Contemporary society is in a position to make big and far reaching gains when it comes to protecting our privacy from third parties. Whether it is a macro infringement on our privacy and personal content (such as the NSA surveillance scandal) or smaller, more acute invasions of privacy (such as being turned into a meme), these acts of information possession are severely blurring the lines of what it means to be watched, and whether that is okay.

What should we really be concerned about? The macro acts of possession indulged in by governments and businesses, or micro acts of possession we are subjected to by the guy behind you on the bus with a camera phone?

And how will these impact the social norms and legistlation we will create around the notions of privacy and protectedness?

What do we have a right to do publicly?

So you're on your way to work and you see a ridiculously funny license plate on the car in front of you. You decide this has to be tweeted so you take a picture of it and blast it out to all your followers. We probably don't consider this small act of information spread any sort of breach on the personal privacy of the car's owner.

How about if instead of a picture of an inanimate object, it is a picture of a human being, perhaps that of a homeless man with a very witty sign asking for change? Probably still okay.

When we see something interesting, we take out our phone and immortalize the moment; it has turned into a societal norm that we do not really question or judge. In fact, many of us have even been the ones at the other end of the spectrum: maybe we did a cool juggle while waiting tables, or we got proposed to, maybe we slipped on a banana peel in a classic Looney Tunes moment, and we looked up to find a crowd giggling appreciately around us, and inevitably someone with a phone pointed at us.

Most of us don't go chasing down every member of the crowd and demanding that they never point their phone at you again. Most of us react in a way where we are willing to give someone else the right to a particular moment from our lives, with the faith and hope that it was all in good fun. Even if we are not completely comfortable with the idea that some stranger has our face in their SD card, we are willing to forfeit our claim to that singular act in our individual lives, mostly because we ourselves want to keep the right to take pictures of people, places and incidents we find interesting.

What if you came across a flash mob in the middle of Union Station and it was illegal for you to take pictures of it? What if you heard a street musician with incredible talent and couldn't record it? What if your best friend does an amazing impression of Bruce Willis but you can't put it online without going through a lawyer?

The social contract

We want to immortalize moments of our, and other people's lives, and we do it unthinkingly. However, this temporary intrusion of privacy comes with certain unspoken rules, that we seem to mostly agree upon.

It's not a good idea to take a picture of someone where you'll make money off of it and not ask their permission. You shouldn't post things with the intention of shaming anyone. You shouldn't post anything that reveals a person's identity.

Now, all these rules are not really clear or explicit, they are largely implicit ideas that we tend to navigate our actions around. What we have done is created a sort of social contract with the people around us. I, as just a well-meaning and humorous individual, will exercise my right to indulge in temporary surveillance of you, just as you can indulge in temporary surveillance of me, as long as we abide by these generic, implicit rules and are motivated by good fun and for spreading ideas/instances that are "shareworthy".

And in many cases, these rules get broken. Maybe your video went viral and some company paid you for the rights so they could use it in an advertisement. Maybe your post on reddit inspired a mass influx of inflammatory, mean, and brutal comments and turned into a case of online bullying and verbal abuse. Maybe your clever meme of the juggling waitress got recognized by her co-workers and haters and fans alike started talking about her on twitter.

The rules aren't perfect, but we seem to still be alright with the idea of temporary peer surveillance, as long as the person doing the surveying is just a social citizen, like you and I.

When it isn't just another social citizen

The contract changes if a corporation or government agency is indulging in temporary or permanent surveillance, in such cases typically we want to know about it and we want control over it. And it does make sense, after all, corporate or government surveillance practices are typically for more than just "lolz". If there's a greater motive to the intrusion of our privacy or of public observation, we have an active desire to be informed and to consent.

We live in a world of surveillance cameras, and we have gotten used to the idea that we have to give up rights to public observation. Companies have spent years on gathering data on crowd movements, buying practices, gestures, facial expressions, interventions, and it has all been alright so far. When we download an app we give small startups access to our personal information and our friends' and family's personal information, and we know that in all these ways and more, we are allowing data about us be used to drive consumer insights in ways that (ideally) improve the products we use and love.

