There is a reason this veillance is covered last in our series given it relies upon the success of the preceding three veillances to take a giant step forward. This giant step forward comes with a solid list of benefits for individuals and society, which is a basic prerequisite of every innovative or technological advancement anyway. However, we at Privacy Rightfully keep our focus keenly on privacy and security issues so, from that perspective, Uberveillance is likely to be able to eliminate privacy and create new security concerns! With Uberveillance privacy takes a giant step back, as you read this article consider whether it’s worth being a first adaptor of the various Uberveillance enabling devices and technologies that are slowing coming to market now.
What is it?
This concept was first coined by M.G Michael and Michael in 2006 as “an omnipresent electronic surveillance facilitated by technology that makes it possible to embed surveillance devices in the human body” (1). In other words, referring to devices that can be placed inside the human body which are able to provide various forms of data about the person from within. It can be likened to something like an aircraft ‘black box’ but for humans.
The other veillances differ as they monitor a person from above (surveillance), below (sousveillance), and about (dataveillance). Uberveillance crosses the external human body barrier and monitors from within. Whilst the other three monitor what you do and how you behave Uberveillance aims to monitor and generate data about who you are from inside your body – which realistically means you won’t be able to reduce it or turn it off with 100% confidence.
Uberveillance can also be defined by its potential capability:
- Infrastructure: Can draw upon, sync, or consolidate a range of data created by other types of veillances to allow for multisource monitoring. For example, consolidating data from fixed mobile networks, CCTV camera data, social media activity data, etc
- Time: Monitoring is likely to be constant and unending meaning there is no ‘stop’ button
- Place & Space: Monitoring is omnipresent and able to reach everywhere one goes, there is no ‘blind spot’, nowhere to go to get off the grid
- Scope: A very broad scope or intensity of monitoring allowing for possibilities such as behaviour prediction based on subtle changes in heart rate, temperature, mood, and other such metrics.
How it could work – some potential examples
This veillance will break through the last sacred barrier where a person can have true privacy – their body and their mind.
This consolidation of veillance infrastructure and technologies can provide an incredibly detailed and scary view of you as a person. Some examples of Uberveillance enablers include implantable RFID tags and medical devices, electronic tattoos, swallowable pills and digital contact lenses. Sensors attached to these enablers could record virtually limitless metrics such as your heart rate, sweat levels and temperature as well as make decisions regarding your psychological state. This can be coupled with real time video footage of you in a store from other viellances and an algorithm can inform a company the likely reason why you did or didn’t purchase an item you were looking at on the shelf. This could be based on a culmination of your heart rate, blood pressure, facial expressions, tone of voice on a recent phone call, the manner in which you picked up the item you were considering and so forth.
This can go a step further as it grows and develops over time with an adequate bank of data. As we’ve written about in the past, I’m a bit of a runner so to put that into an example within a Uberveillance society an implanted device could generate data and make conclusions such as:
Jerry is running 10 seconds / kilometre slower than his usual Saturday afternoon pace. This may be due to that fact his sleep was disrupted last night by a neighbourhood disturbance that kept him awake. His stress levels were also high on Friday afternoon after a disagreement he had with a client over the phone. His blood sugar is low as he skipped his usual pre-run meal to try catch up on a few extra minutes of lost sleep. If he has an accident today, it’s likely he will be at fault due to fatigue and his insurer will be aware of that thanks to his Interactive Insurance Policy. When he finishes his run, it’s best he gets a notification for a café close by so he can eat as well as a local pharmacy to purchase stress reduction or sleep improvement pills.
Uberveillance allows for more dots to be connected than was ever thought possible as each of the other veillances continue to generate exponential amounts of accurate data to their new best friend – Uberveillance.
