Inferential Surveillance

I will be presenting at a program for Florida Blue Cross Blue Shield (or just FloridaBlue) soon. As part of that program, I walk attendees through the fundamentals of privacy and cybersecurity, helping them identify how to protect themselves from hackers and phisher, from misuse of their information by employers, and misuse of their information by government agencies.

I have provided a copy of my handout: Privacy and Cybersecurity Fundamentals for Teens, Adults, and Seniors at the bottom of this post.

As I was developing the materials, I realized that over the recent years so much of the damage caused by the collection of personal data was not caused by theft from unauthorized third parties or even misuse of first-party data provided to governmental agencies, employers, insurance companies, or others. Instead, the real threats today come from the reuse of data that has been lawfully extracted from individuals. Every one of us sheds information constantly throughout the day. Our GPS and apps provide location information. Our credit cards offer purchasing decisions. License plate camera and surveillance cameras capture our location and often our biometric data. The list is endless.

Analysts have recognized this threat for many years. It has been labeled “big data,” AI, algorithmic profiling, and many other terms. But I think the term “Inferential Surveillance” provides a better picture into the harms that are being caused.

Inferential Surveillance is technologically agnostic. It doesn’t matter which data sets are being mind to create the mosaic that reflects our private activities. Instead, it highlights that when a person posts on social network about a mental health or medical issue, that data is matched with location information from apps, connected to purchasing information from credit cards, cross-referenced with every website I have visited, and is available for purchase by law enforcement or insurance companies. It is also available for purchase by political candidates and parties hoping to use my information. Informational surveillance can quickly identify my religion, my gun use, my health care needs, my employment, my sexual preferences, and much more.

Since most regulations focus on the collection of direct information, there is little being done regarding the explosion of inferential surveillance. Worse, the Supreme Court has suggested that existing government agencies cannot adapt to the evolving threats since every “major question” requires new congressional action.

Inferential surveillance threats are not new, but they are growing with every smart device added to our homes, every new loyalty program, and every law that exempts the sale of lawfully acquired data to third parties.

Big data is too abstract and the threats of AI suggest the Terminator or the Singularity. But since every mystery reader knows how to paint a picture of someone by connecting the data points they reveal, I hope labeling the threat inferential surveillance will help highlight the extent to which the surveillance business has expanded in recent years.

Most of my talk at Florida Blue focuses on the basics of privacy and cybersecurity, but it is important to realize this privacy threat is a great as any of the others.