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Someone’s looking at you: welcome to the surveillance economy

Everything that fugitive whistle-blower Edward Snowden has revealed about America’s global espionage network PRISM should make you alert and alarmed. His exposé shows that we are clearly living in a well-established…

Big data has ushered in the surveillance economy: is it the price of doing business in the digital economy? Image sourced from www.shutterstock.com

Everything that fugitive whistle-blower Edward Snowden has revealed about America’s global espionage network PRISM should make you alert and alarmed. His exposé shows that we are clearly living in a well-established surveillance society. But it also reveals more than that: surveillance is at the heart of the global digital economy too.

One document revealed that in 2001 the Australian telco, Telstra, signed an agreement to allow US spy agencies access to data about its American customers. However, according to the agreement, Telstra is not permitted to let other governments access the same data.

In response, Telstra issued a brief statement only saying that the agreement reflected its contractual obligations at the time and the revelation has received only limited media coverage.

The surveillance society

Everything you do is subject to surveillance. As Robert O’Harrow Jr explains it, there is “no place to hide”. We are under constant watch, both physically and electronically. Surveillance is the new normal. It’s everywhere and this ubiquity makes us take it for granted.

Under the circumstances, the old adage: “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear” from the surveillance state no longer holds true.

This argument is predicated on the belief that beyond the limited function of protecting the public interest (say, through the police), the state is not interested in what you do, whom you talk to, where you go, what you buy, or what you believe in.

We no longer live in that world. The number of government agencies taking an interest in information about us has grown like topsy. The national security state has extended the policing functions of government to all areas of life.

Government welfare agencies have been caught spying on recipients; single mothers and pensioners. In the UK, education authorities followed a family in an effort to catch them fraudulently enrolling children “out of area”. In Australia, a local council accessed personal data about residents’ phone use to track down unregistered pets.

If you still harbour lingering doubts that we live in a total surveillance society, now is the time to get real and take a look outside.

We are under almost constant video surveillance. Try walking through any reasonable-sized town or city without being caught on CCTV. It is impossible; you can’t even duck in and out of shops, or use under-road pedestrian walkways. There are thousands of state-monitored cameras looking at traffic, public transport and pedestrian flows; thousands of private cameras are also monitoring every transaction we make in banks, shops, pubs, hotel lobbies, restaurants and supermarkets.

This footage is also available to the authorities. All they have to do is ask. In some cases, they don’t even have to ask. When police in Boston began the hunt for the marathon bombers, they sequestered surveillance tapes from the 200 businesses on Boylston Street. Tens of hundreds of civilians who had taken happy snaps of the event on their phones also volunteered the images.

You might argue that was a good use of “citizen journalism”, but there was also a dark side. In the information vacuum created by the lack of a clear suspect in the bombing, social media “netizens” took matters into their own hands. Within hours, amateur sleuths began posting images of swarthy young men with backpacks, suggesting they could be the bombers.

This is dangerous, particularly in a society with a strong vigilante culture. It was pure dumb luck that none of the wrongly implicated young men was physically targeted by angry mobs seeking revenge.

There’s another reason to be concerned. We don’t just have to contend with ubiquitous physical surveillance via thousands of CCTV installations. In the world of “big data” there is no escape. Our electronic fingerprints are being gathered around the clock and they are being stored, sorted, filtered, filed and manipulated. We are all potential targets for state surveillance.

A salient example in this case is the hundreds of people who might know Edward Snowden or have come into contact with him in the past two to three years. Anyone who ever exchanged an email or text message with Snowden is now caught up in a dragnet containing billions of bytes of information.

People who “have nothing to fear” are now on the intelligence community’s radar; just in case one innocuous message reveals a secret that can help the FBI capture Snowden. They could be caught up in this for many years, particularly if Snowden is returned to the USA to stand trial.

How wide will that net be cast? It is hard to tell, but the capabilities involved here mean that anyone with even six degrees of separation from the target can be digitally strip-searched.

The latest release of information from the Snowden cache is perhaps the most worrying, for it reveals the extent to which the digital economy and the surveillance state are symbiotically connected.

