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Surveilling surveillance

Queen’s professor David Lyon recognized for career contributions to field of surveillance studies.

David Lyon, Queen's University
Queen's University sociology professor David Lyon (Credit: USI Università della Svizzera Italiana)

In the 1930s, famed poet and dramatist T.S. Eliot wrote:

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

These days, with issues of online privacy and mass data collection in the news regularly, Queen’s University sociology professor and surveillance studies pioneer David Lyon says we should now be asking: Where is the information we have lost in data?

“As a society, we always need to ask whether or not technological and surveillance developments are right, truthful, wise, and fulfilling,” says Dr. Lyon, who was recently recognized with an Outstanding Contribution Award by the Surveillance Studies Network for his scholarly and intellectual contributions to the field. “With the sharing, collection, and use of our personal data becoming increasingly prevalent, it is important to make sure it is done ethically and with sound reason, so as to protect ourselves, and especially vulnerable groups, from exploitation.”

Long before the Edward Snowden or Facebook-Cambridge Analytica revelations, Dr. Lyon and his colleagues were trailblazers in what would become the surveillance studies discipline. He coined one of the most widely adopted definitions of surveillance – “focused, systematic, and routine attention to personal details for purposes such as influence, entitlement, or management” – and developed key ideas in the field, including one of his most lauded concepts: social sorting.

“Social sorting now uses data analysis to divide groups of people into various categories and segments, including by income, education, race, ethnicity, gender, occupation, or otherwise,” says Dr. Lyon. “As technology has advanced, so too has the ability for those in positions of power to gather and categorize us, so as to treat us differently. Sometimes this can be in the name of good – be it for welfare distribution or hospital triage – but it can also be used for more controlling or even nefarious purposes, like using credit scores or consumer histories that may deny people opportunities.”

Twenty-five years ago, concerns held by academics or members of the public could be grouped into several different siloes of surveillance. As well as worries about public video cameras, some were concerned with issues surrounding the security of telephone services – particularly with the advent of technologies like Caller ID. Others were concerned with workplace surveillance at the hands of their employers, and another group feared state tyranny as government databases became more interconnected, thus allowing bureaucrats to amass ‘dossiers’ of information with records of your government interactions.

“Nowadays, those siloes have dissolved,” says Dr. Lyon. “Between the exponential rate of technological development, the commercialization of the internet, political and social crises, and the growth of social media, we’ve forfeited much of our personal data to private corporations and governments in the name convenience, consumerism, and a sense of security. As a result, it is more important than ever that we as citizens demand proper oversight, accountability, and social justice when it comes to collecting and handling personal data.”

In his role as Director of the Queen’s Surveillance Studies Centre (SSC), Dr. Lyon is leading a team of scholars who conduct high-level research and are actively engaging in communities to promote awareness and action so the public is better equipped to protect how their personal data are used. The SSC experts are engaged on committees concerning emerging surveillance issues - like the controversial Sidewalk Labs ‘smart city’ project in Toronto – and they mount outreach events to discuss, for example, social media with parents, teachers, and children so families can navigate the issues together.

The SSC has received millions of dollars in funding from SSHRC and has gained worldwide recognition for its interdisciplinary work involving sociologists, lawyers, political scientists, business leaders, computer scientists, health researchers, professors, and students – all under Dr. Lyon’s leadership.

“It is encouraging to see the public’s rising awareness of issues related to personal data and surveillance, especially among parents whose children are becoming more and more ‘data dependent’,” says Dr. Lyon. “I am hopeful because young people do care about privacy – only their definition of privacy is slightly different than a classic understanding of the term.”

This also affects adult users of social media. When asked by researchers about the importance of online privacy without actually using the word ‘privacy’ in the questions, many narrow in on ‘fairness’ as a more essential concept when it comes to the evolution of our online lives, rather than complete personal confidentiality or privacy.

“Mass media accounts often assume ‘technological inevitability’ as if technology itself is forcing unavoidable social change, but I disagree,” says Dr. Lyon, whose latest book explores ‘everyday surveillance’. “There is an interactive relationship here, but in the end technology should be governed by humans and our interests and not the other way around. If we collectively demand a just and meaningful approach to tech innovation, then we can shape a respectful, inclusive, collaborative, safe, and open online future.”

The Surveillance Studies Network Outstanding Contribution Award is not Dr. Lyon’s first career award. In 2005, he was awarded a Queen’s Research Chair in Surveillance Studies, and then received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Sociological Association Communication and Information Technology Section two years later. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2008 and in 2012 he received an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Canadian Sociological Association. Over the next five years he won an Insight-Impact Award from the SSHRC, an honorary doctorate from the Università della Svizzera Italiana in Switzerland, and the Queen's University Award for Excellence in Graduate Supervision.

Learn more about Dr. Lyon and the work of the Surveillance Studies Centre.