Impacts to privacy & security
One of the major issues relates to location tracking in that you can no longer attend a religious gathering or certain business without being tracked. As we discussed in Protesting with Privacy at Heart you can take precautions to avoid being identified at a certain location. You can leave your phone at home or put it in airplane mode, catch public transport which you pay for in cash and wear clothing to disguise tattoos and other identifiers. With implantable technologies all that goes out the window as you’re being tracked from within. Other sensitive visits are tracked – gun stores, medical / rehabilitation clinics, brothels, religious institutions, adult stores, and so on.
From a safety perspective, if access to the data is breached by a bad actor your personal safety is at risk. You will be live tracked, just like your food delivery or rideshare vehicle is today, increasing the risk of kidnap, stalking, harassment, or worse. Effectively, you could be monitored in the same manner a recent parolee is monitored using an electronic ankle monitor upon release from prison. The difference is the ankle monitor is external and usually a short-term proposition.
Communication can also be impacted as these internal devices could be built to record sound as you speak. Even if they didn’t and even if there was no GPS location tracking programmed into a device either it could still be used to identify when two devices are in near proximity. Bluetooth records, for example, could imply a meeting or conversation of sorts took place if each device comes in close enough contact with another.
The future looks bleak with the continued growth and development of technologies that enable Uberveillance. In the future even healthy people may have numerous sensors implanted in their bodies and they could be so advanced that even their thoughts may not be private! No doubt this will all be sold with benefits to society (such as elimination of crime and increased sustainability) and benefits to the person (such as the ability to predict medical conditions and reduce insurance premiums). However, there’s a lot more to be said for other issues:
- Accuracy of data from information manipulation and misrepresentation. Just as we described in Dataveillance regarding data speaking on your behalf – do the facts (data) add up to the truth (context)?
- Reliability of devices and potential harm done to the body having a foreign object present long term
- Security of devices from being breached, sent viruses or similar bug where they can be reconfigured from intended purpose to a harmful purpose.
- Impact to the human condition and removal of our thinking, awareness, and accountability of existence (for example, not worrying about eating healthy food as the implanted sensor will tell you what you’re lacking). Would this be the first step in moving from human to machine? Could it diminish our natural survival instincts?
- Negative societal impacts such as more jobs currently being done by humans replaced by implanted technologies and the various AI or algorithms that go with them. Medical specialists would certainly be joining the unemployment que or have to pivot into another field.
Uberveillance isn’t in full force yet but it isn’t in its infancy either – as of this writing in early 2021 it’s probably a crawling toddler eager to walk and then run. Already we are seeing examples of issues regarding the data generated by implantable devices such as that of Hugo Campos. Mr Campos received an implantable defibrillator in 2007 but had to fight for over a decade to access his own data, even going so far as buying a pacemaker programming unit on Ebay to spy on himself!
Ordinarily it would be easy to conclude that the way to protect yourself against Uberveillance is to reject and implantable devices, however that may not work for everyone. Some may need such a device to survive or otherwise live a healthy life, others may be compelled to as they cannot afford not to, and others may sheepishly follow this trend as a new norm. We spoke about the latter in our previous article on sousveillance when we dived into the ‘quantified self’ and the reasons some people jump straight on board and track everything.
Naturally one may read all of this and say with some confidence ‘I’m sure there will be on and off functionality and users will be to decide on the level of tracking and monitoring these implanted devices do.’ For us that isn’t a safety net or assurance but rather a bare minimum standard that should be part of the design automatically. Even today there are ‘do not track’ options, take an internet browser for example, even when ‘do not track’ is toggled on the browser is later tested and it turns out some tracking is still being done, despite the best intentions of the developer. Indeed, as implantable devices gain traction, developers will need to put the minds of early adopters at ease regarding tracking specifically and privacy more generally. However, that brings us to trust and that’s what we’ve decided to conclude with.
Take yourself back 25 years and imagine if someone told you the various ways you are and can be tracked in 2021. Most people wouldn’t believe it and would reject the idea of an owning a smartphone or signing up to social media. They would certainly be reluctant to participate in the tracking and data creation tools that are not just second nature today but almost a prerequisite of our connected existence.