So is mass surveillance okay in the name of science? Is this another ammendment to our social contract with the world, that if the surveyed information about us is used for the sake of progress, improvement, and feedback, then the contract remains valid and just?

So what do we really object to?

Does our issue with surveillance then lie with mainly the government? Does our issue lie with non-consentual, non-lolz motivated, non-for scientific/innovation types of surveillance? Do we care about being falsely judged, or is it that we want to protect our right to divulging personal information at our own discretion? Do we want a space that is surveillance-free?

It seems as though the issue falls into states of justice, fairness, and rights. Our information is ours and while we have created social contracts for our information to become someone else's in certain circumstances, we have not approved unadulterated, permanent, and comprehensive access to our private lives.

One distinction between governmental surveillance and peer surveillance is that peer surveillance tends to be fleeting while the former is sweeping. Sweeping access is a wide net of access with thorough and comprehensive details about our personal lives. Peer surveillance is like random people stealing icing off of a cake while governmental access tends to be more like a slice.

Another distinction is that of justice; we tend to think of the government as a tool of the people. A democratic state promises a system of governance that is built, demonstrated, and approved by the people that exist within the system; if the system begins to act in ways that are unchecked, unfiltered, and unapproved by the very populace it has sworn loyalty to, the public feels a sense of injustice. The government would be exercising a sense of autonomy that we did not approve, and we did not have any awareness about. Public surveillance then also spells a deep feeling of betrayal: A people-created system infringes upon the rights of its creators without their consent or knowledge? Even if it is to protect its creators and "for their own good", it is an action unsanctioned and a clear breach of the social contract between the people and its government.

Shaping the future

Contention with how the government collects information about its citizens is not a relatively new phenomenon, but the sophistication and reach of modern tools and technologies certainly lend an urgency to the issue.

However, I would like to close out the discussion with a look at how peer surveillance and more accurately, our behavior and tendencies about it, shape the future of our privacy.

By wanting to exercise the right to take pictures, videos, and impose temporary surveillance on our peers, we have created an implicit consent for temporary surveillance being imposed upon us. We recognize that such surveillance needs to exist in order to promote creativity, virality, hilarity, and freedom of expression. We also recognize that imposing strict laws banning expression that involves other people is something that we just aren't willing to do (4chan anyone?).

We don't think twice about a guy in a hoodie pointing a smartphone at someone else, and we don't mind.

If we consider peer surveillance a norm, we open up avenues for other types of covert surveillance to occur that looks like peer surveillance, but isn't. What about private investigators that are hired to survey, who look like a social citizen but are instead a "purposed" citizen, someone who looks like a peer but are motivated by commercial, private or other types of gain? What if we extend this ability to other more broad types of surveillance done by corporations or governments?

Would we be more offended by a government or organization employee surveying us while purposely trying to blend in, versus if they were wearing a suit and badge? If our social contract for peer surveillance extends to social citizens with specific motivations, how do we deal with purposed citizens who look like social citizens?

We also risk becoming desensitized to peer surveillance, making the issue more complicated. The truth is we don't really know when someone's watching, and our belief in the basic good of people makes this truth acceptable.

But should we be concerned about peer surveillance blurring the lines of what is and isn't a part of our protected and private lives? Should we be used to the concept of peer surveillance? In an age where the Internet is largely in its pre-legislative phase, should we be promoting a sense of order and explicit ideology, or is it meant to be left alone and grow organically?


Our tendency and acceptability at being surveyed is a recent phenomenon and the notion of our "private" lives is changing into forms we have not yet learned how to control. If we are to develop legislation and mechanisms to control our state of privacy, we cannot simply look at the large culprits, we must also define and clarify what it means to be surveyed by just another person, another social citizen, just like us, who wants to capture some novelty in the world.

Perhaps that means we'll lose out on some of the greatest memes of all time, but perhaps that also means that we are ready and willing to acknowledge that we play a huge role in defining, protecting, and revealing other people's identities, more than businesses and governments.

And while we continually exercise this power, we have yet to have open discussions about the responsibility that comes with it. In order to create a future for privacy that operates within a system that is just, fair, and supportive, we must create explicit chains of solidarity through conversation and understanding about what it means for us to be responsible for a part (albiet small) of another person's life.