Negotiating privacy in the public world of cyberspace


Lifelogging and the surveillance of digital data are two technologies that are tracking and monitoring our lives in unprecedented ways. 

No longer content to enjoy the moment by simply being there, an increasing number of individuals in the developed world are seeking to experience the world around them through the filter of their digital devices. This proliferation of data-capture has also ushered in an entire industry in service of storing trillions of bytes of data in a desperate attempt to keep pace with the ever rising tide of images, video, and music to which consumers demand instant, anytime, anywhere access. The children of the developed world growing up since the late 90s now have hundreds of hours of personal footage to sift through thanks to parents eager to preserve every waking moment of their lives.

Arguably, the popularity and staying power of social media platforms Facebook, Google +, and Instagram owe their success to the desire among consumers to showcase everything about their lives; from the banal social ritual of taking pictures of the meal they are about to eat and the comedic video clip featuring a spontaneous eruption of celebration after a few too many glasses of wine, to the more serious and controlled snapshot of a son or daughter’s college graduation. The scale and immediacy of connectedness is something never before experienced by the human race. And we’re only getting started.

Fast on the heels of video and camera equipped smartphones, a new generation of wearable electronics promises not only the convenience of an almost hands-free user experience, but also the opportunity to document almost every moment of our lives since birth.

Swedish based company Memoto is preparing to release an eponymously titled wearable camera that is capable of taking pictures every thirty seconds. No larger than the size of your thumb, the Memoto camera is powered by an algorithm that approximates the perfect field of vision when taking a picture. Another impressive feature is the app’s ability to automatically upload your pictures into the cloud, and organize them along a timeline, disclosing the date, time, and place when each picture was taken.

A related device, and the one having received the most media buzz, is Google Glass, a wearable computer in the form of an eyeglass frame that can take pictures, record video, and provide access to your email and preferred social media sites. Unlike the Memoto, the Glass also offers augmented reality, interacting with the world around it by offering additional information about particular landmarks and buildings entering into its view.

Although there are some critics who doubt the success of Google Glass once it reaches the market, the future of such devices is all but certain given the undeniable trend among consumers toward increasing connectedness to the digital world. Humans are innately curious and attention seeking, and will not resist the temptation and convenience of real-time technology that allow for the instant capture and transmission of their personal day to day experiences. In the near future, it’s even possible to imagine the popularity of personal micro-drones hovering above and around their owners, recording every moment of their lives as if they are their own virtual reality star.

As with any advance in science and technology, the intended benefits also coincide with unforeseen risks. Given the volume of user-data willingly uploaded and shared, it’s not surprising that governments all over the world are finding it necessary to monitor our digital information. Covert entities designed to scour the content of our emails and the history of our internet activity has been in existence for more than a decade. While governments insist on exercising these powers for the sake of national security, detractors of unchecked government surveillance point to existing abuses and violations of our basic human rights to freedom and privacy.

Nowhere is this debate more heated than in the United States where a media firestorm broke out when Edward Snowden, a former employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, and a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), released information disclosing the existence of a top-secret program called XKeyscore. Lawful under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), XKeyscore allows the US government to access everything an individual suspected of being a “foreign power or agent of a foreign power” has ever done on the internet, including their browsing history, the content of their emails, online chats, internet searches, and social media activity. Another clandestine program in the U.S. is PRISM, which allows security agents “to access the servers of major Internet organizations including Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, YouTube and Skype, among others.”

As technology continues to advance in delivering devices capable of capturing our every moment — in the form of still pictures at present, and in the form of running video in the future — so too will the need to construct laws and software that protect our digital privacy even though citizens will be uploading their lives for almost everyone to see and share.

There is also the issue of negotiating social norms and expectations regarding the growing popularity of lifelogging. How would you feel if, without your permission and knowledge, you suddenly discovered extended clips and images of yourself attending a private social event uploaded onto the cloud for everyone to see?

We can all agree that privacy is more than just an occasion to remain anonymous. It is an essential ingredient in the development and shaping of our identity. To what extent will the awareness of being under constant surveillance affect our decisions to test the limits of our emotional and physical boundaries? Will we be less daring and spontaneous in our personal explorations of self? Or will we be obnoxiously bold for the sake of impressing an imaginary audience? Or perhaps we’ll become so immune to such devices, that we’ll carry on as business as usual.

Ultimately, the more pressing issue concerns the use of such technologies for social control and maintaining corrupt political and economic systems at the expense of those who are far less powerful.

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About Author

Kristian strives to enlighten and entertain readers. In addition to his teaching and editorial responsibilities, he is working on a science-fiction novel that promises not to include exoskeleton suits and anemic aliens floating in mysterious vats of green-tinted goop.

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