Aspen Ideas Festival: Living in the surveillance economy

An Aspen Ideas Panel on "Living in the Surveillance Economy."
An Aspen Ideas Panel on "Living in the Surveillance Economy." From left to right: Rebecca MacKinnon, Julia Angwin and Anita Allen.
Dan Bayer | The Aspen Institute

What are the pros and cons of living in what people are calling a "surveillance economy?" A lot of data collection is going on — including the tracking of our whereabouts — via public cameras, our smartphones, web browsing and even some home appliances. Who gets to know this information, and can they sell it?

An Aspen Ideas Festival panel explored the implications of all the data and video that is collected on each and every one of us.

"It's the economy we've built," said Julia Angwin, a reporter for ProPublica who moderated the panel. "All these great companies are making money off of our information. And what's weird about it is the information isn't worth that much itself."

The online information of a single person only adds up to a few cents for a company, Angwin said, but because potential customers are now so active online that adds up quickly for those trying to advertise via the web.

"Not only is this world creepy, but by shifting the way money is made online we have actually defunded legitimate journalism and funded propaganda, fake journalism," Angwin said. News organizations like the Wall Street Journal can't make any money through web advertising because now agencies can track users online activity and simply target the sites they use that offer ad space on the cheap, she said.

Meaning websites that produce click-bait articles, which receive more traffic, collect all that ad revenue and thrive.

This shift has changed how businesses, individuals and the government collect and analyze information every day. But it's not all bad, said Anita Allen, vice provost and a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Our government is committed to big data and using information and analytics to make us better, not just to sell us stuff, but also to improve our health," Allen said, adding that the data collected through surveillance we might see as overbearing at times is often used to improve social programs, military strategies and infrastructure across the country.

Where that becomes a problem is when there is no transparency about what data is being collected for what purpose said Rebecca MacKinnon, director of the Ranking Digital Rights Project at New America, and a former journalist.

"How do we ensure that technologies are being developed, designed and managed and governed in a manner that is compatible with the kind of society we want to have?" MacKinnon said. "You need to be thinking about this actively."

To listen to their discussion, click the audio player above.

Anita Allen's Brave Idea: Our grandchildren will resurrect privacy

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