Privacy in a surveillance society

The devices we use — our televisions, smartphones, computers, even cars — give us vast amounts of information. Increasingly, however, it’s a two-way street: They’re watching us even as we’re watching them. We need an off switch, an idea US Representative Michael Capuano proposes to make into law.

Progressive Insurance — home of cheery, oddly coiffed Flo — offers reduced rates to drivers who install monitors in their cars. The program, called Snapshot, records the hours you drive, the miles traveled, and how hard you brake. Right now it’s voluntary and lasts only 30 days, but already the implications are clear. Those who refuse to let the company track their driving pay more. And it’s not a far step to round-the-clock monitoring and adding in features such as GPS. Drive in “bad” neighborhoods? No discounts for you!

Xfinity, the nifty new name for plain old Comcast, touts its home security system, featuring an advertisement with Mom sitting in her office watching as the kids come in through the front door. As they do, one glances toward the camera, an odd look on her face. We’re supposed to think all is well, but the look may say something else altogether. Perhaps the other kid with her is not a sibling, but a possible lover. Maybe she’s just a little creeped out that Mom is seeing her every move, wondering where else in the house the cameras are installed. And perhaps that isn’t really Mom who’s watching at all.


And then there’s the TV that sees you, the idea that provoked Capuano’s ire. There used to be an old joke about a fool sitting at home watching a game show, eagerly raising his hand to answer questions. It’s a joke no more. Televisions soon will be equipped with front-facing cameras that observe the viewer even as the viewer observes the show. That feature could open up some neat new worlds of entertainment — truly interactive game shows, for instance. But it’s also scary stuff. Imagine a snuggling couple suddenly confronted with an ad for condoms, for instance.

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In fact, two-way communication is already here. Anyone who has ever taken an online course knows that teachers see you even as you see them lecture. Close your eyes or stop paying attention and you’ll get a reprimand. Soon, no human involvement will be needed. The new Galaxy S4 smartphone, for instance, tracks your eyes. Look away and the video pauses. Look back, and it restarts. Cool, yes, but potentially, as Capuano says, “an incredible invasion of privacy.”

Capuano is hardly a Luddite calling for banning the new technologies. But he does argue for transparency and the right to refuse to be watched. His proposal, co-sponsored with Walter Jones of North Carolina, would require the television to display the words “We are watching you,” if information is being sent from the home to the carrier — or to anyone else, for that matter. (Jones, by the way, is a conservative Republican, proving that bipartisanship in politics still exists.) It also would add in a kill switch and, critically, would prevent retaliation against consumers who don’t want to be observed.

I suspect that, as Capuano and Jones explore the issue further, they’ll find this idea can apply to a lot more than just TVs. We are becoming a surveillance society: insurers watching drivers, parents watching kids, advertisers watching customers. There has to be a stopping point, particularly because the information that is shared with one can easily be shared with all. “Think about what you do in the privacy of your own home, and then think about how you would feel sharing that information with your cable company, their advertisers, and your government,” says Capuano. The answer, as Nancy Reagan once put it in a different context, is, “Just say no.”

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.