Privacy vs mass surveillance: an ongoing battle

In today’s age of surveillance capitalism, personal data has become a highly valuable asset. Whilst the Big Tech companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple have been long scrutinised on their role in the Big Data Economy and their handling of users’ data, concerns about government surveillance have recently surged across the globe.

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Surveillance capitalism is a term commonly used to denote a market-driven process where the commodity for sale is your personal data. It centres around companies that provide us with free online services — Google and Facebook, for example — whereby through the mass surveillance of the internet, they gather information from individuals.

Through the collection of online behaviours, such as likes, dislikes, searches, social networks, and purchases, these companies produce data that can be further used for commercial and even political purposes. And this is often done without us understanding the full extent of the surveillance.

The revelations from last year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted the extent to which internet companies survey an individual’s online activity. Cambridge Analytica’s actions broke Facebook’s own rules by collecting and selling data under the pretence of academic research, possibly violating the election law in the United States.

Despite the questionable nature of Cambridge Analytica’s actions, the bigger players and leading actors in surveillance capitalism, Facebook and Google, are still legally amassing as much information as they can, making huge profits in the process.

The scandal prompted significant questions over privacy concerns, raising the importance of discussions on ethical data surveillance and ethical data handling. Recent research shows that the private sector is not the only body in question when it comes to data surveillance and ethical data handling.

American market research and advisory company Forrester Researcher announced in a recent report that India has been named as a country with minimal restrictions in terms of data privacy and protection, where government surveillance is a cause of concern. China also featured in the report as a country with a high level of government surveillance.

“The government surveillance is a worldwide phenomenon that cuts across geographies, economic development, societal well-being, and institutional design, with alarming levels of government surveillance in countries such as Austria, Colombia, India, Kuwait and the UK,” the report said.

According to the 2019 Forrester Global Map of Privacy Rights and Regulations, “Regulations that allow governments to access personal data of citizens are still undermining the overall privacy protections that certain countries offer their citizens”

Lack of constitutional provisions to enable monitoring of government activity could be one of the primary reasons for the high level of government surveillance in India, industry experts say. Nonetheless, the surveillance practices may prove to be pervasive and not in line with the enforced data privacy laws, thus affecting data security of citizens.

Similarly, a new report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) reveals the extent to which everyday behaviour in China’s Xinjiang region is monitored by the authorities, contributing to a regime of constant surveillance and mass detention. The report revealed how a mobile app used by these officials helps them collect vast amounts of personal data, prompting them to flag seemingly normal behaviour as suspicious.

The app was accessed by HRW’s Maya Wang when it became publicly available. Maya said that the app was most likely never supposed to be made public: ‘It was a careless mistake that prompted some of the people who have this app to put it online,’ she explains.

However, once accessed, they were able to reverse engineer it, revealing that under the excuse of a counter-terrorism policy called the ‘Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism’ the app was meant to fulfill the following functions: collect personal information, reporting on activities deemed suspicious, and prompting investigations of people the system flags as problematic.

It enabled the officials to collect an exhaustive amount of sensitive information on individuals including blood-type, digital records of their faces, height, car colour, ‘religious atmosphere’ and political affiliation. The report further details how the information is fed into a policing programme called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), one of the main systems Chinese authorities use for mass surveillance in Xinjiang. HRW findings suggest that every citizen in the region is subject to monitoring under this programme.

Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The HRW report notes that many, if not all of these mass surveillance practices appear to contravene to Chinese law and have no clear relationship to terrorism or extremism monitoring. According to Wang, this huge surveillance effort by the ruling party comes down to retaining power. ‘I think the goal is to ensure that the party stays in power forever, which is challenging for them to do,’ she explains. ‘The shift to a market-based economy has meant that the party has lost some of the old tools for social control and so they decided that technology is going to be very good for them in achieving that purpose.’

Despite the difficulties, Wang suggest that the concerning levels of survelliance are not exclusive to China or a particular country: government surveillance is taking place all over the world.

‘There is no privacy in first world,’ she says. ‘Even if you’re in Europe or the US you have to be very worried about where your data is going or if it is protected.” This makes the inherent risk and potential for data abuse and breaches an increasingly relevant discussion.

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