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Privacy Perspectives | A 'slippery slope' of 'sousveillance' Related reading: Social media site sued for allegedly tracking users' data



I first stumbled upon the term "sousveillance" a few years back, when my sister sent me a link to an article called "The psychology of privacy in the digital age." Coined by Steve Mann, the neologism "sousveillance" draws upon the French word sous, meaning below, and refers to a member of the public, rather than a company or authority, recording someone's activity.

Its applications are varied — ranging from "policing the police" instances of civilians filming encounters with law enforcement, to random acts of kindness videos on TikTok.

Around this time, I was bristling at — or more accurately, vehemently proselytizing against — an invitation to join my family's account on Life360, which allows users to track the mobile phone locations of its members in real time. Admittedly, my family joined Life360 to keep a protective eye on my nephews' movements, with the teens entering the "fly the coop" phase of their lives.

I could think of nothing worse, knowing my loved ones could see every movement of my smartphone and, by association, me. This form of sousveillance, however well meaning, felt invasive and creepy. I imagined awkward family dinners, where someone might ask why "my smartphone" had travelled across town, in the middle of the night, or when "my phone" hadn't returned to "home base" after a night out. No thank you.

Fast forward to September 2023, when I participated in the Sydney Marathon. As I crossed the finish line, a text message from race organizers beeped on my smartphone confirming my race time. Seconds later, yet more notifications, this time from family and friends, congratulating me on my time, pace and splits.

I was confused and conflicted to realize so many people knew my results instantly, almost before I had time to scrutinize the numbers myself. Yes, their support and well-wishes were appreciated. But equally so, it was disquieting to know so many people had been tracking my 42.2-kilometer race, whenever my chipped bib crossed timer mats strategically positioned throughout the course.

The same technology used to record my run splits, and to prove I hadn't short-changed any meters along the route, also allowed anyone with the Sydney Marathon app to track my run. Sure, I'd shared the app with my nearest and dearest, and in doing so, gave them consent to follow my progress on race day.

But I hadn't, knowingly, given consent for anyone else to track my race day performance. Yet the messages I received crossing the finish line suggested otherwise.

This got me thinking about my privacy and, specifically, about the dimensions of my privacy choices.

On the one hand, I'd decided opting in to my family's Life360 account wasn't worth the invasion to my privacy, even though these were people with whom I shared DNA. On the other, I'd knowingly given my permission for the same cohort to track my marathon performance. The hypocrisy wasn't lost on me. Using location-based technology to allow my family to track my chipped bib on race day was acceptable. Yet the same technology when used to track my mobile phone location went a step too far.

This contradiction reflects the dimensions of privacy and the complexity of decisions around it, including how a decision I make today regarding my privacy today only reflects my current state of mind and my assessment of the privacy context. Such decisions have implications for my privacy in a different time span. My psychology and psyche may change over time, with implications for how I manage privacy transactions with myself and with others. What works for me today will not necessarily remain true during different scenarios, settings, applications and points in time.

Giving me agency to control my privacy fully allows me to assess and reassess the complex risk-reward privacy equation. This assessment is almost never binary. Rather, it's more like a privacy gauge. Sometimes my consent is complete, with the needle fully tuned to the 100% gauge indicator, but the needle more often oscillates between 0% and 100% radial markings.

Another consideration is the ability for anyone with the Sydney Marathon app to track my movements. Had I given my consent for anyone to track my run?

With neither the time nor inclination to review the Sydney Marathon policies and privacy statements to confirm what I had agreed to, or hadn't opted out of, I suspect consent-esque terms were most likely embedded in the waiver runners signed upon registration. And then, likely buried beneath the legalese around not holding event organizers responsible for a participant's demise, come race day.

Considering the time lapse between registration and race day, I'd have expected such an important, privacy-impacting consideration as the tracking of one's location to have been spotlighted and repeated often, or, at the very least, to have received larger real estate amid the surrounding legalese.

So, what's the harm in people following my run? A lesser risk of harm relates to preservation of ego. Despite competing with 13,000-plus marathon finishers, long distance running is an activity performed solo, in the presence of others. In some races, you bonk. In others, you fly.

I want to control the narrative of my own race. But I lose agency over the story of my performance when everyone has access to my stats and can form their own judgement about how my race unfolded.

A more serious risk of harm is a reality for some when anyone knows your every move. Life-threatening harms arise when others with an intent to hurt, can follow your movements in real time. The physical and psychological strain of running a marathon is difficult enough, without having additional fear and mental anguish of worrying whether your tormentor is weaponizing your bib location to track your movements on course.

Both events highlight the use of technology to surveil everyday activities. Here lies my deepest concern: the seemingly innocuous application of sousveillance technology to normalize everyday situations, targeted at users who are our trusted inner circle.

Through its ease of use and seemingly harmless application, we sleepwalk our way to a world where all-seeing technology is pervasive and more ingrained into our lives. When this happens, it becomes less prone to scrutiny, and it entrenches our dependency. It contributes to the gradual erosion of our privacy, by the people we connect with and to, and is a slippery slope to more invasive forms of sousveillance and surveillance.

Equally, it highlights a potential for large-scale surveillance to become more accepted. We risk falling into the faulty logic of "what-about-ism" regarding big tech overreach. Why worry about this big, bad Big Brother application, because "what about" this other invasive sousveillance I've subscribed to, to make my life easier? Will these privacy microintrusions erode our aversion to bigger intrusions and make us more likely to acquiesce to large-scale surveillance proper?

I'm not willing to turn my privacy gauge to 100% acceptance in the pursuit of my passion for running. I want to be better informed about the privacy implications of participating in an event. I want to change privacy-impacting decisions as often as I change my runners. I want to run where I choose my watchers. I want to narrate my own race story.

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  • comment Adrian Higgins • Jan 8, 2024
    Thanks for taking the time to put this together. I can relate to the marathon tracking and your comment about losing agency over the story of your performance. At least for now it is "only" friends and family who want to know about your performance (whatever their motivations), and whilst it may lead to well intended encouragements or comments even those can miss the mark. 
    On the other hand, how long before bots start sending innocuous looking messages of support which will be nothing more than targeted advertising for snake oil remedies to cut your recovery time or stop your slowdown at KM29? Or maybe your health insurance premium mysteriously went up based on your stats?  
    I, like you, want to enjoy my race without wondering whether my decision not to stop at a water station will have consequences beyond my arrival time.