Freaking Out About Surveillance at SXSW

The topic of surveillance threaded the general conversation at the SXSW Interactive Festival this year. From live video keynotes by the exiled Julian Assange and Edward Snowden to ever present sensor enabled wristbands and a surprising amount of people wearing Glass, privacy — caused by sensors, data, and the Internet-powered applications they empower — found its way into the very pores of the conference.

As a result, the always-on quantified self created a bit of a freak-out amongst attendees. Almost every conversation I had touched on this topic.

First, let me say it was refreshing to see social media and marketing take a supporting role at SXSW as the conference moved to discuss larger trends in the interactive sector. Clearly, the movement towards an omnipresent Internet creates dramatic implications for society and businesses beyond extrapolating personal data to deliver contextual marketing.

It was ironic to see everyone wearing sensors and discussing the latest personal data-driven app, while they conveyed concerns about societal. Those fears included stalking, government and corporate abuse of data, personal privacy (will your Fitbit report your bedside activity?), and the impact on self identity caused by constantly being on.

Yet, most of us felt that while valid, the sensor train has already left the station. We move about our lives vaguely knowing the tech we love is disrupting our own privacy and security, and ignoring the consequences. People may value their privacy, yet they strap on their fitness band or allow access to personal data via social networks, mobile phones, sign-ups and web browsers.

Perhaps it was the Snowden and Assange video keynotes that caused the underlying meme. Invariably, when conversations begin about on these topics people become concerned.


Having attended (and walked out of) the Assange session and seeing what Snowden said, the two keynote speeches struck me as the self-justifying rants of sociopaths. The exiled self-proclaimed defenders of the public interest seem to need the attention, and enjoyed the audience. It is clear Assange and Snowden think they are above the law, and have no remorse for the certain deaths their actions have caused.

I am not saying that the societal impact of surveillance by friends, family, co-workers and government is not a worthy topic. People are rightly concerned.

BUT surveillance is a government, corporate and personal action that has been occurring since the beginning of civilization. Discussion of spies can be found as far back as Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The medium creates the current manifestation of data and video surveillance. It’s no surprise that governments are collecting and sharing data, while pressuring companies to open their information repositories.

Unrestrained corporate actions leveraging personal data are not a surprise either. We live in a free capitalist economy that influences the government with lobby or special interest dollars.

No Restraint with Personal Technology

My reaction to a full explanation of sensor-driven personal data.

What is surprising is our personal lack of restraint about data and privacy. We treat it like we treat the environment. There is no personal valuation or action to address the situation even though we fear the worst.

Yet when surveillance in this new digital world order is discussed, we freak out. That is ironic given the larger context. In reality, the fear is self-centered. We don’t like the thought of our little wrongs and guilty pleasures becoming easily accessible to others via the Internet.

Vulnerability is not openly embraced by a vast majority of people.

In the social media era, we saw ourselves, good and bad. In the end, we saw the ugly side of human nature. Perhaps we’re not ready to see even more of the bad openly served to the digital public thanks to our various personal technologies.

Yet, you have to think that such exposure would be bad business for many of the companies involved. Who wants an app that’s going to out them at every corner? Of course, if you live an honest life this is not an issue.

In addition, this is an issue of the moment, and for the older generation. The next generation, the children of today, will grow up in this world. It won’t even bother them.

What do you think?


  • Not sure which is older – Bible or Sun Tsu, but spying is mentioned in Numbers:22 – Balak is scared after seeing what the Israelites did to Jericho, and he sends a spy not only to look at the troops but to put a curse on them. – Perhaps the equivalent of a denial of service attack.
    Part of this issue is that we’ve got a lot of things set up where we don’t own our own data. I’m happily quantifying myself with 2 fitness bands and a food tracking app – and I’m happy as long as I’m keeping that info with me and sharing in aggregate with limited others. Doing this has helped me to lose weight and be motivated. The downside: Do I want my insurance company knowing when I’m eating poorly and sitting on my butt? Not really. I do want them to know that I’m exercising and getting sleep. How do we share in the right way for each of us?
    Do I want to know via Connect or FourSquare when a friend is in town – Sure. Do I want burglars to know when I’m out of town? No.
    Privacy requires effort and fine grained control. Franklin said “Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” The book “The Circle” shows a distopian view of where radical transparency can lead – but yet I’d love to see cameras permanently embedded on some politicians. Wouldn’t you love to know what went on in Dick Cheney’s office regarding the reason energy companies don’t have to disclose what’s in the fluid used for fracking?
    Also a reference to Project VRM is in order – using your data to manage your vendors instead of CRM/vice versa.
    Great discussion to start.

    • I love the idea of having politicians and CEOs where cameras all the time. It’d be funny to see the shoe on the other foot, and I bet the world would be a better place for it. Unfortunately, being in a turned of dark space will be the luxury of the future, something these folks will enjoy more than the rest of us.

      It was great seeing you, Howard. And thank you for introducing me to Cory Doctorow!

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