• Daisy Zhang

Who’s watching you?

Do you feel monitored when you are using digital technologies? Most of the people that I've asked this question immediately said "yes". And figures tell the same story: 72% of Americans report to feel that they are being tracked online by advertisers, technology firms, or other companies. The fact is, we are all tracked. But this has made me wonder: do people all feel tracked in the same way? Who do they think are tracking them? And more importantly, how do they experience and deal with it?

Last year, I interviewed 23 people of different gender, age, and occupation, about the practice of collecting personal digital data for the purposes of influence and management, which we call surveillance. Let me tell you about two of my main findings.

So what do you think is going on?

When I asked people about the practice of surveillance, the most popular opinion is that "companies do everything to collect data for money". Makes sense, right? The advertisements that show you what you just looked at a moment ago and the YouTube recommendations that are accurately tailored to your interests all have the purpose to increase your screen time to make more money out of you. Another point that people strongly believe is that "governments surveil for manipulation". Here, manipulation can be monitoring whether people are complying to COVID-19 regulations or keeping track of online criminal activities for national security purposes.

And how does surveillance make you feel?

The feelings towards surveillance are definitely mixed. On the one hand, people appreciate the benefits of advanced technologies: they are convenient, relevant, and helpful. On the other hand, people also hold a lot of concerns about the practice of surveillance: they are worried about unethical uses of their personal data, their privacy, and data security; they also feel that it is violating their rights, and eventually it just feels creepy sometimes.

Being confronted by such mixed feelings, people try to justify why they are still using the technologies. We categorized these justifications into four types:

The powerless one - "It is what it is. What can you do about it?"

People who use this type of justification strategy feel that the surveillance practices are unavoidable and they have little control over the situation. They need the technologies so they just have to live with the side effects.

The confident one - "I choose to use it"

Some people feel more confident and justify their use of technologies on the basis that they are capable of controlling what data they are giving away (whether this is true or not, is another story).

The downplaying one - "It's not like you're doing anything interesting"

Some people argue that they have "nothing to hide". They downplay the cost of being tracked to make it sound less threatening to themselves.

The sympathetic one - "They also need to make money, right?"

The last type expresses their sympathy for companies that are surveilling them. They understand that companies also need to make money while providing all kinds of free services. They also show understandings towards governments tracking people online to keep the nation safe.

In sum, people are well aware of the phenomenon of digital surveillance and its potential implications. To cope with the mixed feelings that are commonly expressed, we find that people come up with a range of strategies to justify their continuous use of those technologies. Do you perhaps recognize yourself in one of them? :)