Around the Institute

Surveillance in the Technological Age: Is Privacy Just an Illusion?

November 19, 2014  • Alison Berkley Margo, Guest Blogger

Between government interests, commercial interests, and the information we voluntarily give up on social media, it’s no secret that Americans have experienced a significant loss of personal privacy over the past decade. As big data technology advances and increases the ability to observe, record, and analyze citizens’ behavior, it begs the question: how do we as a society protect our rights to personal privacy? How reasonable is an expectation of privacy?

“Surveillance is essential in terms of protecting us from criminal activity,” said retired attorney Parker Maddux during a recent Aspen Community Program discussion on the topic. “But from government observation and law enforcement surveillance to the huge advances technology has made in data mining, the only way to have any privacy at all is to become a hermit.” Maddux moderated the second session in a new four-week Aspen Community Program Series called Our Society Reimagined: Exploring New Ideas. The seminar provides an opportunity for Aspen community members to engage in non-partisan discussion and debate regarding the future implications of technology and innovation.

“The obvious issue is this loss of personal privacy,” he continued. “Yet we willingly post on social media virtually unlimited details of our personal lives and marvel at new advances such as Google Glass; but at the same time we rail against potential government snooping into our metadata of phone and e-mail records. This paradox for personal privacy — telling all to ‘friends,’ yet seeking to deny all data to the government — compels a discussion of where we are headed. What is the proper balance between personal privacy and security?”

“Does privacy matter?” asked Tom Morrison, former aeronautical engineer and attorney who currently works in health care IT and market development. “Where do we as a society draw the line in terms of how much personal information we’re willing to give away?” 

Morrison explained that surveillance serves three specific purposes: to find out who you are, what you do, and how you think. As an example he cited a Virginia court case that recently ruled to allow law enforcement to essentially force a person of interest to use his fingerprint to unlock his iPhone, thereby allowing police to view the contents. This happened despite the Supreme Court’s previous ruling in Riley v. California prohibiting law enforcement from forcing a person of interest to unlock his smartphone for police by entering his passcode. In that case, the Court recognized that cell phones should be afforded greater protection than traditional paper records due to their use as a repository “of many distinct types of information.”

Morrison argued the problem with the technologies that infuse our everyday lives occurs when they are abused. “Technology security is truly complicated, so it’s very easy for breaches to occur,” he said. “We have to have legislation to put the laws in place to protect our privacy.” 

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo pointed out that any concern for privacy is completely lost on the millennial generation. “I was raised in Brooklyn in the late 60s, when there was a lot of civil unrest, an era where privacy was everything to us,” he said. “This generation doesn’t seem to care. I told my friend’s teenage son, ‘You should protect yourself.’ And he said, ‘Hey Joe, you don’t get it. This is all we know. This is the world we grew up in.’”

DiSalvo agreed that there are useful applications for surveillance in law enforcement but he’s wary of relying on it too heavily. “It takes the human component out of it,” he said. DiSalvo fears that extensive use of surveillance technologies will only exacerbate society’s mistrust of government. “I do think there is a place for surveillance in our society, but how are we going to rein it in? When are we going to say enough is enough?” 

The group discussion yielded an array of solutions. Some people suggested restricting the collection and retention of data and discarding it within a predetermined amount of time. Several participants agreed that individuals put themselves at risk to a breach in privacy every time they check that “Terms & Conditions” box without bothering to read what they’re agreeing to.

The consensus: there is no stopping the evolution of technology or the impact it has on our personal privacy. But like most topics relating to society and technology, there is a human component that also shouldn’t be overlooked. 

Our Society Reimagined: Exploring New Ideas is part of the new four-week Aspen Community Program Series. It is designed as a forum for community members to gain insight into specific issues facing our society today, as well as research viable solutions to these issues. Visit our event calendar to learn more.