It is tempting to think of the major social media platforms that we all use on a daily basis as a convenient platform for sharing ideas, bits of our lives, and communicating with friends. While this may be true, it is important to understand that this is not how the companies who own those platforms see the situation.
Surveillance by Companies
For companies, the motivation is to maximize the profit they earn by selling ads targeted specifically to you. This is accomplished by collecting, storing, and analyzing all the information that you provide to them, either explicitly, such as the information you give when starting an account, or implicitly—like the interactions you have with the platform. In many cases (see the terms of service section) this data is stored for an indefinite period of time. This has lead to numerous scandals/problems, for example the targeted advertising undertaken by Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.
Surveillance by Governments
Governments will also use digital data for a variety of purposes. The leak by Edward Snowden opened the eyes of many people to the vast scope of the surveillance* conducted by the government of the United States and many other countries. Though a lot of countries (including both Canada and the United States) have passed laws limiting the ability of government agencies to collect that data, it is important to understand the basics of government surveillance as those powers can be changed at any time and agencies have been known to use legal trickery to get around limits on their powers.
* Digital surveillance: the monitoring and tracking of digital data. There are different types of surveillance and we have addressed corporate, governmental, and parental surveillance in this section.
Surveillance of Metadata
When it comes to digital communication there are two relevant categories of information the government is interested in. The first is the content of the communications, which includes things like the actual content of emails and text messages, as well as wiretapped phone conversations. The second is what is known as metadata,* which is the data associated with the communication itself. This includes things such as the identities of the sender and receiver, the duration of the communication, and the time at which it was sent. In general, the government faces a much higher legal burden to obtain the former, though both have been collected and stored en masse by many governments in the aftermath of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks.
* Metadata: a set of data that gives information about or describes other data. Essentially, whenever you use online services, you leave behind a digital footprint such as the times you browsed the internet, for how long etc.
Surveillance by Parents
The third dimension of surveillance is that conducted by parents over children. There are a variety of apps now available that allow parents to track the location of their children via their cell phone location services, as well as monitor all of their social media activity. This raises important questions about how the children will come to understand their own privacy, not just with regards to their parents, but with government, corporations, and other institutions later in life.
For Further Reading:
- Inside China’s Vast New Experiment in Social Ranking
- Net Neutrality is Just a Gateway to the Real Issue: Internet Freedom
- How The Math Men Overthrew The Mad Men
- How Companies Learn Your Secrets
- Coming to Terms: The Kaleidoscope of Privacy and Surveillance
- Dear Adults: Here’s what kids think you should know about Facebook Security
- Corporate Surveillance in Everyday Life