October 17, 2013

The revelation that modern states have expanded their surveillance capacity continues to generate reactions ranging from outrage to indifference. As ordinary citizens voluntarily share increasing amounts of personal information with private companies, observers wonder, does it make them less sensitive to government overreach?

A panel of Columbia University professors debated the National Security Agency's controversial surveillance programs as part of a broader discussion of the technical and global implications of modern states’ expanded surveillance capacity, and whether ordinary citizens can fight this development.

The panel event entitled "Big Data/Global Surveillance," held at SIPA October 8, is part of the Columbia Committee on Global Thought’s urgent issues series, which explores critical issues of global importance from a trans-regional and interdisciplinary perspective.

Committee co-chair Saskia Sassen, a professor of sociology, said surveillance is “an old practice” that has changed considerably since 9/11. “If surveillance does its job, governments may end up with huge data sets,” she said. “Big data is a variable, and it can be helpful, or be very problematic. Today, surveillance is clearly a massive problem.”

Sassen showed a map of U.S. government agencies and private private security companies that collect big data in about 10,000 locations across the United States. “Who are the winners here? We’re all suspects,” Sassen said.

Yet it’s not just governments that have access to huge data sets, said Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Journalism and professor of professional practice at Columbia Journalism School. She observed that people share a great deal of everyday information through social media and technological devices: “The things that [NSA contractor and leaker Edward] Snowden described and the mass collection of data is possible for governments because of the falling cost of collection and examination,” Bell said.

Rebecca MacKinnon, senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, said she believes that “surveillance is a global fight.” MacKinnon, who conducts research and advocacy on human rights, the Internet, and corporate responsibility, argues that all aspects of our lives are “increasingly mediated through private companies that provide the electronic platforms that we need to communicate and understand the world.

“If we do not hold these companies accountable with human rights standards, and they don’t make commitments to respect basic rights of their users and customers,” MacKinnon said, “then the future of democracy and the Internet is bleak.”

— Valle Aviles Pinedo MIA’14