Watching me watching you

Complicit surveillance and social networking

Published on Le MondeDiplo, by Miyase Christensen, October 2009.

We’ve all spent so much time and effort being worried about formal surveillance – all those street and lobby cameras – that we’re in danger of forgetting how much we cooperate in surveilling and being surveilled online.

New research suggests that 25% of people in the UK suffer from some form of paranoia (1), probably because of a combination of urbanisation, globalisation, migration, wealth disparity and the media. So would it be right to assume that paranoia will worsen as we move towards complex personal surveillance, the result of the heavy use of social networking sites such as Facebook? While these sites are collecting data on their users, as my own research in Sweden illustrates, many of us are taking part in this on a seemingly voluntary basis, often unaware of its extent. 

Formal surveillance means one CCTV camera per 14 citizens in the UK, or 200,000 such cameras in the city of Shenzhen in China. But parallel to the traditional forms of surveillance, there is a new voyeurism, rooted in an appetite for peer-to-peer surveillance. Watching friends, neighbours and colleagues for security purposes – and sometimes just for fun – seems to be getting common …

… We don’t know if abandoning online social networking territory will be an option. Because of global mobility and hectic lives, connecting with friends in a left-behind homeland or exchanging a few words with the next-door neighbour without leaving our sofa has advantages. Even more so, as my current research in Sweden illustrates, for many second and third generation migrants who enjoy meeting family and friends online.

Much of the responsibility for raising awareness seems to fall on civil society and citizen groups; web-savvy users have to continue a public negotiation process to control how we engage with technology and who uses what online, and to what ends. In the absence of effective regulatory mechanisms to limit the data-surveilling activities of companies, using online social media can be risky. The EU Commission warned this year that data-collection from such sites might lead to consumers being inundated with unsolicited advertising or their data being used by the governments in ways that compromise civil liberties.

With surveillance embedded in most aspects of everyday life from supermarket cards to website cookies, what matters now is not “us” being watched, but the information we “leak” (5). There is a complex, multi-layered interplay between the surveillant gaze – embedded in communication technologies – and in everyday personal communication routines at an individual level; this is giving way to a new surveillance, where the act is consensual and guilt (of convenience and pleasure with a cost) shared. Newer media technologies are restructuring the nature of information-sharing and communications on a day-to-day basis, with long-term influences we have yet to see. (full text).

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