Accountability in a world of surveillance: How do we define privacy while using technology?

Photo courtesy of Blake Israel

In an increasingly more technical world, the lines between private and public — reality and online — seem to blur more and more each day. One of the topics that often takes center stage when discussing the ever-present judgment of the internet is cancel culture.

Before we begin to delve into cancel culture’s relationship with the mass surveillance of social media, we, at the Technique, believe that it is important to draw a line of distinguishment between canceling and criticizing on the internet. When we refer to canceling, we are referring to the large-scale takedown of an oft-public figure that involves the threatening of their livelihood in some way. 

Criticism, on the other hand, occurs at a much smaller scale and rather is aimed at acknowledging the mistake of another person and guiding them to correct their action rather than treating it as an end-all, be-all mistake. Within this discussion, criticism and cancellation are often used as a delineation between things that are considered egregious as opposed to simply odd or annoying. For example, canceling someone on the internet for talking loudly on the phone seems ludicrous, but it may not seem as odd if someone was criticized for doing that.

However, the internet has a tendency to turn criticism into canceling under the guise of accountability and creating awareness. The internet is inherently biased, just because of the fact that so many people have access to large platforms and have a tendency towards a hypocritical perspective. Under the guise of accountability, the internet can very quickly turn a small mistake into a crusade against a person and everything they stand for.

In addition, the short longevity of people’s time on the internet, especially with the introduction of short-form content such as TikTok, has easily allowed people to experience a meteoric rise and decline in the span of just months. 

The internet has the power to build and tear down people and it can be a dangerous thing. At the crux of the issue, mass surveillance vests the internet with the power of both judge and jury. Consequently, the allowance of a single person to put something in the internet’s view gives them the same power to sentence a person in the court of the public sphere. 

In addition, the use of mass surveillance also fundamentally encroaches on privacy and highlights a lot of questions about the nature of consent in a newly digital world. For example, legally, there are not many ­— if any — consequences to taking someone’s photo and posting it online unless there were reasonable expectations of privacy, a very vague and easily manipulatable term. 

There has also been a move towards forms of entertainment that focus on observing random strangers, such as television shows that are shot in the streets or record random acts of kindness. This forces people into the spotlight when they may have not even wanted to be in it. Sometimes, you may be asked to sign a waiver consenting to your picture being used in a publication or some form of social media, but even in cases when you don’t sign a waiver, the same thing can happen, which brings up a very interesting conversation on why consent may appear to only matter in certain situations.

This can be, in many ways, likened to the issues of consent that children that are visible on the internet face. Oftentimes, children are placed in the spotlight by their parents and are not able to consent to having their life broadcasted, but can still face many repercussions even as they get older. 

In conclusion, the question of whether to put a recording of someone on the internet is not a clear-cut one. For many people, especially minorities, the realm of the internet can be one of the most effective, if not only ways, to hold someone accountable and ensure they face consequences for their actions. However, with that very same sentiment, it is also easy to ruin someone’s life and encroach on their privacy by just snapping and posting a photo. 

Social media has allowed us to carry the powers of public opinion in our pocket, but how we should use it is a responsibility that we need to carry as well.