Digital Surveillance and Privacy

NORFOLK, Va. (Dec. 3, 2008) Sailors on the watch-floor of the Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command monitor, analyze, detect and defensively respond to unauthorized activity within U.S. Navy information systems and computer networks. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Corey Lewis/Released) via Wikimedia Commons.

I am currently teaching an online class on Digital Globalization, and we have just finished the section of the course that deals with surveillance and privacy. For a recent discussion question I asked students if they were more concerned about surveillance by the government or by corporations. Last year, my students were much more worried about how corporations tracked their activities. This year, however, many of my students say that they are not overly worried about both, but they are also ambivalent. After students say that they they think that they live relatively boring lives, so that the government would have no interest in their activities, they’ll often point to one event or issue that concerns them. What I realized after reading their posts was that I may have asked the wrong question. It’s not that students are worried about their online activities being tracked. Instead, they are much more concerned about the Internet of Things, and how a hacker might use the camera in their security system to observe them, or a device with a microphone to record their conversations. They worry less about who might be watching their internet searches, than the possibility that their devices might record their speech or images.

One of my students also shared an article on Bloomberg with me, “Microsoft Allowed to Sue U.S. Government Over E-mail Surveillance,” by Kartikay Mehrotra. At issue was whether Microsoft had the right to tell people when the government may have accessed their emails.

I’ve posted before about Wikileaks, about which I am moderately skeptical. One of the key issues is: how does Wikileaks know that the documents that it receives is accurate? The BBC World Service has a podcast called Inquiry, which looked at this issue in an episode titled “Can you believe what you read on WikiLeaks,” which is well worth listening too.

If you are already concerned about the possibility of digital stalking, you might not want to read Nicole Perloth’s article Spyware’s Odd Targets: Backers of Mexico’s Soda Tax in the New York Times. The drug cartels were already deeply involved in cyber attacks on journalists, but other Mexican actors are now adopting these tactics.

Finally, for all of its problems, the internet does provide an important tool for political dissent, as Arab dictators learned with the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011. Now African dictators seem to be taking a page from their book, as you can read in another NYT article, “African Nations Increasingly Silence Internet to Stem Protests.”

My thanks to my students who shared the links for these articles with me.

Shawn Smallman

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