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Data surveillance accelerated by pandemic

New report released by the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s finds that thoughtful, decisive action is needed to confront the evolving world of surveillance.

Headshot of David Lyon
David Lyon, principal Investigator of the Big Data Surveillance Project

Data surveillance continues to grow rapidly in Canada, and most Canadians don’t know how their data is being used. David Lyon (Sociology), Professor Emeritus and Principal Investigator of the Big Data Surveillance Project, recently released a report based on the team’s research from 2016-2021. This Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)-funded project identified key challenges and areas of opportunity in data surveillance — including the need for more transparency in data collection and analysis, and calls for new digital rights and data justice for Canadians. The Gazette spoke to Dr. Lyon about the report and the Beyond Big Data Surveillance: Freedom & Fairness Conference that brought together people from government, industry, and academia to discuss this increasingly complex field of research.

Can you share with us what the key findings are from the Beyond Big Data Surveillance: Freedom & Fairness report?

Our report shows that several forms of contemporary data surveillance are growing rapidly in Canada, accelerated further by the pandemic. While few kinds of surveillance are inherently undesirable, none are neutral, and many violate human rights and privacy law. But the reasons why this is problematic relate to four critical findings:

  • Lopsided information: companies and agencies collecting, analyzing and using our data know a lot about us; we know next-to-nothing about how they use our data.
  • Tangled surveillance: today’s surveillance is highly complex, often based on inscrutable algorithms and using and reusing data for different purposes — for instance, during the pandemic, police in Canada sometimes had access to public health data.
  • Inadequate instruments: laws relating to personal data were designed for an early computer age, not for smartphone society. New platform companies lack public guidance in shaping their systems for human benefit.
  • Exposed groups: we’re not all in this together. Some vulnerable groups — especially women, Black people and Indigenous people — find their situations worsened by surveillance.

Can you tell me about the collaboration with researchers from across Canada and other countries on this report?

Ours was a Partnership Grant from SSHRC so the academic core team — colleagues from Queen’s University, University of Ottawa, University of Victoria, University of Laval, and the University of St Andrews in Scotland — worked together with regulators and several civil society groups to shape and respond to the research findings. It was also a multi-disciplinary group — we worked not only within the social sciences, but also with colleagues from computing, AI, neuroscience, business, and, for thinking about the pandemic, health sciences.

The Beyond Big Data Surveillance: Freedom & Fairness Conference took place on May 18-19. What were some of the main points or takeaways from the conference in Ottawa?

The final conference last week was public facing, where we debated the findings for practical use in security, policing, marketing, management, and ‘smart’ urban development. MPs, regulators, civil liberties professionals, and others populated the panels. The keynote speakers were Elizabeth Denham, UK Information Commissioner (2016-2021) and Jim Balsillie, former co-CEO of Blackberry.

Conference attendees were delighted with the report, and the clear findings will help them seek not just better privacy provisions but also digital rights and data justice in their fields. Several said that the report was very usable for many contexts and committed themselves to following up on the three main recommendations:

  • To “persist with privacy, add data justice” — recognizing that the potential harms are not just ‘personal’ but social, economic, and political.
  • To “increase collaboration” — many were galvanized to find others, from other backgrounds, with whom they could work to help shape technology for a more human world.
  • To “enable public and popular awareness” in imaginative ways.

As an example, some who had not previously come across the short film series, Screening Surveillance, created by our research project, were pleased to find an accessible tool to use with any age group, to help stimulate debate about today’s surveillance.

What sort of changes do you hope to see in Canada when it comes to Big Data Surveillance in the coming years?

I hope to see creative new initiatives to open the potential of the digital society for everyone — not merely profiting monopolistic global tech corporations. This could occur through a commitment to “data commons” where the benefits of digital technologies could be shared through publicly accessible and accountable infrastructures. It would require big changes, for example, in computer education and data science, where students could learn about the social responsibilities of design and development. As Jim Balsillie remarked, we “need pressure from broader civil society and from antitrust experts which is why conferences like this one are coming at a critical juncture for Canada.”

Can you tell us about the work the Surveillance Studies Centre (SSC) at Queen’s does and what you hope to see come out of the Centre now that you’re retiring?  

The SSC grew out of research first made public in the early 1990s with the very first international “Surveillance Studies” research workshop being held at Queen’s. We became the “Surveillance Project” in 2000 and have been “The Surveillance Studies Centre” since 2009. We worked alongside privacy commissions and civil society groups from the start, and were invited to give evidence to parliamentary committees and to advise the new airport security body (CATSA) formed in the wake of 9/11. Our work became increasingly international as we welcomed PhD students and visiting professors from around the world.

My hope is that the work done by the SSC will continue to innovate and evolve, maintaining its reputation as a vehicle for seeking appropriate standards for new surveillance technologies, its focus on just and fair benefits for all, especially those currently marginalized, and continuing to lead by example in collaborative research on surveillance for practical human flourishing. I am not sure how exactly this will happen, but a good foundation has been laid for whatever does. There are already other centres and networks in other countries — Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Italy, UK, and United States — that are at least partly inspired by the Queen’s surveillance studies community.  

David Lyon, Professor Emeritus, is the author of Pandemic Surveillance (Polity Press 2022), and former director of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University.