June 24, 2009 (the date of publication in Russian)

Marine Voskanyan


Security above privacy

Part 1:


Similar to the McDonalds network, owners of social networks expect an inflow of visitors during the crisis, as well as the increase of their stay. According to Nielsen Online, this subculture has expanded since 2003 by 87%, while the time they spend in these Internet resources has increased by 883%. Only in 2008, the surplus comprised 73%.

In the United Kingdom, the country affected by the crisis stronger than mainland European states, popularity of social networks is immense. Alex Burmaster, chair of Nielsen's bureau for Europe, Middle East and Asia, reports that among British visitors, the standouts are Facebook and MSN Windows Live. An ordinary encompasses one fifth of the average time spent by a British citizen in the Internet (11 billion of 48 billion minutes online). It's remarkable as well that since 2003, the time spent for visiting video hostings has increased 30 times.

Only in 2008, the number of visitors of video sites increased by 10%, and the number of scrolls by 41%. The average customer now spends 71% more time at these websites and scrolls a 27% larger volume.

Social networks mostly contain a digitalized chronicle of personal lives. Visitors tell one another about their home and job problems, display family photos and video clips shot with an amateur camera. Random episodes fixed with a camera, or intentionally drawn self-portraits are exhibited to the public. Is it so harmless as it may seem at the first glance? On the one hand, why should you fear of someone's eye if you aren't doing anything illegal? Still, the new medium creates new situations that couldn't emerge before.



Human private life has been traditionally separated from work and public activity. Even today, paparazzi go out of the way to get a photo of a movie star or a tycoon in the family entourage, as the object of chase protects his private domain.

Ordinary citizens, on the contrary, open their doors to anybody without concern of implications. Recently, a Swiss insurance manager took a sick list, complaining of fatigue and inability to work at her computer. When she was back, she was told that she is discharged and ordered to pack her things within five minutes: her colleague had detected her in Facebook. Her explanations that she entered the website from a mobile phone were rejected: the boss concluded that if she was able to use the network, she was able to work as well.



Spying for colleagues and neighbors was once considered to be a typical feature of Soviet totalitarianism. Today, personnel managers commonly survey blogs and personal pages of those who are hired for a job. In 2007, a postgraduate teacher was refused a diploma in Pennsylvania University as her photo in her blog depicted her as a "drunken pirate" in carnival vesture with a plastic glass in her hand. No Communist Party committees in the USSR and KGB boards could imagine such an opportunity of having a population collecting a detailed dossier on itself, with photos and video records and lists of friends, associates and just acquaintances.

Still, digitalization sometimes encounters popular resistance. This spring, an auto belonging to Google Street View, arriving in Broughton, England, to take a panoramic view of streets for the Google Map, was urged by the citizens to leave the place. Paul Jacobs, a local dweller, said there had been three burglaries in the last six weeks: "If our houses are plastered all over Google, it's an invitation for more criminals to strike." Google's managers promised to blur all the faces of citizens and car numbers plates. The protesters could not refer to legislation as it formally does not forbid taking a photo of an individual in the street. However, an NGO named Privacy International insists that this careless reaction of authorities and lawyers is making Britain "a surveillance society". In its 2006 report, Surveillance Studies Network calculated that there are already 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain – about one for every 14 people, and that by 2016, it will be impossible for any person to escape video surveillance at any public place. "We really do have a society which is premised both on state secrecy and the state not giving up its supposed right to keep information under control while, at the same time, wanting to know as much as it can about us", the report's co-author David Murakami-Wood told BBC. "We've got to say where do we want the lines to be drawn? How much do we want to have surveillance changing the nature of society in a democratic nation?" inquired Richard Thomas, the British Government's Information Commissioner.



Surveillance is frequently justified exactly with anti-criminal and anti-terrorist priorities. However, the total publicity, once accepted by the society, develops further. Last year, Microsoft submitted a patent application for a "unique monitoring system" that enables managers to detect labor capacity of personnel basing on information of their physical condition. The system uses wireless sensors that can read "heart rate, galvanic skin response, EMG, brain signals, respiration rate, body temperature, movement facial movements, facial expressions and blood pressure.

The system could also "automatically detect frustration or stress in the user" and "offer and provide assistance accordingly". Such systems are already applied to pilots, firemen, and NASA astronauts. Hugh Tomlinson, QC, an expert on data protection law at Matrix Chambers, told The Times: "This system involves intrusion into every single aspect of the lives of employees. It raises very serious privacy issues."

Peter Skyte, a national officer for Unite trade union, admitted that the new system takes the idea of monitoring people at work to a new level. At the same time, he indicated that the very approach is very old-fashioned, as the system monitors what is going in rather than the results." The Information Commissioner's Office said: "Imposing this level of intrusion on employees could only be justified in exceptional circumstances."

All these examples illustrate the same trend: slowly but surely, the system imposed on the society suggests rejection of privacy: after all, a decent person has nothing to keep in secret from others. Without using any Utopian glass walls, privacy is being eliminated, though in our democratic era, individual rights are regarded as the highest value. People give up privacy quite voluntarily, composing dossiers on themselves or accepting any proposals justifying enhanced control from authorities and employers. A person's surrender of his personal space, free from anyone's eyes, in favor of undefined common virtues, strikingly reminds surrender of a nation from protecting its market for the sake of free trade, and victimization of sovereignty to global regulators: Big Bosses know what we all need, and in them we trust.



How is this phenomenon related to the current crisis? The right of the state for collection and accumulation of personal files have been lately justified with rise of terrorism and crime. The crisis is expected to aggravate and expand these phenomena. This relation – though it sounds conspirological – is confirmed by the recent report of The Times about the latest meeting of the Bilderberg Club, reportedly focused on the choice between a long-term and troublesome escape from the crisis and the world's compliance with certain recipe introduced "from above" and guaranteeing economic stability.

On the everyday level, as we can see, most people make a choice in favor of security and against freedom when they encounter a dangerous situation. The current crisis is going to severe this vicious dilemma – though in fact, frequency of crimes reduces not only when every centimeter is under video surveillance, while the personnel can work fairly not only when the boss peeps into their LiveJournal. Control is a good argument for a threat, but this argument is not stronger than free choice. We can only hope that the recovery from the systemic crisis that has gripped nations, business communities, as well as individuals, will be achieved through reliance upon human mind and not through customary perfection of reliance upon Pavlovian reflexes.

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