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Researchers concerned by the rise of ‘big data’ surveillance

Much of this information is being used without our consent or knowledge, say SSHRC grant recipients.


A conversation with David Lyon can be unsettling, even when the subject is as positive as a $2.5 million Partnership Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. And to be fair, the Queen’s University sociology professor is pleased that he and his colleagues with the Surveillance Studies Centre have just received such generous support from the funding agency, the latest of three major grants his work has received since 2003.

Nevertheless, this new funding will be dedicated to studying one of the more uncomfortable and elusive realities of our contemporary life: the growing prominence of “big data,” massive computer archives full of the mundane miscellany of our digital lives, from grocery store purchases to cell phone records. This wealth of information we provide is increasingly being exploited as a resource by governments and private interests, often without our knowledge or consent.

Dr. Lyon speaks passionately about this form of subtle, seemingly innocuous surveillance and its profound implications for our daily lives. As an example of what concerns him, he pointed to the “smart” meters many homeowners have installed in their homes. These wireless devices report electricity use and eliminate the need for anyone to obtain a manual record of this activity. “It’s not that the smart meter itself is somehow a negative item,” he explained. “It’s a matter of what you do with the data it provides.”

Patterns of electrical use, said Dr. Lyon, can shed light on what sorts of appliances a household contains and how they are being used. Police can readily use this data to locate marijuana growing operations that are using large amounts of high-intensity lighting. However, much less obvious conclusions can also be drawn, such as which dwellings companies might target as prospective purchasers of new appliances. Vendors regularly pay for the privilege of obtaining this data while the homeowners who provide it likely never give their smart meters a second thought.

This is just the latest in a long line of surveillance trends that Dr. Lyon began exploring in the early 1990s. The research evolved into a formal undertaking known as the Queen’s Surveillance Project and then became the Surveillance Studies Centre in 2008 with a SSHRC Major Collaborative Research Initiative grant for a project called The New Transparency: Surveillance and Social Sorting. This support brought together a team of researchers from across Canada and in other countries who delved into nine distinct ways in which surveillance is changing and affecting all of us.

The latest funding milestone, announced at the end of September, is called the Big Data
Surveillance Partnership Grant from SSHRC. “These shared partnership projects are expressly awarded to groups of scholars who are doing socially relevant work which is supported by outside organizations like the privacy commissioner or NGOs,” explained Colin Bennett, a University of Victoria political science professor who was co-applicant with Dr. Lyon. “It’s an endorsement of the importance of looking at the social risks, the social harms in advance of technological development.”

Dr. Bennett said big data represents an emerging frontier of surveillance. Computer programs fish this sea of arcane numbers for nuances in our behaviour that might otherwise have remained invisible. His favourite example of such surveillance is voter relationship management, a technique widely employed by political parties which examines the exchanges that take place on social media platforms such as Twitter. Like smart-meter users, the individuals who take part in these exchanges might never reflect on what happens to this information. However, in light of the extraordinarily long federal election campaign that just wrapped up, Dr. Bennett has written a series of articles for to showcase the kind of valuable political fodder these electronic tidbits have provided to campaign strategists.

Among the partners in the centre’s big data research is the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of British Columbia and the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, both of which are on the front lines of addressing the impact that surveillance is having on people. For her part, B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham welcomes an opportunity to interact with academic researchers. “This research project will also identify new policy and legislative approaches to ensure citizens retain their privacy rights in the face of new technologies,” she said.

Even more important, said Dr. Lyon, is making the centre’s findings available to the widest possible audience so that Canadians begin to realize that surveillance has emerged as a primary feature of our society that everyone should be aware of. For just this reason, he was eager to see The New Transparency project become the basis of a book, Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada, published by Athabasca University Press in 2014.

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