Privacy and Security in the Age of Surveillance Capitalism and Surveillance State


In the last decade, the consumer electronics industry has made considerable progress in their product offerings by making advancements in internet enabled devices and 5G technologies. Mass adoption of these devices has led to a deluge of user data that can be mined by corporations for analyzing user behavior to improve product offerings and governments for data driven governance. The ubiquitous presence of these devices in our everyday lives has also led the rise of surveillance capitalism and further enhanced the surveillance state capabilities. Surveillance capitalism is a term popularized by Shoshana Zuboff in her essay A Digital Declaration: Big Data as Surveillance Capitalism (Zuboff, 2014). Although there are varying interpretations of Surveillance Capitalism in academia and civil society, the central theme of the concept remains the collection, storage, analysis and sale of private details of users and their activities on digital platforms and different internet enabled devices and for profit.
Surveillance state can be defined as a state that uses mass surveillance tools and practices to monitor its citizens not only in the name of national security but also against any challenge to their surveillance practices (International, 2013) . This article discusses the state of privacy and security with Internet of Things enabled Smart Cities in the broader context of Surveillance State and Surveillance capitalism.

Understanding the allure of Smart Cities and Internet of Things

Smart cities can be understood as a web of interconnected sensor devices and/or IoT objects that can not only communicate with each other but also with the networks of private entities over the communications network infrastructure. The Internet of Things can be defined as a collection of loosely structured network of sensor devices and communications networks (Losavio, Chow, Koltay, & James, 2018). The stated purpose of Smart Cities is for governments to collect data of public life so that it can optimize its resources and assets to provide better civic services to the citizens. It is this ubiquitous prevalence of private and public devices that enables the governments to create data profiles on its citizens and monitor the city in real-time using intelligent dashboards.
Moreover, these data profiles are further available to intelligent and exacting analytic systems to understand what the citizens of the city do at given point (Losavio et al.,2018). Despite the pervasive nature of such systems, they are often lauded by bureaucrats, technology enthusiasts in civil society and futurists. This paper would like to discuss the five widely acknowledged benefits of such IoT systems and Smart cities.

Firstly, the most compelling reason for such widespread acceptance is public security. As a larger cause put forward is that of national security to protect the citizen’s from physical, emotional and psychological harm, citizens are more inclined to choose security over privacy.

The second reason that influences citizens is the aspect of Legal and Cyber Forensic investigation in an era of increasingly digital, interconnected world. It invokes a sense of public safety, information security and although not yet addressed in its entirety due to rapid advancements in emerging technologies, legal regulation of public and private life (Losavio et al., 2018).

The third reason is that of public convenience. There exists two use cases that sway public opinion in favor of usage of citizen’s GPS and digital information for Smart City services, namely the Smart City blueprint for Hong Kong Mobility (Losavio et al., 2018) and Smart City dashboards in Rio De Janeiro (Matheus, Janssen, & Maheshwari, 2018). The Hong Kong Smart City plans to set up systems for supporting autonomous vehicle, automatic tolling for roads, real-time information that would encourage citizens to walk and/or cycle and additionally set up systems at the airport for biometric and mobile check-in (Losavio et al., 2018). The Rio de Janeiro Smart City entered into Public-Private Partnerships to generate dashboards of their city traffic and public transport systems (Matheus et al., 2018).

For creating dashboards for city traffic the Rio de Janeiro Smart City entered into Public-Private Partnership with an application called Waze. It is a social GPS smartphone that combines government data with citizen-generated data; allowing the real-time reporting of traffic conditions and accidents to the residents of the city. The Center of Operations Rio (COR), the government department of Rio de Janeiro Smart City uses the Waze app to disseminate information regarding changes in routes, traffic jams, flood routes and car accidents to its citizens (Matheus et al., 2018). Furthermore, for creating dashboards for public transport systems, the Rio de Janeiro Smart City entered into Public-Private Partnership with Moovit, a social application for buses. The Moovit application collects and combines citizen generated data with location data about buses. This enables the citizens to plan their trips and choose the best route based on real-time information about the state of the traffic and estimated time of arrival based on their starting and finishing location (Matheus et al., 2018).

