at the Guardian last year, local law enforcement agencies and the Obama administration have reportedly used cell phone location data to track people in their homesoften without a warrantfurther enabling police militarization. And thats in addition to the NSAs surveillance program.

Yet as the Daily Dots Patrick Howell ONeill reports, a recent survey found that most Americans would actually be OK with many kinds of snooping, as long as the snoopers gave them a heads up. The survey, titled At Least Tell Me, found that only half of all respondents outright objected to warrantless government surveillance, with roughly the other half either accepting it without qualification or requesting some kind of notice or consent.

On the whole, the survey shows that most Internet users in the U.S. have a fairly relaxed, if not informed definition of online surveillance. Internet users lump in employers, schools, and libraries alongside the likes of Internet service providers, social media companies, and the government. And its time that the Internet learned what surveillance is and what it isnt.

Surveillance, as its most commonly understood, involves an intentional, deceptive violation of privacy, where behavior is monitored to manage or manipulate information toward a strategic end. It could be as simple as an Internet company protecting its network and users from malicious hacking attempts. Or, it could be as nefarious as ones political opinionsregardless of whether theyre shared in a public forum or a direct messagefinding their way on the radar of a clandestine tracking algorithm that targets social movements.

The survey shows most American Internet users have a fairly relaxed, if not obscure definition of online surveillance.

But per the surveys results, its clear that the public feels that not all Internet snooping is created equal. A majority of respondents support employers and schools monitoring Internet usage on their systems without qualification, followed closely by universities, public libraries, and user-installed software for computer protection. But the tune changes considerably when its a matter of either free or paid Wi-Fi connections, an Internet service provider, or the government.

While respondents conceded that organizations need to protect their information technology, the results show theres no hard-and-fast approach to understanding Internet snooping. But to call a school or a companys content filters, data protection, and other protective IT measures surveillance waters down the definition. Any workplace or learning institution worth its salt would constantly remind community membersusually with a login promptthat they should have no expectation of privacy on the companys networks.

In that case, its not a violation of privacy, its not deceptive, and its not necessarily intrusive. After all, if an individual doesnt abide with the terms of usage, they have every right to not use the network, even if it could place their job or academic career in jeopardy. Where theres both notification and consent to monitoring, surveillance is hardly the best way to describe the situation. If you know youre being watched, and you consent to being watched, then you are simply being watchedbut youre not necessarily being surveilled.

Although survey responses were skewed given relatively high participation of young adult, single, childless malesmost of whom considered themselves Internet security savvy, as ONeill notedthese attitudes about surveillance are one thing coming from a demographic with a notably high engagement with technology. Its a different story when considering the Internet at large and users who may not be as savvy about privacy matters.

Responses toward specific surveillance scenarios Brigham Young Internet Security Research Lab

When theres notification and consent to snooping from any source, users on those networks are equipped with information as to modify their usage to meet the standards of their employer, school, ISP, or their community. If corporate tracking software keeps tabs on how much employees spend on websites unrelated to ones job, they may be better served using their smartphone to keep tabs on entertainment news instead of using their workplace web browser.

And if any employee behaves otherwise, and gets called into a meeting about their workplace productivity issues, they cant say theyre surprised or appalled when the data becomes part of the discussion. After all, there was plenty of warning.

Porn-blocking and tracking software on a school computer is a world of difference from police officers tripping data towers for information.

The same could even be said of online methods of communication. Aside from select browsers and methods of data encryption that work as roadblocks for hackers, and potentially for law enforcement, most users should have no expectation of privacy on any online platformno matter how much the companies who use them assure ironclad security. The hacks of Ashley Madison, major retailers, influential users on Twitter, and alleged government spying on Black Lives Matter activists, to name a few examples, show that even private communications can find their way into hands of unintended recipients, without the users knowledge.

But unless individuals wish to go off the grid, to protect their information while leaving little-to-no digital paper trail, theres not much to be done other than self-educate and use the best resources available for privacy protection online. Instead of volunteering information, like every time Facebook sends a nagging alert, consider ignoring the requests or bypassing them if possible. More often than not, theres plenty of information users could avoid providing while still enjoying their Internet usage as usual.

With or without notice of snooping or monitoring, its important to be specific and clear about what we mean when we talk about surveillance. In order to best discuss how Internet privacy and protection can work best for every kind of user, its important to isolate what kind of monitoring happens and under what conditions. Because porn-blocking and tracking software on a school computer is a world of difference from government officials tracking your every digital move.

Derrick Cliftonis the deputy opinion editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture, and social justice.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

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