In the first decades of the 21st century, we have witnessed advances in technology unprecedented in human history. It was once costly and cumbersome to rely on technology to work for you. The reality today is astonishingly different. To view this article, you likely performed a Google search (or whatever your search engine of choice) and clicked through several links to get here. Advances in technology have made it possible for the search engine to collect the data you spread through the internet and use data to determine what kind of advertising you’ll see in the side banners of the websites you visit. For many in America, our phones and our cameras are the same device. Clunky security systems are a thing of the past, and spy cameras can be made as small as a button. This new reality has a name: surveillance capitalism.
There was a time in the United States where changing your identity was as simple as grabbing what you can carry, hopping a train or hitchhiking to a new location, and introducing yourself to others under a different name. Now, in the world of surveillance capitalism, almost every piece of data you put out in the world, either online or on an official form, will likely be entered into a database where you can be tracked by anyone with the proper clearance. At Lauth Investigations International, we use databases like these every day to perform skip traces, asset searches, and background checks. And then there’s the omnipresent threat of “Big Brother,” a moniker often attributed today to the government agencies, law enforcement, and other surveillance platforms who are constantly watching us on what can only be imagined as an IMAX display of viewing screens. Not to mention the entities that might be surveying us and our information in a manner not exactly above reproach, such as Google, Facebook, and every demonym of foreign hackers who see America’s obsession with its surveillance culture as its Achilles heel.
It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. Humans in America and abroad have reaped the top-tier benefits of surveillance capitalism, such as using the “Find My iPhone” to locate someone who has been reported missing. In the recent high-profile case of a missing young woman from Brooklyn, Iowa, Mollie Tibbetts, law enforcement were able to use data collected by Mollie’s Fitbit to piece together her last hours. This information would eventually lead investigators to the man who is now charged with her first-degree murder. Just this past week, an American couple was saved in Bali after a scooter accident left them both without a way to call local authorities for help. Mikey Lythcott, 36, was able to turn on the roaming data on his cell phone, and with a single bar of service, managed to pen a desperate call for help to his Facebook friends. The United States Consulate in Bali was contacted, and help was sent to the couple’s location. Knowing how well technology can work for us makes it that much more frustrating when we feel it has violated our privacy, such as the aforementioned data-mining that helps target you for specific advertisements.
In addition to impacting the way Americans live their lives, surveillance capitalism has already become a constipator for many well-established areas of the economy, such as journalism, transportation, and—in a fascinating irony—private investigations. While surveillance capitalism has certainly had a significant impact on American culture, there are many who have a misunderstanding of its omniscient power. In a recent article titled, “A Private Investigator on Living in a Surveillance Culture,” a private investigator named Judith Coburn, shared an anecdote where a client completely underestimated the available technology:
“Two lawyers working on a death-penalty appeal once came to see me about working on their case. There had been a murder at a gas station in Oakland 10 years earlier. Police reports from the time indicated that there was a notorious “trap house” where crack addicts were squatting across from the gas station. The lawyers wanted me to find and interview some of those addicts to discover whether they’d seen anything that night. It would be a quick job, they assured me. (Translation: they would pay me chump change.) I could just find them on the Internet. I thought they were kidding. Crack addicts aren’t exactly known for their Internet presence.”
Frustrations like these are rampant in investigation firms across the country, but the advancements in technology do not prevent the use of tried-and-true analog methods, such as old-fashioned tailing surveillance, or telephone ruses without the use of any fancy phone surveillance tech.
The concept of the “right to be forgotten” was forged in the European Union, with individuals voicing their concerns about their inability to “determine the development of their life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past.” Given the surveillance tech available to citizens, both private and public, it sounds like an unattainable status for anyone who uses social media, the internet, or walks by a security camera on their way to work every day.
In February, 2018, NPR published an article titled, “Google Has Received 650,000 ‘Right To Be Forgotten’ Requests Since 2014,” detailing the mountain of requests fielded by the multi-national technology company to remove certain URLs from their search results on the condition the content is “inadequate, irrelevant or excessive in relation to the purposes of the processing.” The article goes on to say this means it is up to the discretion of a private company to determine what is in the best interests of the people who use their services, which is a tall-order in a capitalist society. Whether the policy proposed in the EU will ever be universally enforced—both in Europe and around the world—education regarding this newfound culture in which we find ourselves is paramount to protecting yourself and your loved ones from the evils of surveillance capitalism.
Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International, a private investigation firm based in Indianapolis, Indiana–delivering proactive and diligent solutions for over 30 years. For more information, please visit our website.