Privacy vs mass surveillance: an ongoing battle

In today’s age of surveillance capitalism, personal data has become a highly valuable asset. Whilst the Big Tech companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple have been long scrutinised on their role in the Big Data Economy and their handling of users’ data, concerns about government surveillance have recently surged across the globe.

Getty Images. GETTY

Surveillance capitalism is a term commonly used to denote a market-driven process where the commodity for sale is your personal data. It centres around companies that provide us with free online services — Google and Facebook, for example — whereby through the mass surveillance of the internet, they gather information from individuals.

Through the collection of online behaviours, such as likes, dislikes, searches, social networks, and purchases, these companies produce data that can be further used for commercial and even political purposes. And this is often done without us understanding the full extent of the surveillance.

The revelations from last year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted the extent to which internet companies survey an individual’s online activity. Cambridge Analytica’s actions broke Facebook’s own rules by collecting and selling data under the pretence of academic research, possibly violating the election law in the United States.

Despite the questionable nature of Cambridge Analytica’s actions, the bigger players and leading actors in surveillance capitalism, Facebook and Google, are still legally amassing as much information as they can, making huge profits in the process.

The scandal prompted significant questions over privacy concerns, raising the importance of discussions on ethical data surveillance and ethical data handling. Recent research shows that the private sector is not the only body in question when it comes to data surveillance and ethical data handling.

American market research and advisory company Forrester Researcher announced in a recent report that India has been named as a country with minimal restrictions in terms of data privacy and protection, where government surveillance is a cause of concern. China also featured in the report as a country with a high level of government surveillance.

“The government surveillance is a worldwide phenomenon that cuts across geographies, economic development, societal well-being, and institutional design, with alarming levels of government surveillance in countries such as Austria, Colombia, India, Kuwait and the UK,” the report said.

According to the 2019 Forrester Global Map of Privacy Rights and Regulations, “Regulations that allow governments to access personal data of citizens are still undermining the overall privacy protections that certain countries offer their citizens”

Lack of constitutional provisions to enable monitoring of government activity could be one of the primary reasons for the high level of government surveillance in India, industry experts say. Nonetheless, the surveillance practices may prove to be pervasive and not in line with the enforced data privacy laws, thus affecting data security of citizens.

Similarly, a new report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) reveals the extent to which everyday behaviour in China’s Xinjiang region is monitored by the authorities, contributing to a regime of constant surveillance and mass detention. The report revealed how a mobile app used by these officials helps them collect vast amounts of personal data, prompting them to flag seemingly normal behaviour as suspicious.

The app was accessed by HRW’s Maya Wang when it became publicly available. Maya said that the app was most likely never supposed to be made public: ‘It was a careless mistake that prompted some of the people who have this app to put it online,’ she explains.

However, once accessed, they were able to reverse engineer it, revealing that under the excuse of a counter-terrorism policy called the ‘Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism’ the app was meant to fulfill the following functions: collect personal information, reporting on activities deemed suspicious, and prompting investigations of people the system flags as problematic.

It enabled the officials to collect an exhaustive amount of sensitive information on individuals including blood-type, digital records of their faces, height, car colour, ‘religious atmosphere’ and political affiliation. The report further details how the information is fed into a policing programme called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), one of the main systems Chinese authorities use for mass surveillance in Xinjiang. HRW findings suggest that every citizen in the region is subject to monitoring under this programme.

Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The HRW report notes that many, if not all of these mass surveillance practices appear to contravene to Chinese law and have no clear relationship to terrorism or extremism monitoring. According to Wang, this huge surveillance effort by the ruling party comes down to retaining power. ‘I think the goal is to ensure that the party stays in power forever, which is challenging for them to do,’ she explains. ‘The shift to a market-based economy has meant that the party has lost some of the old tools for social control and so they decided that technology is going to be very good for them in achieving that purpose.’

Despite the difficulties, Wang suggest that the concerning levels of survelliance are not exclusive to China or a particular country: government surveillance is taking place all over the world.

‘There is no privacy in first world,’ she says. ‘Even if you’re in Europe or the US you have to be very worried about where your data is going or if it is protected.” This makes the inherent risk and potential for data abuse and breaches an increasingly relevant discussion.

Privacy vs mass surveillance: an ongoing battle

In today’s age of surveillance capitalism, personal data has become a highly valuable asset. Whilst the Big Tech companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple have been long scrutinised on their role in the Big Data Economy and their handling of users’ data, concerns about government surveillance have recently surged across the globe.

Getty Images. GETTY

Surveillance capitalism is a term commonly used to denote a market-driven process where the commodity for sale is your personal data. It centres around companies that provide us with free online services — Google and Facebook, for example — whereby through the mass surveillance of the internet, they gather information from individuals.

