The kinds of surveillance people want


If you use a credit card, your daily activities are under continuous surveillance. Information gathered from each transaction is monitored and analysed, not by the NSA, but by the financial companies themselves.

Most cardholders who are aware of this are grateful for the fact. It means that if or when you get a phone call or text message from the company telling you they’ve noticed suspicious activity on your account, the chances are that the warning is warranted and some fraud can get snipped in the bud.

Suppose your online activity was being monitored in an analogous way — not to spot fraud but instead to spot symptoms of undiagnosed disease — would you welcome this kind of surveillance?

Right now, this is a hypothetical question, but it probably won’t be long before automated health-tracking systems emerge. Perhaps health insurance companies will offer a discount to individuals who opt-in for the service.

The hyperbole surrounding the issue of surveillance usually looks at it through the lens of the intelligence agencies and political oppression, but what may in the long run be much more significant, socially, is the kind of benign surveillance that caters to our needs — that makes life easier by anticipating our needs.

Needs easily met create an expanding field of things we take for granted, but with that comes a diminishing state of awareness. For some people, the fewer their cares, the more creative they become, but more often it seems like ease fuels a hunger for stimulation and distraction.

The surveillance state we are moving into is not one where we are at much risk of getting whisked away by the secret police, but rather it is one in which we are likely to submerge deeper and deeper into the oblivion of convenience.

The New York Times reports: Microsoft scientists have demonstrated that by analyzing large samples of search engine queries they may in some cases be able to identify internet users who are suffering from pancreatic cancer, even before they have received a diagnosis of the disease.

The scientists said they hoped their work could lead to early detection of cancer. Their study was published on Tuesday in The Journal of Oncology Practice by Dr. Eric Horvitz and Dr. Ryen White, the Microsoft researchers, and John Paparrizos, a Columbia University graduate student.

“We asked ourselves, ‘If we heard the whispers of people online, would it provide strong evidence or a clue that something’s going on?’” Dr. Horvitz said.

The researchers focused on searches conducted on Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, that indicated someone had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. From there, they worked backward, looking for earlier queries that could have shown that the Bing user was experiencing symptoms before the diagnosis. Those early searches, they believe, can be warning flags. [Continue reading…]

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