The surveillance economy

From documents released by Snowden it seems clear that many major hi-tech companies have been covertly cooperating with the US National Security Agency (NSA) to throw open our emails and video conversations, alongside anything we choose to store in the “cloud”. Google, Microsoft and other companies have not denied that they are cooperating with the FBI, the NSA and other spy agencies. Their argument, like Telstra’s, is that it is the price of doing business.

According to a Microsoft statement, the company has to comply with lawful requests from the security apparatus. The problem is that there is no public disclosure when such requests are made. They are classified and not subject to any scrutiny.

It also appears that encryption tools might be compromised. There really is no place to hide, even if you really don’t want to be found.

Microsoft says it only acts on court-ordered requests and has not released encryption keys. But analysts say this is only half the truth and Microsoft itself admits it is not allowed to divulge the other ways in which it cooperates with law enforcement and security agencies.

Surveillance is “big data” and big data is big business. The surveillance economy puts information transactions at its core and when the bottom is dropping out of the market for real goods and services, capitalism will adapt. The latest systemic adaptation is to embrace new ways of surveilling customers and then turning the collected data into something that someone else is willing to buy.

The value of big data has been compared to the oil boom or “panning for gold” in terms of potential profitability. The numbers are staggering: 50 billion devices connected to the Internet by the end of this decade; so much available data to be mined that it doesn’t yet have a number to describe it. So many connections are available to be tapped, correlated, combed, combined and sold that any attempt to visualise the connections would look like a spaghetti junction map of the universe with every planet, star and comet connected to every other object. The value of this market is currently estimated at over A$39 billion annually and growing at around 9% per year according to analysts IDC.

How big data sees the world - everything can be put through the ‘analytics’. www.cisco.com/web/about/ac79/docs/sp/Information-Infomediaries.pdf

Big data analytics (a polite way of talking about surveillance) is now central to the global economy. As more commercial data is collected, nervous and security conscious governments will find more ways of mining it for political purposes too.

Join the conversation

32 Comments sorted by

  1. robert roeder
    robert roeder is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    I was pleased to see this issue raised here again, after the initial announcement it was briefly covered by the media for 2 days.
    Spying on everybody is just part of corporate US and others plan to dominate and control society, they hope to achieve this through the UN and coordinating laws throughout the world. Misnamed free trade agreements are often the instrument used, The Trans Pacific partnership agreement is a good example.Corporate US and the administration want to control the internet and…

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  2. John Rutherford

    Worker

    We are at a pinnical of human development at this point in time Everything is big. Government,Business ,Military ,Population, and Debt. And so is our connectedness through the internet and electronics. It all requires money to maintain it,more all the time.The financial system is a deck of cards about to collapse.After that we will have a choice as to how a smaller Govt uses the available funds because no one will be happy with them nor will they trust them.They spend enormous amount spying on everyone but will have let the perpetrators of the collapse carry on without being held to account....

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  3. Brandt Hardin

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Snowden is a hero and a patriot in my book. We live in an age where the civil liberties our forefathers fought so hard for are being eroded by the day. Freedom of Press, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly are mere ghostly images of their original intent. We’ve woken up to an Orwellian Society of Fear where anyone is at the mercy of being labeled a terrorist for standing up for rights we took for granted just over a decade ago. Read about how we’re waging war against ourselves at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/09/living-in-society-of-fear-ten-years.html

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  4. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Oh, Groucho's back with his inimitable sense of humour. How's the weather today in the "world's greatest (bought & sold) democracy? Looks like another Man of Morals, Edward Snowden is starting to awaken some of your sleeping citizens from their American Dream into the reality nightmare?

    What always gets me about your countrymen is how selfish their comments are as demonstrated on this article's Guardian link. There doesn't seem to be any regard for their fellow global humans subject to your "democracy's" empire spying on other country's citizens who don't even get a pretend say in your 'democracy' show.

    This is a system of war/intelligence gathering that has always been designed to be so....isn't that right Groucho? You know, think paedophile grooming with toys & lollies. Your window out has always been his window in.

    Martin, I didn't appreciate your rude comments to Greg Boyle on Patrick Stokes' thread. He has a right to his opinion without being insulted.

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    1. Baron Pike

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Pat Moore

      Well, we buy what you sell, right? And what's the point of spying if you give the spies "fair" warning. The point of the game is to break the rules. In any case it amuses me when all the crybabies come out on the Snowden forums in an orgy of compassion for what may be the worst spy of the century.

