The concept of surveillance has changed dramatically in recent years due to the development of new technology and the improvement of global Internet networks. While the image of the FBI tapping a phone remains stuck in the minds of anyone who has ever seen a Hollywood movie, surveillance tech has long since blown past simple voice communications. More devices than ever are able to connect to the Internet and share data about both your online and offline activities.

As our machines become “smarter”, the number of parties interested in what’s going on has also expanded dramatically. Nowadays individuals have already given away a significant portion of their personal privacy in the name of technological convenience, and it’s important as both a consumer and a citizen to know who (or what) is listening and what their interests might be.

 

Who’s Listening?

For centuries now, each government has been interested in knowing the attitudes and affairs of its citizens. The governments of the world remain the largest parties in the surveillance world. Encryption technologies have made this tougher, as the FBI’s pursuit of unlocking technology from Apple has shown, but the government still has a lot of resources at its disposal. Whatever the big boys want, the police do too. Police forces are increasingly monitoring social media feeds for signs of dissent. They’re also able in many cases to find their way into smart technologies with ease.

For years, criminal enterprises were the also-rans of the surveillance world. In the last five years, however, they have been easily displaced for the second spot by big business. Big business sees the plethora of devices on the market today as a bounty of information waiting to be gathered. In many cases, tracking technologies in smart phone apps are being tied together with other technologies, such as smart TVs, to create a granular picture of the everyday interests of the consumer.

 

How They Hear You

The biggest information pipe for both government agencies and marketers is the Internet of Things. The IoT is the massive network of tiny, interconnected systems that all call back to the Internet with information and requests. Smart home technologies have exploded in recent years. While they allow great convenience, they also should be seen as valuable targets for the state, business and hackers.

We’re welcoming an increasing amount of smart devices into our homes every day. Amazon’s virtual assistant technology, Alexa, powers devices like the Echo. These systems are tied together with other smart technologies in your home for the sake of convenience, such as your lights and thermostat. Additionally, these virtual assistants can have access to systems around your house that contain your personal information, like the information added when you install a

home security system (the details of what these systems know about you can be extensive). In short, they’re designed to know you. At the same time, they’re also gathering market data on you.

 

Making Sense of It

The one area where big business is beginning to outclass the government in the surveillance world is artificial intelligence. Big business and big government both have big data capabilities. Compressing that pile of data rapidly into a concise generalization about a single consumer, however, is the where corporations excel. Increasingly, their tool of choice is AI.

If you have ever seen an ad on the web tracking your previous search behavior from Google onto your Facebook profile, you have some sense of how at the lowest end this technology is being used. Advertisers are identifying you across platforms and serving ads to you based on previous searches. Thanks to the IoT, they have much more data than you might expect. They’re also using AI platforms that are proving day after day to be even cleverer than the human beings who designed them.

The line between the service provided and information being gathered is being blurred to a point where it’s increasingly hard to tell the difference between studying the consumer and coercing them. Surveillance has moved from being a just tool of governments interested in containing dissent to a mechanism for markets who wish to gauge or even create interest. Likewise, smaller governments and their agents, such as local police forces, now have access to information about citizens they never could have dreamed of even a decade ago. We’re only now beginning to understand the ethical boundaries of this world, and it remains to be seen where or if the public will draw a line.

 

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