Privacy, Elections, Political Parties and ‘Big Data’

Inspired, in part, by work conducted for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, I have been researching the question of voter surveillance in comparative perspective. Political parties in several countries are managing vast databases of members, non-members, volunteers, and donors, and using these data to target voters, track issues, and get-out-the-vote. The various voter surveillance practices currently observed in the United States are gradually cropping-up in other democracies. Issues about inappropriate communications, about the sharing of data across systems, about intrusive uses of social media, and about data breaches have surfaced regularly.   Furthermore, trends in Western democracies toward a greater de-alignment of the electorate place further pressures on parties to target voters outside their traditional bases, and to find new, cheaper and potentially more intrusive ways to influence political behaviour. The issues are not confined to the privacy of the individual voter, but relate more broadly to trends in democratic politics. This research has been funded by an international and interdisciplinary SSHRC Partnership Grant on “Big Data Surveillance,” coordinated through the Surveillance Studies Center at Queens University, as well as by a SSHRC Insight Grant.

Social Networking and Privacy Protection

This was a project funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council from 2010-2013. The central hypothesis is that the evolution of a more “social web” is posing significant challenges to the theory of informational privacy as well as to the national and legal systems based on that theory. The main objective was to determine how the expectations of social networking websites and environments, whose raison d’etre is the facilitation of the sharing of personal information about users, can be reconciled with prevailing understandings about “reasonable expectations of privacy” and existing domestic and international regimes that are designed to protect personal data. Organizations have to make decisions about the granularity and range of privacy choices to offer users. What determines an organization’s perspectives and policies on privacy protection? What motivates them to grant users particular choices over how they might control the distribution of their personal information?

The project relied on a combination of methodologies at each stage of the project: key informant interviewing with the staff of data protection and privacy agencies, with Chief Privacy Officers, and with civil society privacy advocates; and content analysis of a sample of privacy statements and analysis of relevant policy reports, recommendations, rulings, court cases and other evidence of the policy record. The key issue was to understand the series of privacy choices presented to the user, and to establish a yardstick by which those choices may be compared across different websites and environments. A third methodology was based on auto-ethnographic techniques. Research assistants were tasked with exploring and recording the personal and interactive experiences with registering privacy preferences online. The user perspective, carefully documented, can offer important insights into the interplay of regulatory, business and technological variables.

Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada

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I was one of the co-investigators of the large international and multidisciplinary “New Transparency” project, coordinated through Queens University.

Stemming from the work at the New Transparency Project, a multidisciplinary research team published the volume Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada which explains why and how surveillance is expanding—mostly unchecked—into every facet of our lives. Through an investigation of the major ways in which both government and private sector organizations gather, monitor, analyze, and share information about ordinary citizens, the volume identifies nine key trends in the processing of personal data that together raise urgent questions of privacy and social justice. Intended not only to inform but to make a difference, the volume is deliberately aimed at a broad audience, including legislators and policymakers, journalists, civil liberties groups, educators, and, above all, the reading public.

On the Transparent Lives website there is some useful information regarding some of trends identified in the volume.

Privacy Advocates and Advocacy

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This project was funded from 2004 to 2007 by SSHRC. My book The Privacy Advocates: Resisting the Spread of Surveillance was published in 2008, with a paperback edition in 2010. The project aimed to profile the network of international privacy advocacy organizations, assess their strategies and tactics, and interrogate larger questions about the potential for social movement politics.

The Politics of Identity Cards

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A 2007 workshop on identity cards in comparative perspective yielded an edited volume entitled Playing the Identity Card: Surveillance, Security and Identification in Global Perspective, co-edited with David Lyon. Stemming from this project, data collection on the development of identity cards has continued at a website devoted to identity cards.

Security Games: Surveillance and Control at Mega-Events

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Mega-events have become occasions for experiments in monitoring people and places. And, as such, they have become important moments in the development and dispersal of surveillance, as the infrastructure established for mega-events are often marketed as security solutions for the more routine monitoring of people and place. Mega-events, then, now serve as focal points for the proliferation of security and surveillance. They are microcosms of larger trends and processes. The volume Security Games: Surveillance and Control at Mega-Events presents some of the complex ways that security and surveillance are now implicated in unique confluences of technology, institutional motivations, and public-private security arrangements.