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Are We Ready for a World in Which Everyone Spies on Everyone Else?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Recent events have me rethinking the benefits of a fully transparent world, in which everyone electronically monitors everyone else. In 2010, I blogged about my hopes that “grassroots spying” could help us create a safer, more just society, in which citizens can spy on people in power rather than just vice versa. “Privacy is a small price to pay for peace and justice,” I wrote, “especially since we’re headed toward radical transparency anyway.” But the effects of greater transparency will be unpredictable, to say the least.

Consider this incident, which I first read about last month in The New York Times. At a party last August attended by high school students in Steubenville, Ohio, many of them members of the town’s football team, a 16-year-old girl was allegedly sexually assaulted and otherwise abused after she drank too much and became incapacitated. Party-goers immediately started circulating photographs, video and text messages about the incident via Instagram, Twitter and other sites. Some observers, rather than deploring the treatment of the girl, joked about it. “I have no sympathy for whores,” one wrote.

On August 14, the girl’s parents reported the incident to police, who charged two stars of the Steubenville football team with rape. But what about the dozens of party-goers who witnessed the abuses of the girl without intervening? Steubenville Police Chief William McCafferty told the Times: “The thing I found most disturbing about this is that there were other people around when this was going on. Nobody had the morals to say, ‘Hey, stop it, that isn’t right.’ If you could charge people for not being decent human beings, a lot of people could have been charged that night.”

The blogger Alexandria Goddard started covering the case on her site Prinniefied.com in August and demanding a more vigorous investigation. Then a group called KnightSec, part of the online collective Anonymous, got involved. On December 23 KnightSec posted a video (which can now be found on the site Jezebel.com) in which a man wearing a Guy Fawkes mask named 13 football players who allegedly participated in or witnessed the abuses of the girl on August 11.

The mask-wearer threatened to release information on “every single member of the football team, those involved, the coaches, the principle and more” unless “all accused parties come forward by New Year’s Day and issue a public apology to the girl and her family.” The KnightSec representative added, “We will not sit idly by and watch a group of young men who turn to rape as a game or sport get the pass because of athletic ability and small town luck.” On January 1 KnightSec posted a lengthy report on the Steubenville incident—with allegations of misdeeds by Steubenville students and adults, including law enforcement officials–on the site Localleaks.blogs.ru (links to which can also be found at Jezebel.com).

I can’t decide if I’m impressed or disturbed by this vigilante justice. A bit of both, I suppose. I also feel ambivalent about the superficially more humdrum revelations in “The Overly Documented Life,” an essay in Esquire by A.J. Jacobs. Inspired by the life-logging experiment of the computer engineer Gordon Bell, Jacobs wore a cheap, compact video camera called Looxcie on his head. Immediately the camera started shaping his behavior. When he realized that his wife might see the recordings, he stopped ogling curvaceous women and peeing in the bathroom sink (!). Noticing the camera, friends stopped sharing gossip with Jacobs.

The double-edged nature of the device was really driven home after he and his wife had a “category Five fight” over who ordered Mexican food to be delivered for dinner. When the food didn’t come, she said that he told her he had ordered the food. Denying her version of the exchange, he played back the tape. It showed her asking him, “Is the food here?” and him responding, “No.” He felt triumphant, vindicated by the camera, but his wife became even more upset. “You think this is helping our marriage?” she asked. “I lived through it once. I don’t need to live through it again.”

Over time his wife and others seemed to forget he was wearing the camera. Friends started telling him gossip again. He became an amateur paparazzi, capturing footage of Kevin Bacon, Lady Gaga’s mother and other notables he ran into in New York City. The camera also came in handy for exercising his parental control. When he asked one of his sons to stop putting chess pieces on a plate with watermelon on it, the boy denied that he had committed the crime. Jacobs threatened to check the recording, and the boy confessed.

Jacobs’s report on how the Looxcie affected him and those around him is on one level funny, even cute. But it is creepy, too, as a preview of a world in which we record even our most intimate interactions with loved ones.

