Handbook: Questions for the public

Surveillance can be directed at places, events, traffic, crowds and even animals. However, the most important and most sensitive target in the context of a democratic society is the individual. Information about individual consumption patterns, communications, financial transactions and location, among other things, is stored and analysed in the information systems of service providers and government departments. Surveillance becomes part of the fabric of everyday life and systems that are surveillance-capable become the means by which things get done. Most of this surveillance takes place out of sight of the individual, who is generally not aware of how the collected information is gathered and/or used. Because many surveillance practices also confer benefits and convenience, such as expedited travel, location-based services or customised offers, the public tends to overlook their harms. The public then becomes accustomed to living with surveillance. As the mechanisms for public scrutiny, such as subject access requests or freedom of information, are inaccessible to many, surveillance becomes disregarded as an issue. However, as soon as the negative consequences are felt – unwanted exposure in social media, refused credit, loss of privacy, loss of trust in government – members of the public become aware of their involvement.

To increase resilience to surveillance, the public is encouraged to ask the following questions to help mitigate, avoid and combat the harmful consequences of surveillance practices.

  1. What are the impacts of the proposed (or existing) surveillance systems on my life, the life of my family, my community, my society?
  2. How can I find out who is responsible for the surveillance system, how it works and for what my information is used?
  3. How and where can I find out more about the effects of surveillance upon privacy and freedoms as well as the ethical and social issues it raises?
  4. How can I learn more about protecting my privacy and other fundamental rights while retaining all of the benefits of modern information technology?
  5. How can I influence the deployment and use of a surveillance system? How can I object to any unacceptable or unlawful use of surveillance?
  6. To whom can I complain if I find surveillance unreasonable, exaggerated, humiliating or discriminatory to me, my family or others?
  7. How can I contact my elected representatives, or any organisation representing my rights, in matters of unacceptable surveillance plans or practices? Are there public consultations or campaigns in which I could participate?
  8. What other measures can I take in response to surveillance that infringes my rights?
  9. How can I best control information about me (e.g., about where I am) when I am online? How can I better protect my privacy when online?
  10. Might my use of surveillance devices (e.g., mobile phone, video camera) infringe the privacy of others or their rights? If so, how should I address this?

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