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Commentary: Are We Willing to Trade Privacy For Assumed Surveillance?

Recent revelations that the government has been monitoring and analyzing phone calls and on-line activities raises questions about the role of Big Data in our lives, especially when it comes to our privacy rights. In this segment of Valley Public Radio’s commentary series The Moral Is, Fresno State communication professor Diane Blair explores the role of digital communication technologies and our own complicity in the loss of personal privacy.


The recent revelations of government-sponsored surveillance programs by the National Security Agency and the FBI raises concerns and increased awareness of the erosion of privacy in our modern day lives. We now live in a world of “Big Data” where our phone calls, emails, and on-line activities are collected, monitored, and analyzed by government and corporate interests. The right of privacy enshrined in the Fourth Amendment and often revered as a cornerstone of civil liberties appears to be in jeopardy. But do we as citizens even care? In a recent Washington Post Pew Research Center survey a solid majority—62 percent—said it was more important for the government to investigate terrorism than it was to protect personal privacy. 

Why the general lack of concern for this fundamental constitutional guarantee? Maybe it is because we recognize that we’ve already given up so much of our privacy for the convenience and pleasures of our new digital communication technologies. According to the New York Times, an estimated 2.5 quintillion bytes of new data are created daily. 90 percent of digital data in the world has been created within the last two years largely due to the proliferation of smartphones and mobile devices. Private corporate interests have been mining our Big Data for years in order to better market their products and target their persuasive messages. Is it really surprising to find out government agencies have also found ways to use this information for their own agendas?

Maybe we recognize our own complicity in the loss of privacy. We willingly broadcast our thoughts and values on social media sites. We gladly hand over personal data to our smartphones that can track our movements. We rely on credit cards that record every purchase, and we regularly use internet search engines that show us targeted ads for something we’ve looked up earlier. We’ve also come to expect traffic cameras monitoring our driving behaviors and video cameras in public spaces recording our comings and goings. In terms of security, we can see the concrete benefits of this surveillance technology. For example, the Boston Marathon bombing suspects were quickly tracked down because of the presence of security cameras in the area. Perhaps because most cyber-surveillance goes unnoticed at the time of data collection, people don’t immediately experience their privacy being invaded.

Experts in the area of Big Data argue that we have yet to comprehend the myriad ways in which personal information might be used against us or to target us in particular ways. According to media theorist, Douglass Rushkoff, our digital activities have been creating a treasure lode of big data that government and corporate strategists have been mining to predict and influence what we buy and whom we vote for. In fact, according to Rushkoff, the true end users of digital media are the marketers, politicians, and government agencies—they are the real customers and we are the product.  Are we willing to move into a digital reality where the assumption of privacy is being exchanged for an assumption of surveillance? Maybe we are already there.  

The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.

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