Surveillance is “observing another in order to gather evidence”, according to Cornell Law School. We can then infer that cyber surveillance is the act of watching someone online in order to gather evidence.
Cyber surveillance is especially prevalent in the digital age because we all use technology to accomplish tasks in our lives. It is reasonable to assume that any device that can connect to the internet can be monitored by someone else.
It is important to understand the intricacies and implications of cyber surveillance so individuals can make informed decisions about how they interact with the digital world around them.
Forms and Methods of Cyber Surveillance
The United States government uses surveillance to defend the country against terrorism. This means that the government believes that technology is so prevalent that the best way to protect this valuable conduit of information is to utilize surveillance programs to ensure bad actors do not put our country and its interests at risk.
One of the most significant surveillance programs used by the United States government is Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which allows the government to surveil “foreign persons located outside the United States”, according to The Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Corporations collect consumer data to decide which products and services to sell. While individual data is said to be aggregated to minimize the ability of corporations to identify individual people, there are still concerns about what happens to that data in the event of data breaches.
Online Tracking and Data Collection
The technologies used for data collection can fall into two categories, active and passive, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Active data collection occurs when internet users enter data into forms and fields on websites. Passive data collection happens through HTTP logging and cookie technologies.
These tracking technologies rely on the functionality of the internet, which means there are few, if any, places to hide personal activity from some kind of surveillance. Internet users must restrict their online activity and use less of the internet where possible to keep their data safe.
The Legal Landscape of Cyber Surveillance
National and International Laws
There are laws that govern cyber security best practices. One such law in the United States is the Gramm-Leach Bliley Act that requires financial institutions to let their consumers know how those companies use customer data and how they keep that data safe, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
71% of countries worldwide currently have some kind of cybersecurity legislation in place, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTD). This indicates that cyber surveillance is such a prevalent concern for many nations that laws will likely evolve as they are implemented and amended.
Surveillance vs. Privacy: Ethical Considerations
No discussion of cyber surveillance would be complete without an analysis of privacy concerns. Companies need data to make informed decisions about what to sell. Governments need to be able to protect their citizens. The general public wants to be safe.
These competing concerns create tension because these are not unreasonable goals, but they are inherently at odds if balance is not achieved. There is responsibility on each party to be informed and use the tools at their disposal responsibly.
Implications and Impact of Cyber Surveillance
Threats to Privacy and Personal Freedom
Cyber surveillance can compromise individuals’ privacy and personal freedom because there are few places to keep your information accessible, yet truly private using digital tools like phones, computers, and other internet-connected devices.
Extensive surveillance can lead to a society where trust has eroded to the point that individuals could feasibly opt to stop using technological devices in protest. This could lead to the collapse of technology companies that rely on people using their devices, which can have negative effects for the overall economy.
Chilling Effects on Free Speech and Expression
Cyber surveillance can inhibit free speech and expression when individuals feel they cannot express themselves without retribution for their words. That leads to self-censorship and the stifling of creative expression.
The Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, expanded the government’s ability to surveil potential terrorist activities, according to Brittanica. This well-intended legislation has been criticized as being flexible enough to allow abuse by federal investigators because of the somewhat relaxed provisions of the law.
Social and Cultural Ramifications
Cyber surveillance can potentially erode trust in relationships as individuals become accustomed to being watched in their daily activities. This could lead to a shift of societal norms from valuing privacy to expecting that nothing of the sort is sacred. Research has shown that surveillance exposure can even lead to anxiety and depression.
Protecting Yourself in the Era of Cyber Surveillance
Privacy Measures and Tools
There are many things you can do to keep your information safe online. There are a wide range of tools like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), two-step authentication services, and password managers among many other strategies that range from simple to more complex. The best strategy ultimately comes down to individual preference and desire to learn more.
Digital Literacy and Awareness
It’s important to become digitally literate and learn more about the ways cyber surveillance affects individuals and society. And that knowledge isn’t static. As technology involves, so, too, will methods of cyber surveillance. Read tech blogs, make sure your device software is updated, and being aware of the digital environment around us are all ways individuals can protect themselves.
Future Trends and the Path Forward
Connected devices and technologies are becoming easier and cheaper for everyone to use, which has given rise to the Internet of Things (IoT), which are basically physical devices that are connected. This means that physical objects that do not have a history of being “digital” are now equipped with the ability to connect to the internet and could potentially be surveilled.
A surefire way to make sure the surveillance state is not abused is for individuals to become informed consumers and actively engage with elected officials to make sure surveillance techniques are not abused by those in power both in the public and private sectors.
Cyber surveillance is increasing along with the ease and affordability of both existing and new forms of technology. There are competing interests of governments wanting to protect citizens, companies wanting to sell the right products to the right consumers, and individuals, who want to enjoy a more connected lifestyle.
These interests can exist harmoniously but rely on all parties to be informed to prevent abuse. No longer can individuals rely on governments and corporations to always act in their best interest. The informed internet user is the best defense against abuse of cyber surveillance.