Privacy and digital surveillance

Discussing issues of digital privacy and surveillance is often dismissed as irrelevant or inconsequential by many new media consumers. To avoid this typical response the video content attempts to raise the fundamental question of how does one permanently dispose of digital data? The volume of data held on personal HDD’s (Hard Disk Drive) alone contains a wealth of both personal and private information and, as the name implies, hard disk drives are designed to be hard to break. It would seem appropriate that the individual is accountable for the correct and responsible disposal of personal HDD’s. Papers containing sensitive information such as bank statements which contain personal information are relatively easy to permanently destroy. For example, old credit cards can be cut into pieces and almost any traditional media is flammable enough to incinerate in a fire. With the advancements of HDD recovery technology designed to restore broken, shattered and water damaged it seems that much effort is required to permanently destroy digital information.

Earlier this year I made a short video to summarise my digital surveillance research.

See the first part of this story here: The continuity of surveillance.

The video made me speculate that most people wouldn’t think twice about through a seemingly broken, or even unbroken, HDD into regular waste. After all, does one really need to worry about the local tip having access to the latest HDD recovery tools. Perhaps not, but the bigger picture is that all digital information is stored on a physical HDD somewhere. Who has access to these HDD’s? What happens to that HDD once it becomes obsolete? Does the bank, Facebook, Google and other companies have policies to ensure the old data is categorically destroyed? As you can probably tell, making this video created more questions than answers surrounding the issue of persistent digital data surveillance. Before I had time to research the legacy HDD’s the Snowden report (Greenwald, 2014) was presented to me. This showed to me that the large U.S. corporations such as Apple, Facebook and Google were unable to appeal the requests for direct access to their servers from the NSA (National Security Agency) (Greenwald, 2014). Not only should the public be concerned about correct disposal of legacy data but there is also the possibility that third party organisations have a copy of this data too. I say third party as the PRISM program is software based and therefore other perhaps more unlawful parties may also have the potential access to our data.

My strategy for the video then needed to encompass the greater issue of a potential to invade digital privacy. This approach seemed to fit well with the Panopticon structure described by Foucault (1979, p.204). Caluya (2010, p. 625) summarised the Panopticon effects and suggested surveillance, as a form of social control, only requires the possibility of someone watching as the suspect becomes their own overseer. This again worked well with both the footage recorded and that which was planned to be recorded.

Moving house proved to be a challenging aspect in making this video. However, the key ideas were formed through the act of moving such as finding old bank cards, statements and HDD’s. Conveniently, I happened to move into a place which had little privacy in the study. This experience strengthened my argument that digital surveillance exists in the reality of everyday life and real world privacy. I dislike the fact that my neighbour might be watching and the worst part is not knowing if they are. The temporary solution was simply to close the blinds and a more permanent solution could be to block out the window with opaque material. However, there is no such control in the world of new media, only illusions of control such as setting Facebook posts to private. It would seem this control is ineffective as it’s unknown who has access to the physical HDD or for how long the information will exist. There appears to be no escaping the omnipresence of digital surveillance nor it’s data continuum. It’s enough to become as paranoid as Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory (1997). Rather than become defeated, let’s put on a good show for those watching.


Caluya, G 2010, ‘The post-panoptic society? Reassessing Foucault in surveillance studies’, Social Identities, vol. 16, no. 5, September, pp. 621–633, SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost, retrieved 17 August 2014.

Conspiracy Theory 1997, film, Silver Pictures, New York City.

Foucault, M 1979, ‘Panopticism’ in Discipline And Punish: The Birth Of The Prison / Michel Foucault; Translated From The French By Alan Sheridan, New York, Vintage, Vintage Books, pp. 195–228, Deakin Univ Library’s Catalog, EBSCOhost, retrieved 17 August 2014.

Greenwald, G 2014, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, [e-book], Metropolitan Books, available through: Google Scholar,, accessed 12 August 2014.

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