Ethics and Dataveillance – Isabella Smythe

‘Mass data collection and surveillance will force you to look over your shoulder and see nothing, but know that there is someone, somewhere, collecting data; and in a sense, watching every move you make’
(Donahue, – )

Our everyday actions are being tracked electronically, from using credit cards at the supermarkets to browsing the internet, or even updating a Facebook status to create ‘personal data profiles’, which are then used to improve direct advertising all the way to protecting national security (Donahue, – ).

So where do we draw this ethical line between companies and governments using lateral surveillance of personal details, which we actively choose to post online, and exploiting individual expression and privacy? The answer, is that this line cannot be clearly drawn, it is rather a blurry circle, linking our choices in what we post, or say to the people who want to use this information for not only our safety but also to manipulate us into retail.

In the US, Target analyses information about what their customers are buying. ‘ A young woman buying unscented lotion, a large handbag, zinc and magnesium supplements and a brightly coloured rug is likely to be pregnant. So Target dispatches coupons for baby clothes’ (Stilgherrian, 2014), this caused outrage and Target was forced to apologise to the girl, only to find out weeks later that they were actually right. Although seemingly harmless, it’s this confronting idea that multi-national corporations know more about ourselves then we do, that drives such controversy around data surveillance.

Furthermore, Google and Facebook use fine grade relational data, our details and what we search, to find ads which would appeal to each individual. What I type in the blog post today, may influence what ads I see when I check Facebook tomorrow. Another example of this is the Edward Snowden controversy of 2013, in which he revealed to The Guardian (UK) that the NSA (National Security Agency) had been accessing data from the public phones, as well as social media as use for national security (Lyon, 2014). Although this may seem invasive, there is also the idea that by posting personal details it enables ‘civic participation’ as well as terrorism protection, and does direct us to ads for things we are actually interested in, we just need to be knowledgeable that this information is going into a public forum and be savvy about what we post (Raley, 2013).

As we leave these little personal crumbs of information, there is always someone there to pick up after us and electronically track each and every step, as we get lost in the wild woods of metadata swirling around us. What we have to ask ourselves is, are we victims of a surveillant world run by the seemingly unmonitored ‘witches’ of government and mega corporations, or is it our fault for leaving these crumbs to be collected in the first place?

  1. Raley, Rita. 2013, ‘Dataveillance and countervailiance’ in Gitelman L. (ed) ‘Raw data is an oxymoron. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, pp.131-9
  2. Lyon, David. 2014, ‘Surveillance, Snowden, and Bid Data: Capacities, Consequences, Critique.’ Available Online at: [Accessed 15/8/14]
  3. Donahue, Joseph. -, ‘Ethical Issues of Data Surveillance’. Available Online at: [Accessed 15/8/14]
  4. Stilgherrian. February 22, 2012, ‘You are what you surf, buy or tweet’, Sydney Morning Herald Online. Available Online at: [Accessed 15/8/14]
  5. Image Sourced Online: 2011, ‘Surveillance Department Lessons you can learn online’. Available Online at: [Accessed 20/8/14]

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