When I started grad school, I noticed a strange pattern occurring as I browsed the internet. The ads that popped up on completely unrelated websites started to show me products and coupon codes from those very familiar biotech companies that we all get our antibodies from. Even on my phone, these ads were inescapable – how did they know I would want this? While the algorithm for ad placement itself goes right over my head, I can appreciate the fact that somebody, somewhere, is watching me.

It is difficult not to associate surveillance and online behavioural tracking with some vision of a future Orwellian society and to be honest it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility.

Recently, China introduced its plan to implement a “citizen score” or “social credit score” to their populace, to be fully live by 2020. This would essentially apply a numerical value to how “good” of a citizen you are and would reward this positive behaviour with exclusive perks, like faster internet service, discounts on bills or rentals without deposits. Conversely, “bad” behaviour would result in loss of points, public shaming, penalizations and would negatively affect the scores of your friends and family. In an effort to increase public safety and incentivize good behaviour, China has turned to intense scrutiny of their citizens through tracking online consumer purchases, comments and activity, as well as implementing millions of surveillance cameras with facial recognition technology. While this may well assist law enforcement officers in tracking and arresting suspected criminals, it also calls into question human rights to privacy.

Although this may sound like an episode of Black Mirror, this is on a fast track to becoming the new reality. China is projected to have more than 600 million surveillance cam-eras installed by 2020, and with China’s surveillance companies valued at more than $80 billion last year, their public security market shows no signs of slowing down.

But that shouldn’t worry us here, right? Here in North America, user privacy and data security are a tech company’s utmost priority. Well, not so fast. As evidenced by Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees in April 2018- where he addressed Facebook’s data breach and relaxed user security policies- the big social media companies may not be as concerned as we hoped.

But how often do we download an app or register for a website where a ten-page long user agreement pops up in legal jargon, and we simply press “agree” without a second thought? It’s striking to think that most of us have no idea to what it is that we are agreeing to. Our personal information is often at the mercy of these corporations, who have the ability to sell these data to the highest bidder.

Recent controversy surrounding voice-controlled assistants have also called into question the security of information shared “behind closed doors”. With Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google’s Google Home, a simple spoken phrase can record an entire conversation. Amazon’s Alexa faced backlash in May 2018 for just this, when a couple’s private conversation was recorded and sent to a member of their contact list without their knowledge. Furthermore, these voice-activated devices record and store every command given to them, leaving a substantially traceable digital footprint.

Of course, you can always take measures into your own hands, by turning off the microphone or adjusting the set-tings on your device to prevent unruly usage. But the reality is that we are living in an age of technology that makes it incredibly easy to track virtually any individual. Increased surveillance is generally being embraced as a fair trade-off for the convenience these technologies provide.

But should we be concerned? Maybe. Appropriately used monitoring systems can actually help ensure public safety and maintain a record of criminal activity. We see daily examples of this with security cameras capturing faces of suspected criminals in banks, shopping centres, public transit systems and in or outside homes. In an age where people are obsessively recording their lives, it can certainly make it easier for law enforcement to identify suspects or piece together the timeline of events leading up to a crime. In this way, surveillance can make us feel safer, as recorded evidence is difficult to dispute in a court of law.

With all the recent controversy surrounding data security and user privacy, tech companies are being pressured to into increasing their transparency regarding data storage and usage with the public. There is at least some form of account-ability now that light is being shed on this issue. Especially with the rise of social media, the interconnectedness of technology users is at an all time high, and their voices are being heard. Scandals are bad for sales, and these companies know that consumer trust is an important part of marketing their product. Technology is an ever-changing market that is largely shaped by consumer demand, and if we decide to make our voices heard, the landscape will shift accordingly. Therefore, I don’t think we should be too worried despite the paranoid tone of this article. But who cares what I think? The FBI agent in my web cam probably doesn’t agree.

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Lisa Hung

Lisa is an M.Sc. student at the University of Toronto in the Department of Immunology. She is currently doing research on the mechanisms of food allergy and anaphylaxis. In her spare time, she enjoys knitting, baking and listening to podcasts.

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