Through the collection of online behaviours, such as likes, dislikes, searches, social networks, and purchases, these companies produce data that can be further used for commercial and even political purposes. And this is often done without us understanding the full extent of the surveillance.

The revelations from last year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted the extent to which internet companies survey an individual’s online activity. Cambridge Analytica’s actions broke Facebook’s own rules by collecting and selling data under the pretence of academic research, possibly violating the election law in the United States.

Despite the questionable nature of Cambridge Analytica’s actions, the bigger players and leading actors in surveillance capitalism, Facebook and Google, are still legally amassing as much information as they can, making huge profits in the process.

The scandal prompted significant questions over privacy concerns, raising the importance of discussions on ethical data surveillance and ethical data handling. Recent research shows that the private sector is not the only body in question when it comes to data surveillance and ethical data handling.

American market research and advisory company Forrester Researcher announced in a recent report that India has been named as a country with minimal restrictions in terms of data privacy and protection, where government surveillance is a cause of concern. China also featured in the report as a country with a high level of government surveillance.

“The government surveillance is a worldwide phenomenon that cuts across geographies, economic development, societal well-being, and institutional design, with alarming levels of government surveillance in countries such as Austria, Colombia, India, Kuwait and the UK,” the report said.

According to the 2019 Forrester Global Map of Privacy Rights and Regulations, “Regulations that allow governments to access personal data of citizens are still undermining the overall privacy protections that certain countries offer their citizens”

Lack of constitutional provisions to enable monitoring of government activity could be one of the primary reasons for the high level of government surveillance in India, industry experts say. Nonetheless, the surveillance practices may prove to be pervasive and not in line with the enforced data privacy laws, thus affecting data security of citizens.

Similarly, a new report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) reveals the extent to which everyday behaviour in China’s Xinjiang region is monitored by the authorities, contributing to a regime of constant surveillance and mass detention. The report revealed how a mobile app used by these officials helps them collect vast amounts of personal data, prompting them to flag seemingly normal behaviour as suspicious.

The app was accessed by HRW’s Maya Wang when it became publicly available. Maya said that the app was most likely never supposed to be made public: ‘It was a careless mistake that prompted some of the people who have this app to put it online,’ she explains.

However, once accessed, they were able to reverse engineer it, revealing that under the excuse of a counter-terrorism policy called the ‘Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism’ the app was meant to fulfill the following functions: collect personal information, reporting on activities deemed suspicious, and prompting investigations of people the system flags as problematic.

It enabled the officials to collect an exhaustive amount of sensitive information on individuals including blood-type, digital records of their faces, height, car colour, ‘religious atmosphere’ and political affiliation. The report further details how the information is fed into a policing programme called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), one of the main systems Chinese authorities use for mass surveillance in Xinjiang. HRW findings suggest that every citizen in the region is subject to monitoring under this programme.

Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The HRW report notes that many, if not all of these mass surveillance practices appear to contravene to Chinese law and have no clear relationship to terrorism or extremism monitoring. According to Wang, this huge surveillance effort by the ruling party comes down to retaining power. ‘I think the goal is to ensure that the party stays in power forever, which is challenging for them to do,’ she explains. ‘The shift to a market-based economy has meant that the party has lost some of the old tools for social control and so they decided that technology is going to be very good for them in achieving that purpose.’

Despite the difficulties, Wang suggest that the concerning levels of survelliance are not exclusive to China or a particular country: government surveillance is taking place all over the world.

‘There is no privacy in first world,’ she says. ‘Even if you’re in Europe or the US you have to be very worried about where your data is going or if it is protected.” This makes the inherent risk and potential for data abuse and breaches an increasingly relevant discussion.

Cassiopeia Data Series: Intersection of Data and Disruptive Technologies

In this Information Age, data has become one of the most valuable assets in society. Data is defined as pieces of information collected to be examined and considered, and used to help decision-making; or information in an electronic form that can be stored and used by a computer.

The Global Big Data market is expected to reach $118.52 billion by 2022, growing at an impressive rate of 26.0% from 2015 to 2022, which includes the aggregated value of data in different products and services. The main factors driving this trend upwards are growth in consumer data, superior information security, and enhanced business efficiencies.

The data market is vast and full of opportunities, especially for those developing and curating technology. The total number of data workers in the 28 EU countries is estimated at 6.1 million, a figure that could almost double by the year 2020 if growth keeps on at this pace. On top of this, the number of organisations producing and supplying data-related products and services could reach almost 350,000 in 2020, when the number of data users could be more than 1.3 million.

Data is a concept society is still trying to grasp, and the questions around its uses are numerous and complex — concerning data ownership, privacy and surveillance, among others. Data requires careful and ethical management, as once information is made available online, it rarely gets deleted, making it difficult to measure the consequences of misuse.

“You can’t make a data set disappear. Once you post it, and people download it, it exists on hard drives all over the world,” says researcher Adam Harvey, whose project Megapixels documented the details of dozens of data sets and how they are being used, to the FT.

