Reading the news recently has been alarming but yet, not surprising. The National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States was found tapping into online servers such as Facebook, Google, and Apple. This was part of a programme known as PRISM that allowed the NSA to collect information on user’s search histories, emails, file transfer, and live chats. The story was published in The Guardian and The Washington Post who uncovered the PRISM programme and claim that it stretches as far back as 2007. It was also revealed that the NSA had collected phone records from millions of US citizens.
While this may seem a clear invasion of personal privacy, this is only part of a long process involving the US government gaining access to personal online information. Legislation aimed at this has been repeatedly passed since the September 11 attacks in 2001. The threat of terror has been the justification for the effectual ending of personal privacy. The Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) have paved the way for electronic surveillance of individuals. This could soon be joined by CISPA (Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act). In short CISPA allows the US government to do exactly what they have been revealed doing with PRISM. It allows private online firms to give private user data to the US government without a need for a warrant. So citizens in the States could have their online habits and profiles under surveillance without their knowledge. Again this sounds like a clear invasion of personal privacy, but the legislation was passed in the House of Representatives in April, despite heavy opposition, including from the White House. The Senate say they will not pass CISPA, but there is a significant amount of lobbying for it. While the legislation would only apply to US citizens, it may yet set a precedent.
Is there such a thing as spatial privacy?
Where does geography come into this? Well do you uses gadgets (smart phones, tablets, etc.) to surf the web? Have you ever noticed how the advertisements are generally tailored to where you are in the world? This is down to a very simple fact, that phone networks and websites are accessing and leaking your geographic information. Do you have the sole right to your geographic coordinates? In a word, no. Advancing technology means mobile phones are the ultimate body bug (Dodge et al., 2004). Combine this fact with the legislation occurring in the States and it could be possible, in the not so distant future, for the US government to effectively track any individual’s movements and habits through their smart phones. This observation of location for the purpose of social control is a process known as geosurveillance (Crampton, 2003).
Right, it’s time to move away from frightening facts to the even more frightening possibilities. It may become possible to combine the above capabilities and ever advancing spatial technologies with software that could manage and analysis spatial patterns, such as Geographic Information System platforms (GIS). The possible tracking of individual movements would lead to shaping behaviour in certain ways. The possibility of geoslavery has been discussed (Dobson & Fisher, 2008). Geoslavery has occurred in the past at an individual level, with tragic circumstances, but it is not beyond comprehension to be extended to the level of national policing. That, in my eyes, is a frightening possibility; quickly moving into the realms of George Orwell’s world of 1984. Big Brother is still watching you.
By Kevin Lougheed, Ph.D student, Department of Geography, TCD.
Crampton, J.W, (2003) Cartographic rationality and the politics of geosurveillance and security, Cartography and Geographic Information Science, Vol. 30, No. 2, pp 135-148.
Dobson, J.E., and Fisher, P.F., (2003) Geoslavery, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Spring, pp.47-52
Dodge, M., Batty, M., and Kitchen, R., (2004) No longer lost in the crowd: prospects of continuous geosurveillance, paper presented at the Association of American Geographers, Philadelphia, March 2004