Big Tech Peter Krapp Surveillance

Surveillance Is Pervasive: Yes, You Are Being Watched, Even if No One is Looking For You

Mark Yeomans, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Peter Krapp, University of California, Irvine / The Conversation

The U.S. has the largest number of surveillance cameras per person in the world. Cameras are omnipresent on city streets and in hotels, restaurants, malls and offices. They’re also used to screen passengers for the Transportation Security Administration. And then there are smart doorbells and other home security cameras.

Most Americans are aware of video surveillance of public spaces. Likewise, most people know about online tracking – and want Congress to do something about it. But as a researcher who studies digital culture and secret communications, I believe that to understand how pervasive surveillance is, it’s important to recognize how physical and digital tracking work together.

Databases can correlate location data from smartphones, the growing number of private cameras, license plate readers on police cruisers and toll roads, and facial recognition technology, so if law enforcement wants to track where you are and where you’ve been, they can. They need a warrant to use cellphone search equipment: Connecting your device to a mobile device forensic tool lets them extract and analyze all your data if they have a warrant.

However, private data brokers also track this kind of data and help surveil citizens – without a warrant. There is a large market for personal data, compiled from information people volunteer, information people unwittingly yield – for example, via mobile apps – and information that is stolen in data breaches. Among the customers for this largely unregulated data are federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

How you are tracked

Whether or not you pass under the gaze of a surveillance camera or license plate reader, you are tracked by your mobile phone. GPS tells weather apps or maps your location, Wi-Fi uses your location, and cell-tower triangulation tracks your phone. Bluetooth can identify and track your smartphone, and not just for COVID-19 contact tracing, Apple’s “Find My” service, or to connect headphones.

People volunteer their locations for ride-sharing or for games like Pokemon Go or Ingress, but apps can also collect and share location without your knowledge. Many late-model cars feature telematics that track locations – for example, OnStar or Bluelink. All this makes opting out impractical.

The same thing is true online. Most websites feature ad trackers and third-party cookies, which are stored in your browser whenever you visit a site. They identify you when you visit other sites so advertisers can follow you around. Some websites also use key logging, which monitors what you type into a page before hitting submit. Similarly, session recording monitors mouse movements, clicks, scrolling and typing, even if you don’t click “submit.”

Ad trackers know when you browsed where, which browser you used, and what your device’s internet address is. Google and Facebook are among the main beneficiaries, but there are many data brokers slicing and dicing such information by religion, ethnicity, political affiliations, social media profiles, income and medical history for profit.

Big Brother in the 21st century

People may implicitly consent to some loss of privacy in the interest of perceived or real security – for example, in stadiums, on the road and at airports, or in return for cheaper online services. But these trade-offs benefit individuals far less than the companies aggregating data. Many Americans are suspicious of government censuses, yet they willingly share their jogging routines on apps like Strava, which has revealed sensitive and secret military data.

In the post-Roe v. Wade legal environment, there are concerns not only about period tracking apps but about correlating data on physical movements with online searches and phone data. Legislation like the recent Texas Senate Bill 8 anti-abortion law invokes “private individual enforcement mechanisms,” raising questions about who gets access to tracking data.

In 2019, the Missouri Department of Health stored data about the periods of patients at the state’s lone Planned Parenthood clinic, correlated with state medical records. Communications metadata can reveal who you are in touch with, when you were where, and who else was there – whether they are in your contacts or not.

Location data from apps on hundreds of millions of phones lets the Department of Homeland Security track people. Health wearables pose similar risks, and medical experts note a lack of awareness about the security of data they collect. Note the resemblance of your Fitbit or smartwatch to ankle bracelets people wear during court-ordered monitoring.

The most pervasive user of tracking in the U.S. is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which amassed a vast amount of information without judicial, legislative or public oversight. Georgetown University Law Center’s Center on Privacy and Technology reported on how ICE searched the driver’s license photographs of 32% of all adults in the U.S., tracked cars in cities home to 70% of adults, and updated address records for 74% of adults when those people activated new utility accounts.

No one is watching the watchers

Nobody expects to be invisible on streets, at borders, or in shopping centers. But who has access to all that surveillance data, and how long it is stored? There is no single U.S. privacy law at the federal level, and states cope with a regulatory patchwork; only five states – California, Colorado, Connecticut, Utah and Virginia – have privacy laws.

It is possible to limit location tracking on your phone, but not to avoid it completely. Data brokers are supposed to mask your personally identifiable data before selling it. But this “anonymization” is meaningless since individuals are easily identified by cross-referencing additional data sets. This makes it easy for bounty hunters and stalkers to abuse the system.

The biggest risk to most people arises when there is a data breach, which is happening more often – whether it is a leaky app or careless hotel chain, a DMV data sale or a compromised credit bureau, or indeed a data brokering middleman whose cloud storage is hacked.

This illicit flow of data not only puts fuzzy notions of privacy in peril, but may put your addresses and passport numbers, biometric data and social media profiles, credit card numbers and dating profiles, health and insurance information, and more on sale.

Peter Krapp
Peter Krapp

Peter Krapp is professor of Film & Media Studies, Informatics, English and Music at the University of California, Irvine.


  1. Every breath you take
    And every move you make
    Every bond you break
    Every step you take
    They’ll be watching you

    Every single day
    And every word you say
    Every game you play
    Every night you stay
    They’ll be watching you

    But most are okay with that. I find that amazing.

  2. My name is Umesh Heendeniya and I live in Hernando County, Florida. For the past approx. 12 years, FBI Special Agents, FBI Investigative Specialists, and Special Deputy U.S. Marshals from 2 Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) have persistently Surveilled, Harassed, Stalked, and Intimidated me, in part because I have advocated for The First Amendment Rights and The Second Amendment Rights of The U.S. Constitution, by having created several online websites. I have spoken to several attorneys in the past few years about suing these Cops to hold them accountable, but the attorneys flat out say that financially and from a business stand point, they’re unable to represent me pro bono or on a contingency basis because of U.S. Supreme Court case precedents such as Laird v. Tatum, 408 U.S. 1 (1972).

    I appreciate Professor Peter Krapp’s article discussing how Cops and Intelligence Officers (such as CIA Officers with the “CIA National Resource Division”) engage in persistent and wholesale spying (via Surveillance) on the American People (i.e., “We The People”– “We, The Tax Payers”).

    Umesh Heendeniya

  3. Author surely knows about centuries old panopticon concept (Omni vision, continuous surveillance, monitoring ) that was implemented in most western prisons not only to observe, prevent escapes but to modify behavior of prisoners.

    That was achieved by completely stripping prisoner or prisoner group from privacy including forcing defecation in public view.

    The change to prisoners society was so profound that a phenomenon of institutionalization of human personality and character occurred among prisoners with longer sentences.

    It was discovered that those people could not “rehabilitate” after serving sentence and could not psychologically return to open society and instead became more comfortable behind bars creating un foreseen effect of near 100% recidivism for certain categories of prisoners.

    Total surveillance regardless if somebody is watching or not destroys free, open democratic society making people into political zombies acquiescing to murder and destruction of fellow humanity in their name.

  4. I recently heard it said:
    “The two things that George Orwell failed to predict, are that we would buy the cameras ourselves, and that our greatest fear would be that no one is watching.”
    (referring to how so many people eagerly post their most intimate personal details to their social media sites, and their addiction to Likes, views & follower counts.

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