Now, take yourself back to any moment in time over the past 25 years, as recently as the current month. Have a think about the various issues and vulnerabilities the latest gadgets have been reported to have. For every state-of-the-art high-tech gadget that is launched there tend to be regular reports in the following months of vulnerabilities, failures, and other elements of unintended design. We touched on this in our Internet of Things article where we highlighted many products are being rushed to market at the expensive of adequate security systems being built in.
If you purchase the latest smart phone or laptop with the most up-to-date operating software today, the lifecycle tends to be along the lines of:
- 0-6 months: Brilliant, it works perfectly, and no one has a faster, more efficient, and more secure device than you
- 6-18 months: Various bugs and security patches are found requiring regular updates, at least two major updates by the 18-month mark are common. The next generation device is commonly launched at or just after 12 months
- 18-24 months: Planned obsolescence kicks in, your device is performing at a shadow of its former self when new and has been superseded by a newer device with another one just around the corner.
- 24 months plus: You have the oldest device in your social circle, some updates may no longer be compatible with your current device. Operating Systems tend to have support for 5-10 years. You are urged to upgrade to the latest new device from 2 years onwards and the cycle starts again.
The above cycle sounds familiar to most people but think for a second with Uberveillance in mind. Are tech companies who are at the forefront of creating personal devices for the masses the same ones we are to entrust to develop devices that are good enough to implant in our bodies? Sure, the question is a bit simplistic in that implantable devices would have sterner testing and standards for approval than the average smart phone. However, the door we’re knocking on is – we’re not there yet! We still can’t get external devices – smartphones, laptops, smart watches, dash cams, etc without vulnerabilities, with decent durability, and with long term committed support. On that last point don’t forget long term support for an implantable device may be the rest of someone’s life! Unless of course the plan is to rip out these devices as regularly as we upgrade smartphones? Not fun.
As consumers we may feel Silicon Valley sees us as a forever consuming cash cow and as an afterthought when it comes to the security, reliability, and longevity of the devices they pump out. Cars and airplanes have been evolving for over a century with a lot of learnings coming from various accidents along the way, some attributed to the pursuit of profit and speed to market over safety. The technology for implantable devices has been evolving for only a few decades by comparison – jumping on to implantable devices today can reasonably carry the same level of risk as flying in the 1940s.
We have become accustomed to the pursuit of consuming the latest shiny new gadget that it’s not unreasonable to think people wouldn’t que up for an implantable device and show off its features to friends like they do for and with a new iPhone. However, unless required for medical purposes, implantable devices should probably be resisted until they are proven to be safe, reliable (accurate and durable), and secure. The burden of proof here lies with the developers and, we’d suggest, they have an uphill battle to win back our trust given the rubbish devices we’re putting up with now. When they can tick off safety and durability, they then need to tick off privacy and security before expecting mass adoption. We hope.
To conclude this four-part series all we’d like to remind our readers that these four veillances aren’t the only ones in existence – they’re just the more prominent ones the general public is exposed to and likely to be exposed to. No doubt most people will continue to use these four under the blanket term ‘surveillance’ given the other three aren’t prominently used or well known. That doesn’t matter though, it’s not about expanding your vocabulary so you can correct someone who mistakes sousveillance and surveillance, for example.
The purpose of this series was to show how new technologies have allowed for a branching off from the umbrella term of ‘surveillance’ to rapidly emerging new veillances which have more narrowly defined focus. We hope most readers don’t simply consider these four as a stationary state of affairs but look to the future. What will be the culmination of all of these veillances? What will happen when there is a bank of data spanning decades on a given person that would make the Stasi’s data collection look amateur? What new power dynamics could be created in the future as technology keeps advancing and feeding the capability of the various veillances? How will this impact your privacy online and your security offline? Always consider the future and hedge against the worst-case scenario you can think of with action today.
(1) Definition of Uberveillance from: https://www.imb.com.au/blog-community-ive-got-you-under-my-skin.html
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