The Age of Social Surveillance

How would you feel if I said I was following your every move?

What if I was stalking you and eavesdropping on all your conversations?

The idea of the state controlling society through a ‘secret police’ constantly onlooking the lives of citizens seems ridiculous in our modern Western society. We believe that it is something we can confine to history: either to the Gestapo in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia, who established an informant state to eliminate opposition. We have free speech, whereas these people did not. We are a free country.

The informative nature of Nazi Germany is something that we learn about in the classroom, scoff at and question: how could one possibly live in a state that spies on people to control its people and get information?

Yes, we may have freedom of speech, but do we have freedom of thought? Freedom of speech is considered a basic human right and people fight for it every day, all over the world. But since we have achieved such a high level of freedom in the West, society has found other ways to manipulate and control us- and this method is far more dangerous than the former.

We live in the most monitored and surveyed society that has ever existed. We are monitored far more than the people of Germany ever were. CCTV cameras line most public streets. Your personal information is passed from social media site to news site to a different social media site, with little anxiety from the everyday person. And not only do we accept it, we actively encourage it.

Most social platforms have moved into location identity- this is the form of control that concerns me the most.

They have done this because they know the human race loves to boast; we love to show how our life is better than others’; primarily by the number of holidays we have been on, or the places we have eaten. So, we voluntarily allow our location to be determined by Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. Every time you open up an application on your smartphone, which you once quickly accepted a location sharing request from, it can log exactly where you are and store that information strategically. They use algorithms to utilise and sell this information to companies seeking to promote their product.

This may seem harmless on the surface. This may actually appear quite useful. Good enterprise if anything. But what it indicates about the way our society observes our lives is scary.

Last month, my friend and I had a drink at Darcy McGees opposite Parliament in Ottawa. Our phones remained in our pockets for the 20 minutes we were there. I carried on with the rest of my day thinking nothing of it. However, the next day my friend and I were both bombarded with commercial advertisement on Facebook and Instagram for this same bar. We were both baffled by how this had happened. We were confused but more importantly, a little concerned.

These companies use our information to manipulate us into buying products or attending particular restaurants: they are making us consume what we are consuming, without us even realising it.

When we put it on the larger scale, it becomes clearer how social media is becoming dangerous and distorting our lives, especially when put in the hands of the wrong people. There are numerous investigations going on currently which incriminate the Russian Kremlin over manipulating social media to foster conflict in the United States during the 2016 elections. The New York Times reported that they used algorithms for systematically targeting users of social media sites to receive certain content to influence their opinion and damage their faith in democracy. The people being targeted are completely unaware. No one know how these algorithms translate into such manipulation; we are being controlled without knowing it. Italy’s 5-star movement too, a right wing group vying for power in Italy, has also been a perpetrator of issuing fake news, influenced by Russia, reported The Guardian. Surveillance and control is seeping into every aspect of our lives. It is no better than having a ‘secret police’ reporting our every word to society. It is worse. There should be more checks and balances in place to avoid jeopardising our freedom further.

And this surveillance is only getting more advanced: Alexa and Google, intelligent personal systems, supposedly only listen when you address them. But who really knows? There are online theories that they listen to everything. They then create tailored algorithms to sell you specific items related to this. And this is only going to get worse. Effectively, we are investing in losing more of our freedom each day; something that thousands of people have died for.

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