Cornerstone Course – Day 5: Digital Society – Privacy and Surveillance

Digital Society is a very elastic phrase. We will explore three examples:

  • Network Neutrality
  • Privacy and Surveillance
  • Big Data

All are focused on how technology changes society. It is a contested topic on whether the impact is positive or negative. Issues are at the intersection of information and communications technologies and society, law, and public policy.

Privacy and Surveillance

“You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” – Scott McNealy (Co-founder of Sun Microsystems, 1999)

In the physical world you could go to remote locations that are private and data was stored in paper – hard to copy, easy to destroy and costly to move. Additionally, information sharing was limited and specialized based on a regulated and trusted system – e.g. bank, post office, phone company, state, etc.

The biggest change is that most personal data is now online – easy to copy, hard to destroy and cheap to move. Infrastructure capital cost is nigh zero with little regulation and very rapid adoption. Additionally, technology spans jurisdictions and a big incentives to monetize personal information.

A positive outlook could be personalized services. Price-discrimination is easier to perform which makes the economy more efficient. On the back of the medal personalized services in the area of news creates gaps in the society (e.g. Obama would loose according to Republican news sources and in the information bubble of people). In the book (Sunstein, 2001)this issue is broadly discussed. However, there seem to be noticeable portion of a population that consumes news of opposing views (“Ideological Segregation Online and Offline,” 2011) .

Is regulation futile?

Facebook enables to identify people by simply photographing them and uploading it to Facebook to get recommendations who is in the picture. Privacy cannot be protected without forbidding such services.

On a darker point surveillance by government has been facilitated by the same technology. Surveillance infrastructure is a commodity and large-scale computing power is available, possibly soon bolstered by quantum computing.

US vs EU regulation

In the US activities are usually allowed unless specifically forbidden whereas in Europe they are usually forbidden unless specifically allowed. In Europe there are privacy protection agency which can sanction (up to 2% of annual worldwide turnover).

The EU anti-trust body has become prominent because it can generate income for the EU.

The Save Habor Principle was an agreement regulated data exports, however the European Court of Justice ruled it incompatible with European Law and consequently it was replaced with Privacy Shield.

In Europe you have to provide your consent as a consumer to companies for them to process your data. Today, consent is usually given by using the service. This form of consent implies that people do not understand what they are consenting to. Research showed that people care for privacy, nonetheless they ignore privacy by giving immediate consent to internet services  (Staddon, Acquisti, & LeFevre, 2013) (QUOTE). The EU introduced the “Right to be forgotten” to whip off content off the internet that has been stored under this kind of consent.


Ideological Segregation Online and Offline. (2011). Quarterly Journal of Economics, 126(4), 1–2.
Staddon, J., Acquisti, A., & LeFevre, K. (2013). Self-Reported Social Network Behavior: Accuracy Predictors and Implications for the Privacy Paradox. Presented at the Social Computing (SocialCom), 2013 International Conference on , Washington, DC, USA.
Sunstein, C. R. (2001). (1st ed.). Princeton University Press.