It is important to note that data in itself has no beneficial or damaging features. What defines it are the applications and purposes which it serves. As disruptive technologies continue to evolve and digitisation becomes more widespread, the uses of data become increasingly more diverse.

A PwC study has identified the top eight disruptive technologies of today, which are the flagships of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and can dramatically change the way we do business: Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Blockchain, Internet of Things (IoT), Drones, 3D Printing and Robotics.

These are the core technologies that will matter most for business, across every industry, over the years to come. A stronger way to harness those technologies would be combining them to yield powerful applications that are even more beneficial and efficient.

From PwC, The Essential Eight

Each one of these technologies interacts with data in different ways: they have diverse functions. Ultimately, harnessing data is a fundamental part of this new wave of technology.

Internet of Things (IoT) collects data

In an Internet of Things (IoT) system, computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, objects, animals or people are all interrelated with the use of unique identifiers (UIDs), and with which they can collect and transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.

IoT technology is used in the consumer, enterprise, industrial, and government market segments, each of which produce massive amounts of data, generally of the unstructured variety, requiring data technologies for management and processing.

This is where Artificial Intelligence enters the scene…

Artificial Intelligence (AI) processes and analyses data

With the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms, we enhance the ability of big data analytics and IoT platforms to provide value to each of these market segments. AI algorithms can be trained to manage and process data according to certain standards. This feature turns raw data into meaningful information, which is then useful for decision-making purposes.

This chart shows forecasted cumulative global artificial intelligence revenue 2016–2025, by use case.

Blockchain stores and distributes data

In the blockchain realm, data and decentralisation enjoy a powerful relationship. Data can be fed into blockchain networks securely and privately, avoiding centralised storage. Blockchain can be used as the foundation for decentralised data storage providers.

Because of the architecture of blockchain networks, data stored on them is immutable and cannot be forged, making it a highly secure technology for preventing fraud.

The “essential eight” technologies are evolving rapidly, becoming increasingly more sophisticated and equally complex, also prompting questions around legislation and ethical uses of data. The scenario leaves plenty of room for further research and discussion about how technology can help drive society forward without compromising rights and principles.

Cassiopeia Services is a key partner and the official PR/Media representative of the World Ethical Data Forum (WEDF), a leading global organisation that embraces the full spectrum of interrelated issues around the use and future of data.

We are working with WEDF on its next Global Forum set to take place in London in 2020. Dates, venue and keynote speakers will be announced in due course.

For more information about how to get involved, drop us an email at cassiopeia@worldwthicaldata.org

Cassiopeia Services partners with World Ethical Data Forum

Cassiopeia Services Ltd., the innovative London-based PR/IR agency, is pleased to announce it has been chosen to manage the Public Relations, Media Partnerships and Sponsorships for the World Ethical Data Forum (WEDF), a leading global organisation that embraces the full spectrum of interrelated issues around the use and future of data.

Founded by Stefania Barbaglio in 2015, Cassiopeia is a global PR and IR agency with a strong focus on and experience in the new technology and innovation sector. Since 2017, Cassiopeia has focused on delivering strong communications strategies for companies and startups in the blockchain and technology sector. Stefania is a London based eclectic entrepreneur and well-recognised PR expert, presenter and speaker, international journalist and qualified blockchain strategist by the University of Oxford.

In 2018, the first edition of the WEDF in Barcelona, Spain brought together the most prominent data experts such as Julian Assange and Dr. Ralph Merkle. The streamed event received 2.4 million YouTube views in a single week.

WEDF is the single most important event in the worldwide data realm. In 2020, the WEDF will approach the intersecting questions around data use in the Information Age, diving into conversations on data analysis, use and regulation; data privacy; future of data and new technologies; fake news and responsible journalism; data intelligence/security intersection and censorship; and future of democracy. The date and venue will be announced in due course.

Data has become one of the most valuable assets in the global economy: as important a commodity as oil, according to specialists. In these times of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, data is the common factor underlying many technologies and shaping up the future of society. This unprecedented use of data urges the construction of new social, political and economic systems, which are better fitted to address the data economy.

Stefania Barbaglio, Director at Cassiopeia Services commented: “I am delighted to be working with the WEDF to promote their next edition. Cassiopeia is always at the forefront of innovation and we recognise the power of data and the revolution happening with development of data technologies. This also poses big ethical questions and challenges which require serious dialogue and practical solutions. The WEDF is the place for those discussions to happen.”

John David Marshall, CEO of the WEDF commented: “The issues we’re dealing with are so important historically that having the right team in place able to comprehend them and cope with the enormity of the challenges they present is vital. I’m looking forward to the work ahead, and to what we’ll accomplish together.”

For more information about how to get involved, please email stefania@worldethicaldata.org