1.7 Surveillance

Surveillance using information technology has been in the headlines constantly over recent years as new revelations about government spying - particularly those relating to the United States' National Security Agency - were published in newspapers on an almost weekly basis. Surveillance can happen with or without users' knowledge or permission and can occur in many areas - including in business and education. The resources below cover all of these situations and more.

Employee monitoring

The following articles are a good introduction to employee monitoring: Is your workplace tracking your computer activities? (HowStuffWorks), Employee Monitoring: It's Not Paranoia - You Really Are Being Watched!, and Employee monitoring: When IT is asked to spy (ComputerWorld).

Harvard Search of E-Mail Stuns Its Faculty Members (NY Times) is a good resource discussing the social impacts and implications of email monitoring.

Employee monitoring can take even more complex approaches: Mind your language (Economist) discusses the use of linguistic analysis software that scans employees' emails looking for key phrases and mood indicators, and identifies employees who may be more likely to commit fraud against the company. IBM's Security Tool (WSJ) performs a similar task. Tesco's have been accused of using electronic armbands to monitor its staff (The Independent) while Amazon's treatment of workers has also been criticised (FT).
Updated: 2014-10-03
RFID in schools

School Administration: Student monitoring with RIFD

'Smart' student badges that use Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) or similar technologies have been tested in a number of schools. In one of the most famous cases, a student in Texas was suspended for refusing to wear a school issued-RFID tracker. Although she objected on religious rather than privacy grounds, the significant thing about this case is that the suspension was upheld by federal courts, who said the student would need to wear the badge or transfer to another school.

In other cases, such tracking systems removed by schools after complaints from parents, students, and teachers. School uniform manufacturers have even considered embedding tracking devices into uniforms - claiming parents would support such a move.
Updated: 2014-10-03
Student monitoring

School Administration: Student monitoring with biometrics

Biometrics are also increasingly being used in schools. With such systems, pupils can pay for their meals using their fingerprint rather than cash, check out books from the library, and register in class.

However, the use of biometrics - especially with children - raises several ITGS social / ethical issues, including privacy, data security, and consent. The UK Department for Education has some good advice for schools and colleges considering implementing such a system - and it is surprisingly readable. 

ScholarChip and Raptor  are manufacturers of common school surveillance and security technologies, and their web sites are well worth a visit.
Updated: 2014-10-03
Internet censorship

Exercise 14.1: Internet filtering, censorship, and surveillance

Internet censorship is a huge topic, and one that truly highlights the global nature of the ITGS course. It is also closely related to the IB TOK course.

As an introduction to this topic, asking students to discuss or research a little about censorship in their own countries (and their opinions of this) is often very englightening. The news articles below have been divided into general categories simply to facilitate navigation.

General articles about Internet censorship

Reporters without Borders and the Open Network Initiative (ONI) both maintain up to date information about global Internet surveillance and censorship. In addition, the following articles are useful for stimulating conversation about types of appropriate and inappropriate content, and whether government control of the internet is appropriate.

Internet censorship in Europe

Internet censorship in Asia

Internet censorship in Australia

Filtering by search engines and online services

Increasingly search engines, social networks, and other web sites may also be asked to block access to certain content - either locally or globally. This is particularly significant because millions of users rely on these services to access information: the absence of a piece of content may well be taken as an indication that the content simply does not exist. The news articles below provide examples of this type of filtering:

The digital citizenship page covers some of the potential legal impacts of online behaviour.


Updated: 2017-10-23
Internet surveillance

Internet surveillance

With ever-increasing use of the Internet by criminals and terrorists, many governments are pushing for greater surveillance and monitoring powers. However, the issues of surveillance and privacy are fundamentally linked.

In the US, Wired's Attorney General Secretly Granted Gov. Ability to Develop and Store Dossiers on Innocent Americans makes interesting reading, while (somewhat ironically), a Freedom of Information request forced the Department of Homeland Security to Release List of Keywords Used to Monitor Social Networking Sites (Forbes).

In the UK, the controversial Communications Data Bill is one example of the types of power governments are pushing for globally. Do we need the Snooper's Charter to save lives? (PC Pro) discusses the bill, which was proposed in 2012 as a method of combating terrorism and organised crime.

