Online/Offline: Consent is everything.
A Scottish CCTV company, marketing new cameras that can lip-read and record conversations, recently declared that businesses have a right to our opinions because, “voluntary customer service forms can be dishonest.”
They expect their creepy product to be installed in your local mall so that shops can record and respond to your views on their products. The horror here is not just that they want to create an involuntary database of private conversations, it is that they believe they have a right to them.
This tech company is 100% in on the idea that we, the public, do not own our bodies, our thoughts. The fact that they could make a press statement of this ilk, reveals that their claim of ownership of our bodies is already acceptable. This example is not just one disturbing CEO on a power trip, it’s indicative of a global trend.
When the Times of India reported on the Supreme Court case over the Indian Government’s “right” to use facial recognition and iris-scanning technology, they presented the Government’s position for exactly what it was “Citizens don’t have an absolute right over their own bodies”.
Mass surveillance is eroding bodily autonomy and consent. What we have come to expect from our governments, companies enact with confidence. This twitter thread, suggests using ‘targets’ when describing our relationship to companies, not users, not customers.
This is the position we are faced with around the world.
Surveillance is an attack on the concept of consent, it is the antithesis of all the work being done by sex education campaigners to teach young people to know and respect physical boundaries. Every step forward for the consent movement faces two step backwards from digital businesses. To them, you no longer own your body.
Surveillance doesn’t check in with you. It doesn’t build a consent castle. It doesn’t ask if you are still comfortable. It wants to know your heart rate, the way your eyeballs move, the amount that you fidget, and what you are thinking about. We are constantly filmed in Britain without our permission, whenever we leave the house.
Asking for consent is not just about sex. It’s about touching, about hugs, nicknames, about personal space, about ownership over your body, and all decisions made regarding it. This is not a joke, not a flippant analogy: Internet surveillance, from both companies and governments, is abusive. It removes our self-ownership of our bodies.
Just consider these parallels:
- Telling us that being treated properly, in alignment with our rights, is some kind of burden In return for them providing their basic service, we shouldn’t mind a little bit of bad treatment now and then. (See: the smart tv that you already paid for selling your personal data to advertisers.)
- Exploiting your good-will by changing how they treat you after you’ve been together for a while. When it seems like too much effort to leave, when you’ve already put so much into the relationship, that’s when they make the controversial updates. (See, an app changing its terms and conditions to say that you can’t bring class action lawsuits against it.)
- Making decisions on our behalf and claiming that they know best for is needed for our own “safety”, a paternalistic claim of having best intentions. (See the government saying that it is for the sake of protecting us from terrorism that 48 different departments can see your full browsing history, or the organisations that guilt-trip and pressure you into handing over extra personal info, framing it as to give you the best experience — not them the richest data.)
- Not letting you leave when you want to. (See Facebook not actually deleting your data if you leave, or every other organisation that holds on to your personal information long after you stopped using the service, merely recording that you “opted-out” as one more datapoint.)
- Not respecting your personal space and your boundaries, never giving you peace. (See Alexa in your bedroom telling you you look fat, cookie notices that tell us there is no option to not be tracked, sites that ignore “do not track” settings entirely, and legally.)
There needs to be an opt out, a personal space, a chance to say “I don’t like this anymore”. A way to end the relationship.
We cannot pretend that we have no bodies in ‘cyberspace’. We are not hiding behind a screen and then switching it off. Everything is connected. We are walking past cameras, we are carrying tracking devices, we are using smart meters and smart tvs.
Our bodies, our ‘real selves’ give us completely different experiences of an Internet-connected world.
They matter online, creating hard differences in our experiences rather than creating a level playing field where we are all equal. It is being a woman on the Internet that makes me less safe, that makes me concerned about location tracking, and makes me hesitate over giving opinions on certain topics (computer games, comic books etc).
It is being trans. It is every identity, every aspect of ourselves, that influences how we use the Internet, what unique threats it has for us, and what data is gathered without our consent. It is being Black. It is being Muslim. It is being queer.
We recently learnt that facial recognition programmers want to build ways to check if you are gay now. So who will be the first people to have to change their physical bodies to protect themselves from the so-called digital world?
We need to reclaim boundaries. We need to say no, and be heard. Companies need to give modular consent so you can say ‘no, no, and yes to this’. None of these terms and conditions that literally takes 8 hours to read.
Just like teaching abusers like Harvey Weinstein that our bodies are not theirs for the taking, we need to teach businesses the same.
And it isn’t just tech industry machines who need to get to grips with this. There is a sense from many NGOs and charities that “we’re the good guys, so the rules shouldn’t apply to us”. I’m sorry, but you need to wake up too.
Data protection laws are the chance to reinforce the value of consent. If you don’t trust that given a choice people would choose yes to being on your database, then you shouldn’t force them into it. Would you take someone’s money without their consent? Why take their personal data?
When list-building puts lives at risk, charities need to wake up to their complicity in mass surveillance. They have a responsibility to give the individual back that power, to give us that choice over ourselves.
What is truly disappointing is how hard it is, given the structures and systems of the Internet, for us to build things that put consent first.
Sites that encourage home-built campaigning, where the focus looks to be on positive social change like Change.org and Campaigns By You, don’t give you an option during petition construction to ask for consent from people who sign. I’ve often seen people posting in campaigner spaces looking simply for any option to do better, but we’re channeled into systems that don’t begin with a consent framework.
As a nation, the UK Government took privacy away from us: they said “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” as they passed law after law giving them the ability to read our emails and our browsing history. But “nothing to hide nothing to fear”, the mantra of Theresa May, has passed on to every company and organisation that uses data-gathering as its model. They’ve become entitled and greedy, including campaigning organisations. We cannot complacently slide into the same abusive behaviour.
Consent is freedom. Saying no is an act of power. Let’s take our bodies back.
So having said that, it’s why I am so excited that the new General Data Protection Regulation is here. The law gives us back a lot of the power, and demands that everyone truly ask for permission before data-scraping (except furstratingly law enforcement services who operate under wholly different standards). The ePrivacy Regulation in the EU passed a key stage with MEPs again, choosing individual rights over corporate power. We’re getting laws that put consent and control in our hands but we have to hold tight onto them, and fight for their use. The consent battles online and offline need to be won together.
Thank you to Andy and Marianela for their thoughtful encouraging editing.
For thoughtful conversations on topics like this, check out the podcast I co-host on technology and feminism , The Intersection of Things. If you’ve enjoyed this article or found it helpful, please consider donating or buying me a coffee.