It's not just the government that's watching you

At my high school, all students were required to sign an “Acceptable Use” policy that allowed their cell phones or any other electronic device to be subject to random search by the school administration at any given time. This was not major surveillance, but it was an invasion of privacy. Fortunately I never became a victim of this, yet we as Americans are all “victims” in the world of domestic surveillance. This surveillance is not only conducted by our government, but private companies looking to sell a product, who in turn, infringe on our state of personal enfranchisement from intrusion or disturbance within our private realms.

So, why do most Americans seem more worried about government surveillance by “Big Data” and less worried about commercial surveillance by Big Data?  Everyday users of Facebook and Google, for example, are tracked consistently in ways that violate their privacy. But the government’s doing this is what seems to worry people most.

According to a recent Huffington Post poll, nearly 60 percent of Americans are against the National Security Agency's massive collection of data on telephone and Internet use. According to the same article, even though many people are aware of the government's promises to protect civil liberties, they are still suspicious about the government’s willingness to violate citizens’ rights to privacy, and only 53 percent think that the government helps protect freedoms. Many call to mind the oppressive government “Big Brother” as in George Orwell’s novel 1984. They think of it as totalitarian and repressive. They think of it as only a step away from a total police state, where no one has any individual freedom and the police can come and take anyone away at any time. This is an important fear for people in a democratic society to have, not because of its reality but because an absence of that fear would suggest a citizenry that has become complacent.

This public focus on government surveillance alone allows corporate surveillance to go on under the radar. It is as if only the government can watch, or rather spy on, its citizens and when it does watch them, freedom will necessarily be lost; but the government is not the only one watching American citizens. So are Google, Facebook, and major retailers like Macy’s and Best Buy. Both Facebook and Google use data about users to better their advertising advantage and to sell products. Think about it: on your Facebook page, advertisements along the side column are specifically chosen based on your search history, browsing history, and likes and interests that you display on your profile. There’s a reason why the ads that appear on your home screen are accurately relevant.

This kind of information helps advertisers develop profiles of shoppers. Commercial organizations are currently developing software that can track shoppers by location and actually influence their buying in stores. In some cases, shoppers agree to be tracked in order to get bargains, free apps, and access to in store Wi-Fi. This free stuff is a way to track a consumer's online and in-store movement in order to steer them to products.

Also, the NSA could not do its work without the data it gets from commercial sites. Facebook might use certain demographic to place ads, while the government uses it to determine security threats. Both spy on American citizens to the same extent, though for different purposes.

People need to realize that the kind of data-based surveillance practiced by both government and private corporations are in reality not all that distinct. Both are violations of privacy and both are probably unavoidable, the government for security purposes and private companies like Google because this is the best way for them to turn a profit and supply information to their paying advertisers. But this kind of surveillance is not like having the police come through your door in the middle of the night. It is less traumatizing but more insidious, because the feeling of being watched and of having one’s moves tracked by a company who sees people only in economic terms has the effect of making us prisoners in a consumerist panopticon.

Although I am no longer a high school student subjected to an inappropriately cavalier form of scholastic oppression, my existence outside of high school dictates that I now enter the world of full scale domestic surveillance, and thus becoming a victim of an opressive hand of high control and no elect.

(Sources: Huffington Post, Christian Science Monitor,

by Gabe Salomon '17

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.