The question of surveillance and data mining is a tough one. On one hand, it seems obviously unethical and unlawful and in complete disregard for civil liberties. On the other, perhaps more practical hand, acts of terrorism are devastating and it is the role of the NSA to safeguard citizens. The focus has been on the role of politicians and the NSA but in practise, there are multiple stakeholders. In the middle of this issue we have technology companies — hardware and software manufacturers, telecommunication service providers, data aggregators, advertisers and marketers, and the public. Each of them affects the system in a particular way and their interactions make this a complex and wicked problem.
The most recent precedent for tracking minute data by the government were the 9/11 attacks. Those in power overrode the judicial machinery. The surveillance couldn’t have happened without the cooperation of the telecommunication companies, who really wouldn’t have been in a position to resist. Interestingly, the current fight for users’ privacy (atleast form the government) is being fought by the tech companies. This power of resistance probably comes from the large amounts of capital (and funding, and lobbying power) that these tech companies pour in.
From the citizens’ point of view, all of this surveillance was undercover. Part of the shock was that these were covert operations happening at such a wide scale for so long. And of course, the feeling that this was in complete violation of the 4th Amendment. Ever since this was made public, there has been a significant backlash against it but I think it’s been an issue with only a very select part of the voting population. As someone who’s moved to the United States only recently, it seems to be an elephant in the room — everyone knows it’s happening but few measures are being taken against it.
How empowered as we as citizens? The answer is not black and white either which makes it difficult to take a totalitarian stance. I know that in India, this is a non-issue. Yes, the law is very ambiguous and allows for a lot of leeway. We do have a right to privacy but it can be overridden when it’s an issue of national security. But I don’t think it will be an issue that will be raised in the Indian parliament anytime soon.
We happily (sometimes sceptically but we do it all the same) give our names email addresses, phone numbers when signing up for online services. We use our credit cards when we know there’s a possibility of our purchases being recorded and tracked. We do like it when we receive customized coupons from our favourite store. And as service designers, we try to use everything we’ve got, all the latest technologies to create outstanding service experiences. Is the role of us as designers then just to make surveillance less creepy?
Is there a line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ surveillance? Should there be a blanked ban on it? Is it implicit in our citizenship and use of certain platforms? As designers should we create critical interventions or use it as a tool or both?