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Mundane surveillance is the type of surveillance that goes hand-in-hand with our daily activities (e.g. tax payments, Covid pass checks). It has become so prevalent that people rarely notice its presence in the US. This commodified tracking is ingrained even in such sensitive areas as mental health services.
The Guardian recently published a thorough overview of the scope of mundane surveillance. Here are a few examples of the everyday tracking experienced by US citizens.
Last November, the Internal Revenue Service announced its plans to use the services of ID.me, an identity verification company that requires you to upload a selfie to register. Eventually, the IRS was forced to withdraw its decision. Yet this attempt is still an illustrative example that biometric tracking has the potential to become an unavoidable part of our daily activities.
ID.me uses a one-to-one image recognition system. It analyzes your image and then compares it to another single image to check if you are the same person. However, later on ID.me CEO claimed that they use Amazon’s facial recognition system called Rekognition instead of their own. Rekognition uses an algorithm based on its database of images. So in the end ID.me passes your image into the hands of Amazon that doesn’t have the best privacy record. Studies also showed that Rekognition fails to properly identify faces of people of different races.
The one-to-one facial recognition system poses significant privacy concerns. The images here are paired with tons of your personal information. Moreover, you continue to enrich the database with every selfie and provide it with even more personal data.
Even the mental health area is also not free from data hoarding practices. The US non-profit mental health hotline Crisis Text Line appears to be collecting and sharing the data of its users. CTL shares its data with Loris, a third-party company that uses insights to develop customer-service software. While the data is anonymized, it is still concerning that even such sensitive areas as mental health hotlines aren't free from data scraping.
In the US, many places use the CLEAR platform to scan vaccination passes. The system is used for biometric scanning at the airport. People must sign up by providing their personal details and uploading their photo to use CLEAR. The platform can also collect a great deal of your personal information, such as workplace, address, location, and financial data.
CLEAR also doesn't give customers much control over their data and can freely manipulate it and use it for internal business purposes anonymously. While CLEAR doesn't sell customers' data, it can share it with other entities. Sadly, not many legal limitations have been put in place to restrict these activities.
The worst thing is that data tracking has become so ingrained in our daily life that it is challenging to avoid it altogether. However, you can always reduce your digital footprint. Here are a few tips:
As the surveillance practices discussed are becoming more prevalent, we need a more rigid legal framework to deal with them. Governments could implement stricter rules for data retention and how long it can be stored. Of course, regulators should be thorough and put significant effort into covering diverse areas and types of data gathering.
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