Surveillance in Spheres of Mobility

The collaborators at the important “On the Identity Trail” project in Canada were kind enough to ask me to write an essay for their blog. Here is an excerpt:

Surveillance in Spheres of Mobility: Privacy, Technical Design and the Flow of Personal Information on the Transportation and Information Superhighways

A recent Nassau County Supreme Court ruling held that data retrieved from a vehicle’s black box – a computer module that records a vehicle’s speed and telemetry data in the last five seconds before airbags deploy in a collision – could be admitted as evidence even though law enforcement officials did not have a search warrant. The court ruled that by driving the vehicle on a public highway, “the defendant knowingly exposed to the public the manner in which he operated his vehicle on public highways. …What a person knowingly exposes to the public is not subject to Fourth Amendment protection.” A federal judge in upstate New York made a similar ruling, stating that police officers did not need a warrant to secretly attach a Global Positioning System device to a suspect’s vehicle. The judge said that a suspect traveling on a highway has no reasonable expectation of privacy.

In January 2006, the web search engine Google resisted requests from the U.S. Department of Justice to turn over a large amount of data, including records of all Google searches from any one-week period, partially on the grounds that it would violate their users’ privacy. This event generated widespread concern over the privacy of web search histories, and prompted many users to question the extent to which this component of their online intellectual activities might be shared with law enforcement agencies. (Indeed, it was later revealed that three other search engine providers – America Online, Yahoo and Microsoft – had previously complied with government subpoenas in the case, without public notice.) Similar concerns have arisen over commercial access to search engine histories as the vast databases of search histories held by these providers are increasingly matched up with individual searchers and demographic information from other search-related services in order to provide individually targeted search results and advertising.

The two technological systems described above – networked vehicle information systems and web search engines – represent important tools for the successful navigation of two vital spheres of mobility: physical space and cyberspace. However, they also share a reliance on the capturing and processing of personal information flows, and provide the platforms for surveillance of the person on the move. Networked vehicle information systems, which include GPS-based navigational tools, automated toll collection systems, automobile black boxes, and vehicle safety communication systems, rely on the transmission, collection and aggregation of a person’s location and vehicle telemetry data as she travels along the public highways. Similarly, web search engines, striving to provide personalized results and deliver contextually relevant advertising, depend on the monitoring and aggregation of a user’s online activities as she surfs the World Wide Web. Taken together, these two technical systems are compelling examples of the increased “everyday surveillance” (Staples, 2000) of individuals within their various spheres of mobility: networked vehicle systems constitute large-scale infrastructures enabling the widespread surveillance of drivers traveling on the public highways, while web search engines are part of a larger online information infrastructure which facilitates the monitoring and aggregation of one’s intellectual activities on the information superhighway.

I go on to conclude that:

At a moment when concern over government surveillance of its citizens is high, the prospect of the creation of a nationwide networked vehicle system infrastructure capable of monitoring vehicle location and activity causes pause. Similarly, general concerns over the privacy of web search histories is further aggravated by the possibility of the information being shared with government authorities. Broadening the conceptualizations of privacy to include approaches such as contextual integrity can help raise awareness of the political and value implications of these emerging information technologies. Further, embracing the pragmatic tools of “value-sensitive design” and “critical technical practice,” will ensure attention to political and ethical values becomes integral to the conception, design, and development of technologies, not merely considered after completion and deployment.

Please read the full essay here, and join the conversation.

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