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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Through The Looking Glass

Created using drone icon’ by Blaise Sewell (CC BY 3.0 US)
The only time I’ve actually noticed a drone in use was about a year ago (goodness knows how many times they’ve noticed me?!). It looked a bit like this...

DJI Quadcoptor Phantom Vision Plus by Vicki Burton (CC BY-SA 2.0)  

I was out with my family, visiting friends in the country and we were at a winery having lunch. Now, what began as a point of curiosity (oooh look! A drone), soon became a tad unsettling for a few reasons (that I could discern);

To start with I’m not entirely comfortable with being filmed or photographed by unknown persons/agencies at the best of times. The fact that I was outside looking for a secluded tree that my three-year old could wee on (with the staff’s permission), perhaps made me a bit more sensitive, as this is something I definitely don’t want filmed. The clincher though, is how apparent the power imbalance is, in that we were not only unable to escape the drone’s sight-line but also that the operator was nowhere to be seen. This has a similar effect to a stranger staring you down for no reason, but with the added insult that you can’t avoid or address the person in question, or even guess at their motives. It is an invasion of privacy to which the victim has no recourse.

Under such conditions it is near impossible to relax, or 'act normally', as even the awareness that you are being watched (and therefore judged) is enough to make you moderate your behaviour (in my case so as not to draw attention). Glenn Greenwald makes this point wonderfully in his 2014 Ted Talk.

Needless to say, I encouraged my son to hold on until an indoor toilet was available.

What I had experienced (to a very minor degree) was that the ‘visibility of surveilled subjects and the indirect visibility/unverifiability of supervisors create a power effect that coerces the surveilled individuals to alter their behaviour…’ (Završnik, A 2016 p.173). In this particular case I’m sure nothing will come of it. It was probably someone just playing with their new toy. However, with drones set to become more common in urban environments, the ethical as well as security implications need to be considered.

Surveillance is by no means the only use for drones, with our flying-friends being employed for: ‘search and rescue, news reporting, crop spraying, air quality monitoring, after-the-fact crime scene investigation, surveying, disaster response, wildlife tracking, research into the dynamics of violent storms, spotting wildfires, filmmaking, and traffic monitoring’ (Villasenor, J 2014 p.236) to name a few. Their utility is obvious and much has been made of this point, however ‘the rapid development of this technology suggests the need to shift from what these airborne devices can do to how they should be used’ (West, JP, & Bowman, JS 2016 p.649). This is especially pertinent when we see them being utilised by the likes of law enforcement agencies, such as in NSW recently.

Drone (CC0 1.0
The lack of formal legislation surrounding the usage of drones is point for concern enough, but also the lack of guidelines dealing with the limits of institutional surveillance is worrying. West and Bowman ask ‘are the right things being surveilled for the right reasons—and how is that known?’ (West, JP, & Bowman, JS 2016 p.653). This is a question of transparency, which is fundamental to this issue however I would also add that there is a need for clarity on how data from this type of surveillance is to interpreted. It is easy to become focussed on the technicalities of drones, whilst at the same time forgetting that they are a tool, and like any tool they can be poorly used. Like any surveillance system, it is ultimately our interpretation and usage of the data that determines its morality.


Završnik, A 2016, Drones and unmanned aerial systems : legal and social implications for security and surveillance, Cham : Springer, retrieved 26 August 2016, DEAKIN UNIV LIBRARY's Catalog, EBSCOhost.

Villasenor, J 2014, '“Drones” and the Future of Domestic Aviation', Proceedings of the IEEE, vol. 102, no. 3, pp. 235-238.

West, JP, & Bowman, JS 2016, 'The Domestic Use of Drones: An Ethical Analysis of Surveillance Issues', Public Administration Review, vol. 76, no. 4, pp. 649-659.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Opting In or Opting Out

(CC0 1.0)
In the 2001 census, the government first offered Australians a choice as to whether they would like their name-identified information kept. This year that opt-in system will be a compulsory system. Your name will be kept whether you like it or not' (Berg, C 2016). 

On the 9th of August I, like millions of other Australians sat down to complete the Census of Population and Housing. In previous years the census had been an understandable curiosity, an excuse to sit down with a glass of wine and some pizza, and contribute some useful data. This time however, the process was undertaken with a somewhat heavy heart. The government’s decision to make this year’s census individually identifiable, with the compulsory inclusion of one’s name, has changed it from a snapshot of Australia, showing how our nation has changed over time, allowing us to plan for the future’ (Biddle, N Montaigne, M 2016), to something more in line with the controversial 1985 ‘Australia Card.’ The unique code that identifies each census effectively becomes the Australia Card’s ‘Universal Identification Number’ (UIN), which ‘will be the common ‘key’ to the databases of the agencies allowed to participate in the scheme, and will enable ‘matching’ of databases where authorised’ (Greenleaf, G, & Nolan, J 1986 p.410).

Then this happened…

Now I would hope that the security concerns of this type of identified, and rich data gathering would be apparent to all, but the aspect that stuck with me is that there is no option to opt-out. Much has been made of this situation with many seeing it as no different to the kinds, and amount of information that we routinely divulge to Facebook and the like. The obvious retort to this argument is that participation in social media is voluntary, the census however, is not, with the threat of ever increasing penalties for non-compliance. Case closed? I’m not so sure.

My uncertainty lies in the relationship we have with the respective platforms and/or institutions that gather our data. With the ABS I can sit atop my righteous indignation, knowing that I am being strong-armed into submission, but with say Microsoft, I opted-in with no coercion on their part (except for maybe advertising). I am in control.
At least I was, until I received an email from them regarding changes to their privacy policy, and what got me was the final paragraph…

They may as well have written ‘suck it up, or get out!’. Just like the census, I am left with no recourse except for compliance or punishment of sorts, where the penalty in this case is exclusion from a platform I have been using for over a decade and am tied to by the bonds of familiarity and habit (not to mention the fact that I pay for their services).

It would be easy to extend this situation to nearly any popular data gathering entity (Google, Facebook, twitter, etc.). We all opt-in to these services considering to some degree the powers they wield, and weigh that up against the perceived benefits we get from the relationship yet, ‘what is presented as a bargain actually lacks mutuality, disclosure or roughly equal bargaining power. In such cases, the bargaining frame will highlight the absence of the possibility of a bargain’ (Pallitto, RM 2013 p.5).

The rules governing how our data is handled lie on shifting sands, and there is little we can apparently do about it. We can opt-in, and ignore or tolerate the surveillance, or we can opt out and become pariahs in an inescapably technological world. It would seem that surveillance, in the form of data gathering, is not just becoming the norm but is also becoming compulsory.

Unsuprisingly, they still want me fill out the census...


Greenleaf, G, & Nolan, J 1986, 'THE DECEPTIVE HISTORY OF THE "AUSTRALIA CARD', Australian Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 4, pp. 407-425.

Pallitto, RM 2013, 'Bargaining with The Machine: A Framework for Describing Encounters with Surveillance Technologies', Surveillance & Society, vol. 11, no. 1/2, pp. 4-17.

Berg, C 2016, If you're worried about privacy, you should worry about the 2016 census, ABC, retrieved July 28 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-15/berg-census-privacy-threat/7244744

Biddle, N Montaigne, M 2016, Explainer: what is the census, and why does it matter?, The Conversation, retrieved August 8 2016, http://theconversation.com/explainer-what-is-the-census-and-why-does-it-matter-62493

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