Governments may also request data about users from search engines, social networks, and other organisations. In the US, National Security Letters sent by the government require the recipient to hand over data on specified individuals, and come with a 'gag-order' that prevents the receipient from discussing the letter. Google is one such recipient who has challenged these National Security Letters in court on grounds of privacy and freedom of speech.
Updated: 2014-11-07
Smart CCTV

Police use of IT: Surveillance tools / Smart CCTV

Although regular CCTV is not an IT System in the context of ITGS, Smart CCTV, which combines video images with artificial intelligence software that looks for 'suspicious' behaviour, is - and its use raises some important ITGS issues - including surveillance and privacy.  Chicago video surveillance gets smart (CBSNews) and City Gets 'Crime detecting' CCTV (BBC) both discuss this relatively new phenomenon. This brief video from New Scientist is also a good resource.

Meet the face of Big Brother in NSW is a very worrying article about similar technology that is currently being applied in New South Wales, building biometric templates of citizens' faces from CCTV footage  - without their permission. The wall that knows whether you're a criminal (PCPro) discusses a similar system.

The Telegraph reports that Brazilian police will use 'Robocop-style' glasses at the 2014 World Cup.
Updated: 2014-11-07
ANPR technology

Police use of IT: Surveillance tools / ANPR

Thames Valley Police - Road Safety, ANPR technology in Plymouth police cars (video) and New Technology Targets Criminals (BBC) explain another new technology being used by the police and private businesses alike - Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR). ANPR uses OCR technology to read car number plates and automatically look them up in a database - perhaps a database of suspect vehicles or a database of authorised vehicles in a secure car park. Your Car is Being Watched (WSJ) explains that both the police and private companies are using this technology, even if cars are not suspected of wrongdoing.
Updated: 2014-11-07
Cell phone tracking

Police use of IT: Surveillance tools / Cell phone tracking

'Stingrays' are devices that impersonate a cell phone tower to trick phones into connecting to them, allowing traffic to be captured. How 'Stingray' Devices Work (Wall Street Journal) discusses the privacy and surveillance issues related to their use.
Updated: 2014-11-07
Enemy of the State DVD cover

Enemy of the State

Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk | Instant Video

Another film that addresses the abuse of technology, particularly surveillance and database technology - this time by government forces. Will Smith plays a lawyer who is tracked down - using all manner of sophisticated surveillance technology - by NSA agents after a video tape he possesses. This film covers many of the issues dealt with by The Net but in slightly different and more modern context.
Updated: 2014-11-07
The Conversation DVD cover

The Conversation

Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk | Instant Video

The Conversation is Francis Ford Coppola's classic psychological thriller starring Gene Hackman as a somewhat paranoid surveillance expert. Although the surveillance in The Conversation is generally unrelated to information technology, it raises major issues about the impacts and side effects of runaway surveillance, as well as the dangers of interpreting data obtained in this way - issues which are every bit as relevant in today's society. Viewing The Conversation could be a good lead-in to a classroom discussion about issues such as the NSA surveillance scandal and how far governments could and should go in their data collection efforts.
Updated: 2014-11-07
NSA government surveillance

United States of Secrets

Two-part documentary from PBS about the US government's warrantless surveillance of the Internet, as revealed by Edward Snowden's leaked files.

Through in-depth interviews with key insiders, the film does a extremely good job of presenting the complex ethical and legal arguments both in favour and against widespread government surveillance of the Internet.

You can watch both parts on the PBS website.
Updated: 2014-11-18

NSA Internet surveillance

In June 2013, revelations published in the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers cast a spotlight on PRISM, a warrant-less Internet mass surveillance program operated by the United States' NSA security agency. As weeks and months passed, more and more aspects of the surveillance program were revealed, including the cooperation of the British GCHQ intelligence agency, the widespread collection and processing of images, and the use of surveillance against foreign allies of the United States. The articles below chart the progress of the story and the legal and ethical issues it raises:


Updated: 2014-11-18
Your phone company is watching

Your phone company is watching

Malte Spitz discusses the collection and retention of mobile phone data. The talk links to the databases and the Politics and Government area of the ITGS syllabus and features some great visualisations that show how large amounts of data can be combined to build up patterns about people's lives. Where do people live? Where do they sleep? Are they having an affair? Are they 'likely' to commit a crime? All of these and more can be predicted from captured call data. So many ITGS social and ethical issues are raised.

You can watch the video here.


Updated: 2016-07-07