Society of surveillance

Is your personal information being used against you?

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:19:04 PM

You pay for groceries with a debit card. Have your passport scanned in an airport. Purchase items online with a credit card. Make calls on a cell phone.

“Do we know what happens to the information we set in motion with each of these activities,” asks Queen’s University sociologist David Lyon. “Do we know where it travels, if it can be bought or sold or for what purposes it is used?”

Lyon and an international team of researchers are concerned that society’s increasing reliance on electronic transactions is making available enormous amounts of personal information that may be used to target or profile certain individuals.

Lyon calls this “social sorting.” His research shows that companies, organizations and even governments use personal information to categorize and classify people. Why? To target certain individuals and groups for “different” treatment.

In some instances, people may reap some small benefit, such as when members of a customer loyalty program are rewarded with prizes or discounts. At its most extreme, however, individuals from certain ethnic groups may be labeled a threat or risk and subjected to further surveillance.

“Post-September 11th security measures have permitted increased surveillance, including cross-referencing personal information between commercial and law enforcement sources,” says Lyon. “Airlines in Canada, for instance, must now share passenger data with security and immigration officials in the United States if travellers will be stopping there.”

The initial results of Lyon’s research indicate that few Canadians are aware of this particular practice; indeed, one of the team’s main tasks is to conduct a survey in 11 countries to determine what people know about surveillance and whether they comply with, negotiate or resist uses of their personal information.

“Although people have varying views on privacy, how information is collected and handled has huge implications for issues of trust, freedom and fairness,” says Lyon. “We need to address what information surveillance means for people’s life chances, choices and opportunities.”

David Lyon’s current research is funded through SSHRC’s Initiative on the New Economy.