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The battle between surveillance and innovation

Jan 03, 2017 · 4 min read

The battle between surveillance and innovation

As our world continues to get more sophisticated in terms of technology, concerns are increasingly being raised about the role that innovation plays in protecting or exploiting our personal data.

This is especially true in consideration of innovative technologies that use surveillance procedures in order to provide services to consumers. The question then becomes: in order to have greater innovation, what level of surveillance will people be most comfortable with?

The answer can be seen throughout the recent years of innovative technology failures: pointing to the fact that people are uncomfortable with levels of surveillance that they can’t control.

How innovation loses to surveillance fears

The most popular form of this can be seen with the fall of Google Glass. Glass was seen as a major step forward in innovation: the brilliant realization of a technology only seen in sci-fi films. It was considered as being practical in helping make people’s personal and business lives much easier, as they would be able to have the power of their smartphones without needing to use their hands.

However, it all began to turn when people realized that the cameras, always facing forward, could record others’ movements and actions without their knowing about it. It is very easy to see if someone is recording you with a phone now or with a camera. But when someone is wearing Glass, it’s impossible to know when you’re being recorded, which increases the possibility that they’re recording you all the time. That possibility is uncontrollable, and the fear of uncontrollable surveillance and the data it could be collecting made people more than critical.

This is also true for people in the comfort of their own homes. According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, people were presented with the option of saving money on their energy bills by installing a smart thermostat, like the Nest thermostat. In order to receive those savings, the device would monitor their movements and activities throughout their home, possibly at all times, and most adults stated that this was unacceptable (a 55% to 26% margin).

This is the realization by these survey respondents that the uncontrollable data being generated about their lives is unacceptable, and they would rather pay more for energy than give up that data freely.

It’s about control, or the lack of it

Feeling uncomfortable when too much data is collected about your online behaviour  can also be seen with the rise of ad blockers and anti-trackers in general. From the rise of Adblocker, to privacy community initiated projects like the Privacy Badger, more people are looking to take control of what data is collected while they browse the web.

More specifically, it seems, the major issue with data generation, is control.

As technology use grows and becomes more personalized, it is probably inevitable that more personal data will need to be generated to keep up with the needs and desires of innovation hungry consumers.

That said, given a choice about what kind of data is being generated, consumers will react differently. If the respondents in the Pew survey were allowed to control the level of data generation in such a way that more data generated equals more savings, they would have gladly gone for that.

Government surveillance

The same pattern can be seen with the increase of surveillance for law enforcement purposes, with the passing of UK’s Snooper’s Charter and similar laws around the world. What many governments would like is greater data generation on all members of society in order to catch the few bad ones.

Many people are concerned about the means of generating so much data, and if there was a choice in the matter, and control, people would be more comfortable with the notion. The always-present question is: what data is being collected, and what is being done with it? Without the ability to control those answers, people will be uncomfortable with mass surveillance, and rightly so.

There is something to be said for being able to control all types of technology (increasingly crucial to our everyday lives) that collect data we’re uncomfortable with. These includes search engines, social media and even email. In one form or another, they have become integral to our personal and business lives, and most people would want the technology without giving up too much of their personal data, having options to control the data, have more transparent processes, not to mention assurances that data collected will not be mishandled.

How to increase your control

Adding to your adblock and anti-tracker web anonymity toolbox, it is also advisable to utilize Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), such as NordVPN to enhance control over what data is collected about you online. This technology reroutes user traffic through a server of their choice, making it seem that the user is coming from the server’s location instead of their own. The service also encrypts all user traffic along the way, meaning not only does it help anonymize user traffic, but also keep it secure with strong encryption.

While data generation is becoming more prevalent to achieve advertising, surveillance or customization goals, the battle for information control is likely to challenge the innovation that wants to take shortcuts. Google Glass was shelved, and innovations that could have come as 3rd or 4th generation versions thereof exist only in the realm of possibilities.

If consumers feel they do not control the data being generated about them, they will not support those technologies, and they will not support those laws.

Businesses and government bodies should not ignore this growing sentiment for privacy and desire to control one’s data.

Christina Craig
Christina Craig successVerified author

Christina is a community manager and the heart, the voice and the soul of NordVPN. She is always up for a conversation with our community of users and blog readers.

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