This blog post was created for Drew University’s Digital Sociology course in SP 2020.
“I decided to take note of my own surveillance on and offline. I was curious as to what patterns I would recognize and what my trusted platforms had access to when I, with very little thought, clicked “agree” to their terms of service.”
On March 19th, 2019 Facebook was charged with a discrimination lawsuit over targeted housing ads. To no surprise, the social media giant was involved in yet another privacy scandal. What may be different about this time though is that Mark Zuckerberg has reconsidered his usual 500 words, super vague apology that rarely prompts users to instill more trust in the platform. This time, Zuckerberg actually said screw it and overhauled Facebook’s entire targeted advertising system.
Zuckerberg’s decision to rid targeted ads means that you have one less digital stalker to worry about. But don’t get too excited, Google would never give up that easily. They are and will forever work towards turning your search history trends into business transactions through what is called surveillance capitalism.
What may provide you with some ease, however, is that once you recognize potential surveillance by big tech, there is always the opportunity for control and regulation.
The EFF Foundation launched a tool called Spot the Surveillance which allows smartphone users (with compatible VR headsets) to take witness of forms of “offline” surveillance. The tool, which you can access here, concentrates mostly on visual/audio surveillance often performed by law enforcement through the use of body cameras, fingerprint scanners and license plate readers. The experiment takes about 5 minutes to complete with interactive and informative blurbs about each tracking device.
The purpose of Spot the Surveillance is to prompt users into thinking about their own potential surveillance and realistically, many people have little to no knowledge of when they are being surveilled, especially online with the exception of tracking is obvious like Snapchat’s snap map feature.
After completing the experiment myself, I decided to take note of my own surveillance on and offline. I was curious as to what patterns I would recognize and what my trusted platforms had access to when I, with very little thought, clicked “agree” to their terms of service. For the purpose of expanding the implications further, I also took into account moments where I was not entirely sure if I was being surveilled or not…because those are the scariest.
You know that feeling when you think someone is watching you? Well, that was how I felt, all day during this experiment, for a straight 24 hours. I thought I could go about my normal life and perform daily tasks with only slight consideration for my digital stalkers. However, it ended up being all I was thinking about. I would like to claim that as a digital native, I always pay attention to and understand my surveillance, however, prior to the Spot the Surveillance tool, I actually paid very little attention to my potential surveillance. Unless there was an explicit sign in front of my face reporting offline video surveillance (see image a) I probably didn’t think about it. I was too busy buying tupperware I saw on the sidebar of my browser that Google somehow knew I wanted.
I had been thinking about surveillance all day because unlike the streets of New York, there are no “digital stop signs” warning me of the tracking online. I had to pay extra attention to everyone move I made especially online. You can see my recorded instances of surveillance below, right next to their terrifying potentials for capitalization:
Overall there 6 offline and 7 online instances that I recorded. An interesting development of this experiment would include the after effects of my surveillance. Meaning, mostly the targeted advertisements I would receive, like the Subaru ad below I saw after completing a customer survey and visiting their website.
There is something fairly interesting about tracking the tracking of yourself. Because when I paid attention to my surveillance, for a moment I felt as though I had taken back some stolen power Google and its big friends took a long time ago. As heroic as that sounds, I probably won’t always consider my potential surveillance. I could attempt a private life like those claim they live off the radar. Some use alternative search engines and some don’t believe in credit cards, but realistically, you can’t avoid it. Because unless you intend on either building a time machine or living alone on a deserted island, prepare to be surveilled.