Public and private roles in managing data (Part 1: Surveillance)

Public and private roles in managing data (Part 1: Surveillance)

Phuah Eng Chye (25 April 2020)

When it comes to surveillance, who should citizens worry about more, governments or corporations? In earlier decades, it seemed to be the latter. In a review of Sarah Igo’s book The known citizen: A history of privacy in modern America, Katie Fitzpatrick notes “corporate surveillance has consistently troubled working Americans, but state surveillance was viewed more ambiguously by many, at least in the early 20th century”.

“The government often combined an offer of aid or redistribution with new oversight or police powers, state surveillance was presented as a necessary trade-off for the increasingly known citizen…In the 1930s, Igo argues, the average American had relatively few qualms about enrolling in a new government program that offered economic security, even if it meant forgoing a considerable amount of privacy. In fact, workers who expressed early concerns about the Social Security number were often more worried about how their personal information might be misused by their employers than by the state. Women who lied about their age and marital status to evade sexist hiring practices worried that their employers could use their SSN to ferret out the truth. Similarly, ethnic and religious minorities who had changed their names to avoid prejudice worried that their real names would be provided to their bosses through their SSN, and union members worried that employers could find out their political and labor affiliations. These workers were right to be suspicious of their bosses, of course: When the Social Security program was launched, many employers circulated invasive questionnaires that asked about union membership, religious affiliation, and personal matters, falsely claiming that these forms were required to receive federal benefits. Initially, then, it was not governmental but private uses of the SSN that seemed most threatening to individual privacy”.

Katie Fitzpatrick notes “fear of government surveillance would become more widespread in the 1960s – the decade when a right to privacy was first guaranteed by the Supreme Court. In the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut, Justice William O. Douglas used the rhetoric of privacy to defend the use of birth control by married couples…The state, he argued, had no business invading the precious sanctuaries of domesticity. In a particularly memorable phrase, he asked: Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives?”

“The Griswold decision did inspire Americans of all backgrounds to insist on their own right to privacy. Welfare-rights activists would make a particularly crucial intervention by exposing the two-tiered privacy regime at the heart of the American welfare state: While middle-class citizens collecting Social Security still had relative privacy, those collecting welfare were placed under intense surveillance. Female welfare recipients were even subjected to surprise nighttime raids to check if they were consorting with men. Igo emphasizes the powerful irony here: In the Griswold decision, Douglas conjured a fantastic image of policemen invading the bedrooms of middle-class couples; meanwhile, a much more literal version of this scene was playing out in the bedrooms of poor women across the country…Americans were becoming increasingly aware of the surveillance that often went hand in hand with public relief, and how this surveillance was directed more toward some than others”.

“Concerns about state surveillance would further escalate in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal brought trust in government to a new low. At the same time, the rapid growth of record-keeping, data collection, and computing technology made government surveillance all the easier. The government could now not only access discrete facts about citizens, but could cross-reference those facts to produce a near-complete account of someone’s background or daily life. And at the center of every citizen’s government dossier, of course, was their Social Security number. Americans had some misgivings about the SSN even in the 1930s. But by the 1970s, these fears had grown exponentially: Now many Americans were worried about the vast web of personal information – easily recalled, cross-referenced, and shared electronically – linked to their SSN”.

Katie Fitzpatrick highlights “the history of privacy in America has always comprised two distinct histories: one about the rise of self-disclosure, the other about the rise of surveillance…those who oppose increasing surveillance have often – but not always – defended privacy on egalitarian grounds, seeking to protect the personal rights of immigrants, women, people of color, and workers from state and corporate power. Meanwhile, those who oppose increasing self-disclosure have typically defended privacy on more conservative grounds, seeking to preserve bourgeois conceptions of propriety and traditional (often hierarchical) gender and social relations”.

Katie Fitzpatrick concludes “the forms of surveillance yet to come will almost certainly be more menacing to our privacy than the ones that exist today”. She cautions that while advocates may call for reforms to decrease the surveillance powers of enforcement agencies and the military, nonetheless they are also proposing “new social programs that would provide greater access to health care, education, housing, child care, and the like – vital programs that might have the unintended effect of drawing citizens even further into a web of government surveillance…Progressives hope to use state power to create a more just and equitable society, but they also fear the erosions of privacy that something as simple as a Social Security number eventually made possible”.