An essay in the January 3 Wall Street Journal notes how rapidly we’re moving toward omnidirectional spying. Writer Andy Kessler distinguishes between government and citizen surveillance, or gSpy and iSpy, an allusion to the old Mad Magazine “Spy vs. Spy” comic. He estimates that there are now 30 million commercial surveillance cameras in the U.S. Police and border patrol agents are employing pattern-recognition software that can identify license plates, retinas and possibly faces. The National Security Agency is reportedly building a one-million-square-foot facility in Utah for data storage and analysis.

Meanwhile, iSpy technologies for us common folk are also surging. According to Kessler, there are now 327 million cell phones in the United States, which can take photos or video and post them on the web for all to see. “From governments to individuals,” Kessler writes, “the amount of information captured and stored is growing exponentially. Like it or not, a truism of digital technology is that if information is stored, it will get out.”

The democratizing effects of this trend were almost comically demonstrated by the recent sex scandal involving General David Petraeus. Petraeus was the director of the CIA—chief of gSpies!—but because he could not keep his own emails secret, his extramarital affair was revealed and he was forced to resign.

Ready or not, here comes radical transparency.

Image: http://thepoliticalcarnival.net.

 

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. striped_burrito 9:58 am 01/7/2013

    Would the recent phone app that allows family members to track the location of other family members also be in this category?

    Link to this
  2. 2. HowardB 12:41 pm 01/7/2013

    “Are We Ready for a World in Which Everyone Spies on Everyone Else?”

    Isn’t that one a bit of a stretch ? Even for the recent trend of SciAm ??

    Link to this
  3. 3. ssm1959 3:19 pm 01/7/2013

    The problem we face is that the vigilantes have an axe to grind as well. Who knows if the Steubenville Knightsec was an actual witness to the event or if his information is thirdhand. What would keep him from slipping a name or two in of people that were not present but he felt were deserving of scorn for actions past. In our new digital court of public opinion there is no presumption of innocence.

    Having watched the gross miscarriages of justice in the 1980′s with the fictitious child abuse scandals in California and Minnesota 1980′s, the transgressions against personal rights will only be amplified by the digital revolution. There is a fine line between noting potential dangers and becoming a digital Mrs Kravitz.

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  4. 4. jgrosay 3:30 pm 01/7/2013

    In many places, laws about privacy and protection of data of a personal nature do ban obtaining information about somebody without his/her consent, but taking into account the advances in technologies useful for “spies”, and the almost impossibility of controlling its spread or sale, the only consolation those under control or scrutiny may have is that illegaly gathered data cannot in practice be spread beyond the person who ordered the watching or having actually watched, any legal or other kind of difussion or use of data that goes further from a “For your eyes only” use may put the data gatherer in a serious legal conflict.

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  5. 5. rshoff 4:54 pm 01/7/2013

    Transparency is a passive state. Transparency may even be simply the lack of cover. Spying is an active state. It is a focused and intentional action. Therein lies the difference. And a big difference it is.

    Link to this
  6. 6. brublr 8:52 pm 01/7/2013

    And this just in! Our next modern miracle! The absolutely free, downloadable, 96% accurate Lie Detector app, “Who’s your Daddy?” for Android, iPad or Mobile. Just who’s selling ‘what for” and for ‘why’? Works on your television, video or radio’s politicos and/or idols! In Person or Telepresense! Do you doubt everyone around you? Maybe you should! And “Who’s your Daddy?’ will show you why!

    Link to this
  7. 7. AlvisWilson 1:08 am 01/8/2013

    Good Post…..Keep it Up..

    Alvis,
    MedStoreRx

    Link to this
  8. 8. TonyTrenton 11:23 am 01/8/2013

    It is so simple:

    Each member of a democratic society has the freedom to make RESPONSIBLE CHOICES.

    The parents are responsible because it was their choice to bring the children into the world in the first place.

    It was their CHOICE!!!

    Women must be made aware that bringing another person into this world IS NOT A RIGHT BUT A RESPONSIBILITY.

    Women today have the ultimate choice!

    They must be held responsible for their selfish choice of wanting to get pregnant.

    Link to this

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