Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Voluntary Surveillance: Costs, Benefits, and a Way Forward


Much has been made in class about the nefarious nature of iPhones and “smart” devices of their ilk that track the locations of their users. While there is no doubt Apple and other corporations bear responsibility for their disregard of privacy issues, the greatest contribution to the erosion of the privacy of individual movements and actions arguably comes from the consumers themselves. This happens primarily in two ways: voluntary disclosure of user locations, and the publication of video or audio recordings taken with cellphones. I will argue that despite the threats to privacy, this trend has significant benefits as well. The key is developing a new etiquette and legal scheme that balances its costs and benefits.

Disclosure of User Locations

The controversy over Apple’s tracking policy might seem overblown in light of how eager consumers are to reveal their own movements. The growing popularity of social media applications in the last decade has introduced many incentives for people to voluntarily disclose their goings-on. Take, for instance, Foursquare, the application that rewards users with coupons or other perks for “checking in” to locations like restaurants. Even without the lure of financial boons, people are likely to reveal their whereabouts for social benefits. People have shared photos that are geo-tagged, thus providing others with a record of where they have been. Whether it is to show off to their social network an exotic vacation spot, or to solicit a gathering with nearby friends, consumers are more than happy to post their itineraries without Apple’s help.

Video and Audio Recordings

Furthermore, the ease with which people can make video and audio recordings have turned many users into mobile surveillance cameras. For many of the reasons mentioned above, consumers frequently upload videos of themselves and those around them. While most of these are innocuous, the increasing popularity of this practice poses significant privacy concerns to individuals who may have their activities recorded and published without their knowledge or approval.


Many have found the practice of self-monitoring worrisome. For one, it provides more resources for the government to keep tabs of citizens. While so far the mo raising concerns about potential abuse. Foreign nations have already used social networks to spy on dissidents. Voluntary disclosure of user locations will make it easier for authoritarian governments to harass and intimidate the politically disfavored.

Furthermore, monitoring also facilitates private party misbehavior. Abusive spouses can install applications on their significant others’ phones to track their movements. Some resourceful robbers have use social networks to determine which home are unoccupied and thus easy targets. And deviants have used their phones to secretly take sexually explicit recordings of women. The problem becomes more serious when said recordings are uploaded online. When these disclosures involve deeply embarrassingly or otherwise secret activities, they can significantly disrupt a person’s life. A particularly horrific example involves a college student from Rutgers who committed suicide after his homosexual encounters were recorded by his roommate and shared with classmates.

Benefits of Voluntary Surveillance

On the other hand, ubiquitous surveillance has some benefits as well. The greatest advantages of voluntary civilian surveillance are its benefits to personal safety, accurate law enforcement, and monitoring the authorities. There are now a plethora of applications that take advantage of smartphone’s GPS capabilities to offer users peace of mind. For instance, there are applications that notify parents of their children’s locations, monitor the elderly for medical emergencies, and allow users to surreptitiously contact the police.

Furthermore, the proliferation of public recordings allows for more accurate law enforcement proceedings. Video recordings, have provided key evidence in criminal proceedings. More importantly, they provide civilians incontrovertible proof of police misconduct, which is crucial because officers are often given the benefit of the doubt. The most prominent example is the recent shooting of Walter Scott. The video, which depicts a police officer shooting an unarmed man in the back, directly contradicts the officer’s self-serving account of the incident. Not only do such videos help ensure that the guilty receive their just desserts, they also raise public awareness of potentially systematic abuses of power.

The potential of smartphone recordings to curb state abuses of power cannot be overstated. While advances in surveillance technology has usually benefitted the authorities, the ubiquity and relatively low cost of phones make them a powerful weapon for the masses. The outrage over unjustified police killings in the U.S., and the subsequent reaction from various governments, is ample proof of the social efficacy of recordings. On the more extreme side of things, recordings made public via social media have also served to galvanize long-suffering populations into revolution, as seen in various countries during the Arab Spring. Cellphones with recording and sharing capabilities can thus be seen as a powerful augmentation to free speech.

Establishing a New Norm

Balancing the boons and harms of this technology is a difficult task. We will not arrive at a solution in this discussion, but we will examine some of the factors that are and should be considered.

Lawmakers have tackled some of the most egregious consequences of recordings that can intrude on the privacy of others. However, some of these laws, such as those banning “revenge porn,” sexually explicit consent posted without the consent of those depicted, are constitutionally dubious. Furthermore, there have also been attempts to curtail the positive usage of recording, such as videotaping police actions.

A moderate approach involves tying the publication of recordings to other criminal or civil penalties. Narrowing prohibited postings to those that would constitute harassment or intentional infliction of emotional distress, along with other restrictions, can better balance the various interests involved.

However, when it comes to the disclosure of one’s own location and activities, the law’s hands are tied. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of consumers to develop a keener awareness of the risks involved with wanton disclosure. Possible moves forward include: 1) limiting the frequency of such disclosures, 2) limiting the audience, and 3) creating better protection against third-party access.


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r2 - 26 Jun 2015 - 19:49:34 - MarkDrake
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