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Surveillance Studies Centre awarded $2.5 million SSHRC grant

David Lyon, David Murakami Wood will lead an international research project into big data, surveillance and how it affects our daily lives.

Queen’s University professor and Surveillance Studies Centre director David Lyon (Sociology) has been awarded $2.5 million from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for his research into the vulnerabilities generated by big data surveillance.

David Lyon and the Surveillance Studies Centre have received $2.5 million from SSHRC.

The Big Data Surveillance Partnership Grant will bring together national and international academic partners, along with non-academic partners from public policy and activism groups including the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group. David Murakami Wood, Canada Research Chair (Tier II) and Associate Professor of Surveillance Studies in the Department of Sociology at Queen's University, is also a co-applicant on the grant.

The new project builds on the Surveillance Studies Centre’s previous project The New Transparency: Surveillance and Social Sorting (2008-2015), and its landmark study, Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada, which exposes nine key surveillance trends now intensified by big data. This new partnership will contribute to an updated grasp of emerging surveillance practices and trends and to ethical and policy engagement.

“The funding is crucial to our research work because while many across Canada are exploring how big data techniques can be used in areas such as health care, education, welfare or employment, very few are focusing attention on the questions of the ethics of big data or its social, economic, political and cultural consequences,” says Dr. Lyon.

As part of the research program, Dr. Lyon and his team will document how organizations track activities, habits and locations in real time, how this data is used and how the tracking and anticipating of things like social media use, household consumption or voting in elections affects ordinary people’s daily lives.

“One problem is the way that big data practices often infer things about people that are then taken to be correct, and if we're trying to predict what people might do -- become terrorists, be struck with cancer or whatever -- this has big implications for how we may end up treating them now,” says Dr. Lyon. “We're researching surveillance situations of many kinds to check that they really serve the common good.”

Partnership Grants support formal partnerships between researchers, businesses and other partners to improve understanding of critical issues of intellectual, social, economic and cultural significance.

“Life in a digital world obliges us to ask new questions about privacy, questions that involve all of us, not just those we imagine are the usual suspects.”

For more information visit the Queen’s Surveillance Studies Centre.