A year on from Edward Snowden's revelations around state sponsored mass surveillance programs, some of the major players in the online and technological world (including Google, Mozilla, Twitter and Reddit) have launched the Reset the Net campaign. The program aims to increase people's awareness and uptake of privacy and security tools so they can better resist surveillance, particularly that conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA). While the campaign is laudable in its efforts to raise the issue of surveillance, there are some glaring oversights present.
Surveillance picture from Shutterstock
A step in the right direction
Reset the Net seeks to challenge mass surveillance and help people to take back their privacy while online by encouraging patterns of behaviour that resist surveillance.
More structural suggestions are provided for developers and administrators, such as the use of encryption as a part of a website or application, and the use of end-to-end encryption.
Encryption makes any collected data more difficult (but not impossible) for authorities to interpret and act upon.
These kinds of strategies do a great job at "target hardening" users and digital services against the collection of personal data, and they improve the general security of users online.
Vodafone announced this month that some governments allow their security agencies to connect directly into its network to conduct surveillance, so these kind of user-based forms of resistance are a good starting point to counteracting some surveillance measures.
While these are positive achievements, they merely address some of the more visible consequences and implications of surveillance, and fail to address what are perhaps the most worrying aspects of contemporary surveillance.
Where the problems lie
The Reset the Net project acts to reinforce the idea that surveillance is primarily conducted by state authorities, with the NSA as the primary antagonist for this story.
But the reality is that the NSA is only one actor in the surveillance drama. As others have noted one of Reset's biggest backers, Google, is also one of the biggest instigators of corporate surveillance.
Google collects enormous amounts of personal data every day, harvesting personal data from user's browsing habits and email, while simultaneously calling for email to be encrypted against outside sources.
You are being monitored by many
Surveillance today is not just about seeing into the lives of the present – it's about cataloguing and using the past (and present) to understand the future. Australia is no exception to this trend, as the government once again pushes for mandatory data retention.
As a part of the (so-called) development of big data, which allegedly can assist to generate new statistical insights from ultra-large data sets, the data collected from ubiquitous surveillance are increasingly being used as a part of predictive analytics.
Through these techniques a user's future behaviours, actions and dispositions can be extrapolated from past data. While there are some possible positives here (such as better management of goods and services for business), the negative potentials are enormous.
Shaping the future
The use of algorithms and automated profiles can open the door to forms of control (and discrimination) that occur without any human input.
Through the power of code, corporate or government powerbrokers can reshape individual lives, automatically analysing and predicting possible outcomes for citizens and then determining their treatment, from seemingly random pieces of personal information.
The focus on internet surveillance ignores that surveillance is not just on the internet, but everywhere. As recently pointed out, we live in a Sensor Society, with many aspects of daily life recorded through various sensor technologies.
From smartphones to drones, there are many possibilities for invasive surveillance today. The German newspaper Der Speigel has also pointed out that the NSA and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are at the forefront of developing new means of sensing individuals.
The drama is just beginning
Internet surveillance is only one aspect of contemporary surveillance.
The Reset the Net project paradoxically represents a small positive step in resisting and counteracting warrantless and illegal surveillance, while ignoring the bigger picture.
There is a growing and ongoing disparity between the rights and powers of the watched (or sensed), and the watchers (or sensors). As both spectators and actors in this surveillance (or sensor) society, there is a need to be mindful of this bigger picture as we play our roles and choose our props, and recite (or improvise) our lines.
These are only the opening scenes of a much longer and difficult play. With no sign that the social or technological scope of surveillance will fade, we must play our parts wisely and critically, if we are to have any hope of a happy ending.
Ashlin Lee is a PhD Candidate at the University of Tasmania. Peta Cook is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Tasmania. Ashlin Lee is the recipient of an Australian Postgraduate Award. Peta Cook is a member of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).