Do you know who has your personal information and what they do with it?


New information and communication technologies are integrated into all aspects of modern life, whether it is online banking or shopping, communication with your friends and colleagues via mobile phones or social networking sites, getting directions from your SatNav, using bank or store cards to make purchases, or applying for online public services, such as passports and driving licences.

Consequently, as we all go about our ordinary everyday lives, we leave a vast stream of electronic ‘footprints’ which can be used to monitor and review our activities, as well as profile and predict our future behaviour.

Our enthusiasm for using these technologies raises fundamental questions about our attitudes towards our personal information and about the nature of modern society.

So for example, questions we could all ask ourselves, include:

  • Are you aware of what electronic personal information about you exists?
  • Do you know when your personal information is being exchanged between private companies and public services and for what purposes?
  • What can you do to find out when your personal information is being exchanged?
  • Does it matter whether we have any control over our own personal information?
  • And, what can you do if you want to influence who has access to and uses your personal information?

It could be argued that to take part in modern society, we have to use these technologies and therefore we have no choice but to give away intimate information about our activities, our movements, our identity, friends and associates. An alternative perspective would be that we as individuals should have control over our personal information and a right to privacy.

Understanding our Attitudes Towards Personal Information and Privacy

These are issues being explored by the Living in Surveillance Societies (LiSS), COST Action IS0807. The LiSS network involves over 150 researchers from 26 different countries and represents the first pan-European research network examining the surveillance phenomenon from a multidisciplinary social science perspective. In this Action, technologically mediated surveillance practices, including the collection, storage and processing of huge amounts of personal data, are perceived to be a normal part of everyday life and are deeply embedded in the fabric of society.

With this is mind, the Action’s core aim is to understand the implications of living in a society where surveillance and electronic information exchange is pervasive. Underpinning this aim is a desire to increase public awareness of these issues and subsequently help policy-makers, practitioners and private companies implement policies and surveillance systems that are understood and accepted by society.

Public Awareness of Personal Information and Surveillance

Enhancing public awareness of technologically mediated surveillance practices is therefore a core objective of LiSS. Only a better understanding of how these technologies work and of how personal information is exchanged and used will lead to a more informed debate about the most desirable levels and types of surveillance in society. Equally, a better understanding of whether the implications of surveillance can help inform legislators and policy-makers.

In January 2011, LiSS participated in two events designed to increase awareness of these issues. On 25 to 27 January LiSS experts attended the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection Conference in Brussels which included academic, political and artistic contributions. LiSS participants were also involved in the organisation of the European Privacy and Data Protection Day on 28 January. This was a celebration of the value of privacy and data protection, and it incorporated a series of events across Europe which directly involved and engage the general public. The outcome of these activities, and the LiSS Action more generally, was to raise the profile of privacy, personal information and data protection, and to make us more aware of the surveillance practices that surround us.