Our devices, as convenient as they may be, are getting creepily good at collecting data. Phones, cars, and even carpets are packed full of sensors that can detect and record day-to-day activities without your knowledge.
Since 2012 the world generates 2.5 billion gigabytes of data daily. Dr. Mark Burdon, a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland’s TC Beirne School of Law, argues that this number will balloon as we head towards a ‘sensor society.’
ExpressVPN’s Jamie spoke with Dr. Burdon to learn more about the sensor society phenomenon—a term he and his colleague coined back in 2014.
1. Thank you for speaking with us, Dr. Burdon. Firstly, may we ask what the sensor society is?
Mark Andrejevic and I developed the concept of the sensor society as a way of thinking through the consequences of ubiquitous connectivity. The sensor society warns of a world in which our everyday devices generate, detect and collect information about our activities, about our environments and entire societies. This, of course, is a world in which our notions of privacy and surveillance are fundamentally challenged, and we thus have to think about the consequences of ever-present personal data collection in a different way.
2. How do these sensors work and where could we come across them?
A sensor is a device that measures or detects something and translates this measurement or detection into a signal. For example, a keystroke monitoring system on a computer that can record the unique speed and pattern of an individual’s typing style. Or a web browser that can capture and record someone’s Internet search habits. The importance of the sensor society is that it highlights that sensorised data collection is becoming an increasingly commonplace facet of our everyday life.
“…you may be surprised to know that the average smartphone now has up to a dozen sensors packed inside it.”
One of the key targets of sensor development is the smartphone, and you may be surprised to know that the average smartphone now has up to a dozen sensors packed inside it. Proximity sensors work out how close the phone to your face so the screen can be deactivated, thus making sure that you won’t press a button by mistake. The accelerometer senses when you are holding the phone up or down and thus allows the phone’s interface to seamlessly glide from portrait to landscape at the flick of a wrist.
Other sensors detect light, movement, and moisture. All of these sensors collect data about the phone’s use but can also be analysed in different ways to learn more about the phone user’s use of the phone which can then be inferred to broader characteristics about their personality and their life.
3. What are the implications if sensors completely permeate society?
Well, it’s not necessarily just about the complete permeation of sensors. Rather, the greater implications regard the emergence of pervasive and always on forms of data collection. The relationship between sensors, the data they produce, and ourselves is important to understand.
“Sensors do not rely on direct and conscious registration on the part of those being monitored.”
For example, sensors don’t watch and listen. Rather, they detect and record. So sensors do not rely on direct and conscious registration on the part of those being monitored. In fact, the opposite is the case. We need to be passive and unaware of the sensing capabilities of our devices for the sensors to be an effective measurer of our activity and our environments.
Our relationship with our devices as sensors is consequently a loaded one. We actively interact with our devices, but we need to be passively unaware of the sensors within our devices. The societal implications are significant—it could mean that everything we do is collected, recorded and analysed without us consciously being aware that such activities are taking place because collection is so embedded in daily life.
4. Is the sensor society an inevitable consequence of our quest to connect everyone to everything and everyone else, or is there a way to apply the brakes?
The undisputable fact is that more devices mean more data. And we start to see this spiralling effect which is leading to the quest to connect, and thus collect, data about everything. The connected quest consequently links the sensor to the data that is generated. And it’s at this point where the ever-increasing trove of sensor-generated data has to be subjected to the processes of predictive analytics and the search for new insight.
Thus, new and unexpected understanding is, therefore, the ultimate goal of sensor-generated collection and that requires a certain data collection logic. You have to collect everything because when you search for the unexpected, every piece of data may be relevant. Everything, therefore, needs to be collected, recorded and kept forever because even irrelevant data may become relevant at some point in the future.
Is there a way to apply the brakes and slow down or stop this spiralling effect? That’s the role of information privacy or data protection laws which prohibit speculative forms of personal data collection and require collecting organisations to meet certain conditions—namely, to have a business purpose for collection, to notify individuals about why personal data is collected and how it will be used, to only use personal data for the purpose it was collected, and to destroy or de-identify personal data when it is no longer needed.
So there is a break, but we are not sure, at this point, how effective that brake is at slowing down the spiral of pervasive collections of personal data that the sensor society is warning about.
5. How would you recommend someone learn more about the impact of living in a sensor society?
Look at your everyday devices in a different way. Behind the device and the sensor are vast and imperceptible, invisible infrastructures. Infrastructures of collection enable the explosion of collectible data and infrastructures of prediction enable understanding and thus give purpose to sensors. Otherwise, sensor-generated data without an analytical framework to understand it is just a mountain of unintelligible data.
“When you’re at home with your devices, realize that you are not alone and just think about those invisible infrastructures that are also present with you.”
The sensor society, therefore, redirects us towards the hidden technological processes that make data collection capture, storage, and processing possible. This, in turn, highlights the importance of understanding relations of ownership and control of sensors and the infrastructures in which sensors operate. So when you’re at home with your devices, realize that you are not alone and just think about those invisible infrastructures that are also present with you. Then question to ask then is: What data is being collected, by whom and for what purpose?
6. Finally, what’s a good cyber security practice that we can all start doing right away?
Ask yourself the question: Do I really need to have a device that connects my fish tank or my toaster or my child’s toy or my light bulb, etc. etc. with my Wi-Fi or smartphone? Be aware of what you bring into the home and the risks of doing so. The best cybersecurity practice in that sense is to mitigate the risk before it emerges.
Thank you, Dr. Burdon!
More ExpressVPN interviews can be found here.