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    2. Pat Moore

      gardener

      In reply to Baron Pike

      Well thanks for your insights, trouble is I don't understand what you're talking about...non comprende. What do we 'sell' to you? Do you mean information? That's taken without permission. What do you mean 'what's the point of spying if you give the spies "fair" warning.'? This is about the governments + computer corporations spying on their citizens/customers right who are 99.99% NOT 'spies'? To which 'game' do you refer, the 'point' of which 'is to break the rules'? Life?

      Guess it depends…

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    3. Baron Pike

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Pat Moore

      I won't bother to repeat that we aren't spying on our own citizens, and that we're trying to connect the dots that led to those who are in effect "spying" on us. You whiners need to believe our calls are being recorded and listened to; our emails read, etc. I just like to poke fun at you, because it obviously irritates the hell out of you, and hey, that's what you expect us to do, right. Be irritating.

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    4. Martin Hirst

      Associate Professor Journalism & Media at Deakin University

      In reply to Pat Moore

      Huh? I am really not sure what your comment is about Pat, did you read Greg Boyle's tedious and self-gratifying comments on Patrick's thread? He was there every two seconds, repetition does not make someone right or clever.
      Just BTW: Who are you trying to insult with the Groucho comment?
      Or is that the "I'm just being funny", defence?
      Hard to tell.

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  5. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    I guess my relative lack of concern over this idea of a 'surveillance society' and whatever involvement "America’s global espionage network" may have in it arises from the simple fact that like many professionals in the social sciences, especially working for so many years in extended ethnographic field research, it's all just data.

    The issue is firstly how comprehensive and complete the data is, and secondly though quite as importantly how it is interpreted, and by whom.

    I was a great supporter…

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    1. Baron Pike

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      The irony is that people who have nothing to hide think that's the reason we shouldn't look at them, while those who are hiding something also agree for an exactly opposite reason.

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    2. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Baron Pike

      Look at me as much as you want, dude. I've even had those pricks doing a strip search, making me lift my scrotum and bend over to look up my arse, taking blood tests, saliva tests, urine tests, psychological tests, and they still don't find anything out of the ordinary.

      Yet some of them will still come back and say "I'm hiding out in the open!"

      What? What am I hiding? How the f**k can I be hiding something that you can't find anyway, no matter how hard you look, because it doesn't exist…

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    3. Baron Pike

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Well I'll admit we do let contractors hire misfits like Snowden without proper advance screening. But NSA contractors don't have any arse inspectors that I know of. Please advise.

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  6. Robert Tony Brklje
    Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    You seem to have missed the greatest and what should be the most obvious danger. The government is not just the government, it is the political party and those person who sought political office.
    That power to spy and investigate all other citizens all of the time is handed to those individuals, those individuals who are obviously not going to be very happy with people who did not publicly support them and even worse publicly or privately (apparently no such thing now) opposed them.
    Now they can…

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    1. Baron Pike

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Robert Tony Brklje

      Political parties have always done more spying on their constituency and each other than the security agencies ever have, To want every criminal for example to know everything we have on him is to be on the side of that criminal; but of course if it's our criminal and not your criminal, why should you care either way.
      But hey, the littler hardly ever like the bigger, do they.

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    2. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Robert Tony Brklje

      Well, yes, Robert, it is about political parties not just governments, and here as I have said too often in the past, in Australia it is Labor with their 'get-rid-of lists', branch stacking and general corruption who are the worst offenders, especially once they win power.

      There is interesting discussion in childhood studies and child protection theory concerned with the abuse of power by those who perceive themselves to be powerless, which I think is both apt and more broadly applicable.

      Yet…

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    3. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Baron Pike

      Then there are the lyrics of a popular song: "I see no criminals, I only see political prisoners".

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    4. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to James Hill

      Precisely James.

      For happy contented folks who feel they belong and are secure snuggled up in the arms of their state, then PRISM is beaut, drones are progress and the bigger and more powerful the state is the better. But for them it is a kind and benevolent state. The assets and property protected is theirs. The lifestyle protected is theirs, the freedom, the things, the entitlements and rights.

