Surveillance and profiling: what's next?
The revelations of the US National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance have caused an international furore. While recently diplomatic responses to the disclosures have occupied the headlines, how does surveillance more generally affect us as individuals?
'[...] I'm sure you have seen the 'surveillance news' on TV - it is also all over the Internet now. Rather vast its scope, it seems - it has been suggested roughly 50% of Internet traffic data relating to communications may go through the NSA. You must have also read the reports stating that 'Silicon Valley' backdoors were used by the NSA to access encrypted communications and that it could mine both communications content and metadata under broad justifications and based on general criteria. Indeed, sifting through the HTTP activity by keywords indicates a wide range of surveillance capabilities...
You know, sometimes when surveillance and profiling are discussed, an argument is being put forward that one just needs to behave in a regular, 'normal' way, and then there would be nothing to worry about. Even if this point were to be accepted, the wider the scope of surveillance, the weaker the argument of targeting exceptional or anomalous behaviour becomes - it is no longer previous suspects or individuals whose behaviour clearly stands out in a negative way, but ever wider categories of people whose communications are being stored and sifted through.
But more importantly - and I'll be curious to hear what you think about it - what, indeed, is regular or 'normal' behaviour? Surely, within the sense of profiling algorithms it is something that excludes Google searches, Facebook messages or emails that could produce a 'hit', for instance, under a terrorism-related keyword. With this, it seems, comes a paradox and one of the greatest dangers of surveillance and profiling - while their goal is to find and flag anomalous conduct - they may, in fact, 'normalize' public behaviour.
Indeed, if one realized that their communications may be flagged, stored for a longer time, or given a detailed analysis based on what words they used in a Google search or a Facebook message, that could well make them feel uneasy. Would it make people stop researching or discussing the topics that are relevant, for instance, for their research? I would hope it doesn't, because the contrary would mean that surveillance has already led to a chilling effect. While we are awaiting how the current surveillance story will unfold, I write this to you in the hope that both our generation, and all the ones to come, will be regarded not just as part of a positive or negative profile, but as what we truly are – individuals.'