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“Big Brother” is Watching Our Every Move 24-7

By Staff | Jan 24, 2020

Creighton University Professor Guy McHendry, Ph.D. has conducted extensive research that examines the ripple effects of surveillance on our society and bias in surveillance technology. He says people may not realize how often they are observed, or the amount of data collected about them.

“I have students record every interaction they have with surveillance for a 36-hour period, and the volume is overwhelming,” said McHendry. “We interact with surveillance practices whenever we browse online, make a credit card purchase or walk past a surveillance camera. Much of the surveillance we experience is not even visible to us.”

McHendry says companies build profiles that aggregate tens of thousands of data points to categorize consumers and predict and influence purchases. “It is not an exaggeration to say that most people are under some form of surveillance every minute of their life. If they have a smartphone that records location data, their every movement is tracked including periods of inactivity while their phone sits next to them as they sleep. In addition, some cities have built large networks of license plate readers which could be used to map individual travel throughout a city.” McHendry said.

While vast amounts of data are collected, the technology and practices in use are frequently biased, and can lead to misidentification and misnomers, McHendry says.

“They are designed by humans and reflect human ideas and priorities,” McHendry said. “For example, facial recognition systems struggle to recognize non-white faces because the data sets used to train the programs do not have enough non-white faces to build a predictive model. As a result, these systems are more likely to misidentify People of Color.”

McHendry also highlights bias posing potential dangers to women. “There is an entire stalking economy devoted to surveillance apps and devices. These technologies are disproportionately used by men to target women. Women are particularly at risk because of technology that makes every moment of life and location accessible. The volume of data makes it very difficult for someone to block or hide from an abusive partner.”

While some surveillance practices are unavoidable, McHendry says there are some proactive measures that individuals could implement:

Use a password manager or create unique, complex passwords for each online account.

Use two-factor authentication whenever possible.

Regularly review privacy settings on all apps and devices connected to the internet. Many apps and devices could collect data that is not required to use the full functionality.

Undergo a regular “digital house-cleaning.” Unsubscribe, uninstall, delete and cancel obsolete apps, emails, online subscriptions and services.

Regularly review web browser privacy settings.

McHendry says another proactive tactic is to educate children about surveillance, privacy and healthy online habits. McHendry is planning to continue additional research in late-2020.