Volunteering for Surveillance: Consumerism, Fear of Crime, and the Loss of Privacy
The announcement by Apple this week regarding the latest version of the IPhone excited consumers worldwide. Along with any new release comes with anticipation over what new features will be included. The latest installment of the IPhone, the 5S, comes with a fingerprint technology called TouchID that replaces the now “antiquated” password with a biometric scan of the phone user’s fingerprint. Security experts are praising this new function as a way to increase protection for consumers and deter criminals from attempting to steal the phones. The use of fingerprint technology for security is nothing new, but the application to cellphones is part of an ever evolving culture of control in the United States, and is an example of the growth in passive surveillance. The need for improved security in cell phones plays on consumer’s fear of crime. The IPhone 5S may be the first phone to include fingerprint technology and, while as of now it remains optional, the use of biometric data for security purposes will slowly evolve into the industry standard and people will lose their choice to opt out.
The most common forms of surveillance exist through the explicit collection of data from the state or the use of surveillance video cameras, but there is a subtler form of surveillance in which individuals volunteer their information through consumer relationships (Marx, 2006). Through user agreements for access to various technologies, there are often implicit bargains struck between the user and the owner of the technology to share certain personal information. As consumers we gladly share our information in exchange for the ease of purchasing, communicating, or having the latest technological trend. Many Americans cannot resist the temptation of having the latest technology. While we dive in head first into using technology, the companies collect information in the background and are folded into our day-to-day activities.
Of course the counter-argument to the gleeful exposure of our personal information through technology is to simply not use the technology. As society advances, the likelihood of anyone disconnecting from the Net decreases. Those who refuse to participate in consumption of technology are seen as outcasts, and those that refuse to agree to terms are blocked from using the product. To be meaningful, choice should imply genuine alternatives and refusal costs that are not wildly exorbitant. Absent that, we have trickery, double-talk, and the frequently spoiled fruit of inequitable relationships. The positive reasons for rejecting turning over information are ignored and the laws lean towards protecting the corporation rather than the consumer.
The cultural changes are worrisome because they are diffuse, subtle, and unseen—and they often reflect choices that, even if specious or manipulated, are difficult to challenge. Threats to privacy and the consumption of surveillance do not happen overnight, but occur through a series of relatively minor intrusions that add up (Solove, 2007). The surveillance developments noted here are consistent with the development of the neoliberal driven culture of control (Garland, 2001). This neoliberal ethos emphasizes the notion of individual choices and risks. It makes the consumer responsible for their own protection and in doing so corporations can trade protection for personal information. This process weakens many social protections and ignores collective problems in favor of individual choices.
The fear of having our technology stolen forces many to look for better security and simultaneously provides a market for companies to exploit consumer’s sensibilities. Our privacy is exchanged for increased safety, and the thought that our fingerprint is being recorded by a company is placed in the background. The value of privacy—and the feeling of autonomy that goes with it—is central for humans. Many of the new controls may seem more acceptable (or at least less likely to be challenged) because they are hidden or built-in and less invasive relative to the traditional forms of crossing personal and physical borders. Consumers should be aware of the complexity of privacy and crime, as such awareness allows the consumer to make informed decisions. At the very least, the default position between consumer and corporation should be meaningful consent in control over personal information and their ability to be tracked. Consent to release of personal information should be made clear upfront and not found in the small-print user guidelines; surveillance should be exposed and known. Consent involves participants who are fully apprised of the surveillance system’s presence and potential risks, and of the conditions under which it operates. With the introduction of fingerprint security to cellphones and the recording of our fingerprints, have consumers already lost their choice to resist?
Garland, D. (2001). Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Marx, G.T. (2006). Soft surveillance: The growth of mandatory volunteerism in collecting personal information—‘Hey buddy can you spare a DNA?’ Les Electronica, 10, 1-10.
Solove, D.J. (2007). ‘I’ve got nothing to hide and other misunderstandings of privacy. San Diego Law Review, 44, 745-772.