In recent decades though, private firms appear to be surpassing governments in conducting surveillance. Amnesty International suggests the connectivity and reach of the world’s two dominant platforms – Google and Facebook – “come at a systemic cost”. “The companies’ surveillance-based business model forces people to make a Faustian bargain, whereby they are only able to enjoy their human rights online by submitting to a system predicated on human rights abuse. Firstly, an assault on the right to privacy on an unprecedented scale, and then a series of knock-on effects that pose a serious risk to a range of other rights, from freedom of expression and opinion, to freedom of thought and the right to non-discrimination. This isn’t the internet people signed up for. When Google and Facebook were first starting out two decades ago, both companies had radically different business models that did not depend on ubiquitous surveillance. The gradual erosion of privacy at the hands of Google and Facebook is a direct result of the companies establishing dominant market power and control over the global public square”.

Amnesty International argues “the companies’ surveillance-based business model is inherently incompatible with the right to privacy and poses a threat to a range of other rights including freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of thought, and the right to equality and non-discrimination”. The “ubiquitous surveillance has undermined the very essence of the right to privacy…companies’ use of algorithmic systems to create and infer detailed profiles on people interferes with our ability to shape our own identities within a private sphere. Advertisers were the original beneficiaries of these insights, but once created, the companies’ data vaults served as an irresistible temptation for governments as well. This is for a simple reason: Google and Facebook achieved a degree of data extraction from their billions of users that would have been intolerable had governments carried it out directly. Both companies have stood up to states’ efforts to obtain information on their users; nevertheless, the opportunity to access such data has created a powerful disincentive for governments to regulate corporate surveillance. The abuse of privacy that is core to Facebook and Google’s surveillance-based business model is starkly demonstrated by the companies’ long history of privacy scandals. Despite the companies’ assurances over their commitment to privacy, it is difficult not to see these numerous privacy infringements as part of the normal functioning of their business, rather than aberrations”.

Amnesty International argues “governments have an obligation to protect people from human rights abuses by corporations. But for the past two decades, technology companies have been largely left to self-regulate…However, regulators and national authorities across various jurisdictions have begun to take a more confrontational approach…investigating the companies for competition violations, issuing fines for infringing Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), or introducing new tax regimes for big technology companies…Ultimately, it is now evident that the era of self-regulation in the tech sector is coming to an end: further state-based regulation will be necessary, but it is vital that whatever form future regulation of the technology sector takes, governments follow a human rights-based approach”.

Public opinion has thus swung on a pendulum, its fears shifting to government surveillance for a moment and corporate surveillance at another. But the difference may be superfluous given the threat “of government surveillance systems being integrated with the existing corporate surveillance capacities of big-data companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon into one gigantic all-seeing eye”. David Samuels points out that “while US surveillance agencies do not have regular real-time access to the gigantic amounts of data collected by the likes of Google, Facebook, and Amazon – as far as we know, anyway  – there is both anecdotal and hard evidence to suggest that the once-distant planets of consumer Big Tech and American surveillance agencies are fast merging into a single corporate-bureaucratic life-world, whose potential for tracking, sorting, gas-lighting, manipulating, and censoring citizens may result in a softer version of China’s Big Brother”.

Overall, the relentless expansion of surveillance needs to be viewed in the right perspective. Surveillance is an integral aspect of the challenge posed by the transition to an information society. Governments need to set policies and rules to achieve a practical balance between defending privacy rights and facilitating data sharing.


Amnesty International (21 November 2019) “Surveillance giants: How the business model of Google and Facebook threatens human rights”.

David Samuels (23 January 2019) “Is big tech merging with big brother? Kinda looks like it”.

Katie Fitzpatrick (6 December 2018) “Always watching: The linked history of privacy and surveillance in America”.

Phuah Eng Chye (12 October 2019) “Information and organisation: Shades of surveillance”.

Phuah Eng Chye (21 December 2019) “The debate on regulating surveillance”.

Phuah Eng Chye (4 January 2020) “The economics and regulation of privacy”.

Phuah Eng Chye (18 January 2020) “Big data and the future for privacy”.

Phuah Eng Chye (15 February 2020) “The costs of privacy regulation”

Phuah Eng Chye (29 February 2020) “The journey from privacy to transparency (and back again)”.

Phuah Eng Chye (14 March 2020) “Features of transparency”.

Phuah Eng Chye (28 March 2020) “The transparency paradigm”.

Phuah Eng Chye (11 April 2020) “Anonymity, opacity and zones”.