      Less so for others... those who are the objects of the state for one reason or another rather…

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    5. Pat Moore

      gardener

      In reply to Baron Pike

      If you haven't yet done so, some highly recommended reading for you Mr Pike (see Mr Putin caught a big pike in Siberia a few days back?...they have very sharp teeth) is Edward S. Herman's, (Professor emeritus of Finance, Wharton School Pennsylvania) and David Petersen's "Reality Denial: Steven Pinker's Apologetics for Western Imperial Violence" utterly demolishing his ideological and propagandist tract, 'Better Angels...." published on Znet a year ago.

      Dialectically turned out to be a masterful, grand & comprehensive tour on matters empire. And on truth and lies & the consequent need for spies?

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    6. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Yes, as Adam Smith's "Idle Rich" get richer, care of the low wages push, then they accumulate sufficient funds to employ "slave overseers".
      (Something that the Emperor Augustus railed against, and Smith reiterated).
      The system then reinforces itself.
      The dumbing down of educational attainments from the levels induced an necessitated by WWII's struggle for national survival may be just that.
      A nation of slaves do not need to be troubled by an education that will only leave them disappointed and…

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    7. Baron Pike

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Pat Moore

      I never cared for Steven Pinker either but that's neither here nor there. As to Putin, that old KGB rascal, he doesn't just look at your calls and mail, he listens to and reads whatever and whenever he wants. Not that there's much that interests him down under there, but just sayin'. But try telling him that if he'll stop spying, we'll stop counterspying. Yeah, that'll work.

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  7. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Dare I suggest, after following the most recent posting to watch the "debate" descend into paranoia, the radical idea that if you want to know something about someone just go and ask them?

    The moment you treat someone as an enemy, especially these days "The Enemy" in the absence of any clearly identifiable target, of course they are going to clam up. Why? Because they feel threatened.

    The moment people instead are greeted as friends they will smile and open up. For the life of me I can't see…

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    1. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      One might suppose that an anthropologist (Rather than an anthr-apologist, going from your last post?) might have taken an interest in the work of that noted Moral Philosopher of the Enlightenment, (moral in this case referring to mores or way of life), Adam Smith?
      No?
      Past, all that sort of thing, are we?
      Well, that famous paranoid suggested, with telling arguments, that certain financial concerns "had an interest to deceive and oppress the public".
      Further, certain business groupings, whenever…

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    2. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Remember former Yugoslavia? People being neighbors for generations suddenly becoming enemies, killing each other, after some decade of hate being spread. Don't think it's that easy to solve. What I do know though is that a state that set into practice to spy on its own can't be called a democracy. In the end, that's what we Westerners are proud over, isn't it?

      Democracy.

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    3. Baron Pike

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      If everyone completely trusted each other in reality, we wouldn't need laws, police, armies, governments or food stamps.

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  8. John Rutherford

    Worker

    Groucho Marx was an intelligent man.He valued and understood his right to say whatever he thought to whoever he liked and knew it was up to the receiver to take it as he pleases.He also knew that anybody could return him the favour and was quite prepared to take it.You can`t do that in a surveilance state because once they have all of those who don`t agree with them they then look for those whom they FEAR don`t agree with them I`t`s driven by paranoia and Grougho was not Paranoid

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    1. Baron Pike

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Rutherford

      @Groucho: "Paranoia is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies. And not just in Australia."

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    2. Baron Pike

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      Except for finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies, you're right.

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    3. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Baron Pike

      :) We both are, in a way. You look at the question where a Nation has to draw the line about peoples right to personal integrity, finding it to be a 'gray area', in where one has to assume that those peeping will be able to;

      Keep quiet about what they find; Use what common sense they've gathered under a life; Preferably be politically unbiased; Never apply their knowledge to anything other than 'real threats to the democracy'. If they can't do it this way, then they are flawed as instruments…

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  9. John Hopkins

    Social Engineer

    This disgusting effect (constant surveillance) of the "Trio Of Stupidity (USA, UK & Australia)" in their grab for more & more control over us & their wish to make us even more "cattle like" in our willingness to accept the Draconian (to say the least) "New Laws" that are creeping in almost daily, is THE reason that we are, ALL THREE COUNTRIES, racing towards FULL BLOWN CIVIL WAR.

    Our Governments have become the enemy of EACH & EVERY CITIZEN within the "Trio Of Stupidity" & "Dark net" will provide…

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