Honesty and Surveillance

Posted by on Nov 18, 2011 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A digital strategist I work with, Dan Robinson, shared this article earlier today.

In theory, any site that makes use of the Facebook open graph API can appear as something tracked by the facebook system. So if you see a “like” button, assume that your presence there is logged. That said, look at the kind of value you get from trading your information and behaviour: your actions become the currency to buy faster search interactions, more personalized results, and (in theory) higher quality information.

Beyond alarmism, I think the real issue is around intent and expectation: when you go to a site, are you entering into that space understanding this transaction you’re taking part in? For example, our expectations around privacy and conversation differ in our work spaces vs. in a meeting room vs. in the kitchen, and the web site is no different: we go to different sites with different expectations around the intent of those sites as pseudo-physical spaces. We might interact with a corporate site understanding that our behaviours are being logged and analyzed, but visit a friend’s home page not anticipating such invasions. It only becomes an invasion if it takes place surreptitiously: eyes hidden in a painting vs. merely a panoptic dome.

For me, this raises very major questions around the inherent honesty of surveillance. Cameras, security domes, sensors, and ATM machines are a constant tap into my life. Whether it’s a networked security camera or a measuring stick beside a door to help in identifying perpetrators of theft, these are different environmental manifestations of my information being taken from me. However, their physical presence allows me to make the conscious decision: do I interact with this environment, or do I seek an alternative? Is trading my information worth the convenience this environment provides? The visibility of physical surveillance objects affords me the capacity to make these decisions.

The same can apply to Facebook and other sides of web surveillance. A “Like” button is the digital equivalent of a domed security camera attached to an ATM machine: it observes your behaviour and your actions as you walk by, but it’s only when you interact with it that you perceive a transaction as taking place. But imagine if you could wave that transaction fee if you looked directly at the camera, giving it a moment to visually scan you. Would that be worth $1.50?

Look at Google analytics code, hidden in the structure of a page and providing rich data about the environment and user. Did you know I’m using google analytics on this page? Do you know what I’m optimizing and tweaking based on how you interact with my site? Do you know that Google’s doing the same? You can’t know this unless you look at the structure and bones of my site, observing the painting closely, or assume from cultural norms.

Now consider the modern or near-modern retail store: RFIDs, time and purchase correlated visas, and behavioural patterns. Vegetables placed at the front, meats placed at the back, wayfinding designed to take you around an environment primed with desire-inducing cues. Is this a transaction between consenting parties, or the informational pilfering of our capacity to decide?

We need environments that communicate what they are and how we are to interact with them, and in so doing, appreciate that the steady gaze and skittering pen of behavioural analytics is party to these interactions. We need indications that sites are tracking our behaviour. We need an opt-out button on ATM machines, or indicators for RFID-enabled products. As a somewhat weak example, I’ve added the following to the footer of my site:

I make use of Google Analytics. Please feel free to opt out.

Maybe not the best solution, but does this information help? Let’s see… using google analytics.


  1. Daniel Robinson
    November 18, 2011

    You are a beauty Andrew.

    What I would argue is that while there are similarities in analogizing web based analytics/tracking (i.e.: the “Like” button or the “+1” button below this comment) with more physical objects (i.e.: security camera and ATMs), the average user does not make the same correlation.

    The average user might click the “Like” button or the “+1” button not to generate a more personalized web experience, or to give Facebook or Google crucial data of their preferences, but does so blindly without high levels of deliberation.

    Moreover, any actions taken against information recorded form physical objects is much more limited. For example, if a security camera catches you stealing something, they’d need to consult the authorities to try to get your personal information, and would need a justified motive to do so. Facebook and Google can can link your personal information with your actions, providing a level of personal insight and control never before possible from one company alone.

  2. Ryan
    November 18, 2011

    This might be just nitpicking because I do agree with the overall premise of your argument, but the ATM camera example doesn’t really work for me. I can’t think of a single reason why the bank would use an ATM camera for reasons besides theft prevention/theft investigation.

    When you use and ATM you have already told the ATM operator your name, your bank account information, where you are, and how much money you have in your pocket after using the ATM. This is far more than they could get from the camera alone. I don’t know what information the camera adds that they don’t already have.

  3. readywater
    November 19, 2011

    @Daniel I don’t disagree with that. We’ve highly internalized the role and presence of these tools, to be point where we don’t necessarily make conscious decisions around them. Rather, I argue that the main issue is their visibility so the potential for that exists. I mean, we have different expectations from different places, and as our own intentions change, our relationship with the intentions of the space change as well. Having the capacity to change ones relationship with the place in question through an awareness of these surveilling devices is more what I’m after.
    That said, I absolutely disagree with the last bit. While CC cameras and similar are often reactionary in the way their data is overseen, we are VERY rapidly moving to a point where data is data, whether from social interactions online or computer-vision interpreted movement across an array of networked photosensors. I certainly echo your concern about so much information being centered in single entities though.

    @Ryan The ATM example wasn’t that great, I agree. It’s more I’m trying to get at the idea of bartering information for services, and the fact that those interactions are associated with conscious (or culturally numbed) intent. Give this article I wrote a read, I deal with this kinda thing near in the second half through some slightly more thought out examples: http://readywater.ca/?portfolio=ambient-interactions