The fourth reason for acceptance from civil society is the potential to improve the trustworthiness of governments by using dashboards. Smart city dashboards can be used as a tool of creating transparency and accountability by reducing information asymmetry (Matheus et al., 2018). Lastly, lawmakers and bureaucrats are strongly in favor of Smart Cities because the data collected on a real-time basis would help them in making data-driven and evidence-based decisions. Some governments are also exploring the prospect of developing dashboards for decision making that includes input from the citizens in a bid to increase citizen engagement (Matheus et al., 2018).

The Risks and Drawbacks of a Digitized Society

While there are compelling benefits in favor of creating Smart Cities and using emerging technologies for governance, there exist risks and drawbacks that must be taken into consideration to understand them in a holistic way. The operational risks that need to be addressed are that of low data quality and limited readiness to adapt to changes. The data that is collected needs to undergo statistical processes so that it is clean and fit for data visualization and analysis (Matheus et al., 2018). Poor quality data can often lead to wrong analysis which can further lead to improper decisions.

Improper decision-making leads to mistrust in the government. Furthermore, the use of bad data, biased algorithms and historical practices could introduce errors and lead to undesirable outcomes (Losavio et al., 2018). One such example is that of the US Justice System employing a tool called COMPAS (Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions) which is equipped with algorithms for predicting recidivism that uses historical data to assess a criminal defendant’s likelihood of committing a crime (Angwin, Larson, Mattu, & Kirchner, 2016). The algorithms have shown a disproportionate likelihood of black defendants being incorrectly judged to be at a higher risk of recidivism than white defendants; while white defendants were more than likely than black defendants to be incorrectly judged low risk. This leads to further racial discord and tensions (Angwin et al., 2016)

A social drawback that threatens human rights is the increasing propensity of governments to use sophisticated Artificial Intelligence software to identify and track protesters demonstrating against government policies. Recently, the pro-democracy protesters brought down several “smart lamp post” which is enabled with not only lights but also Bluetooth beacons and cameras (Yang, 2020). Researchers anonymously have cautioned citizens of the Chinese government using facing recognition software against protesters in Hong Kong (Yang, 2020).

Furthermore, instances of breach of privacy and security of human rights activists, lawyers and politicians have been brought to light by researchers working at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab (Srivastava, 2019). This was done by using Pegasus, a product of an Israeli company called NSO Group. The malicious program was reportedly capable of switching on a smart phone’s camera and microphone, collect GPS data and trawl through emails and messages. The Israeli company that developed this program was recently acquired by a UK based private equity fund, Novalpina Capital in a leveraged buyout transaction at a valuation of $1 billion (Srivastava, 2019). This suggests the detrimental effects sophisticated tools like these can have on liberty and freedoms of the citizens when used in bad faith.


While there are genuine benefits in digitizing our societies and automating rudimentary tasks for efficient governance, we need to be cognizant of the drawbacks and unintended consequences it brings with them. Moving ahead as citizens, bureaucrats and policy makers become digitally savvy, a collaborative discussion on the nature of surveillance and profiting from surveillance should be initiated. Citizens must also take an increasingly pro active approach in demanding policy makers to formulate laws that would ensure their privacy and formulate ways to curb overreach of the state in the name of national security. Business leaders, academics and privacy activists must also come together to forge an equitable and sustainable business model that empowers citizens to control and monetarily gain from the data that is collected by private businesses.


1. Angwin, J., Larson, J., Mattu, S., & Kirchner, L. (2016). Machine bias: There’s software used across the country to predict future criminals. And it’s biased against blacks. ProPublica, 23 .

2. International, P. (2013, Oct). Privacy international. Retrieved from

3. Losavio, M. M., Chow, K., Koltay, A., & James, J. (2018). The internet of things and the smart city: Legal challenges with digital forensics, privacy, and security. Security and Privacy, 1 (3), e23.

4. Matheus, R., Janssen, M., & Maheshwari, D. (2018). Data science empowering the public: Data-driven dashboards for transparent and accountable decision-making in smart cities. Government Information Quarterly, 101284.

5. Srivastava, M. (2019, May). Whatsapp voice calls used to inject Israeli spyware on phones. Financial Times. Retrieved from

6. Yang, Y. (2020, Jan). Why Hong Kong protesters fear the city’s ’smart lamp posts’. Financial Times. Retrieved from

7. Zuboff, S. (2014). A digital declaration. Frankfurter Allgemeine.

Finance || Tech || Law || Polymath || Futurist with a penchant for nostalgia

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