Historically, telecommunications companies have measured voice and data traffic for reasons related to service dimensioning and engineering management. Today, personalized devices make it possible to understand not only the requirements for the capacity needed in a network but also household and individual usage patterns. This has changed the way that companies now market their products and services and sell directly to individuals. Beyond marketing is the intimate knowledge gathered of why people do things, inferred by pattern-of-life data and metadata. This is the precise knowledge of customer behaviors, traits, habits, and characteristics.
The Internet of Things (IoT) promises even greater connectedness as individual items begin to come alive on a global network, each with its respective IP address. Big data will soon be able to reveal patterns and trends that were previously incalculable. We will seek even greater levels of scrutiny in the not-too-distant future, heralding in an age of überveillance. We now know much more about consumers than traditional call holding times and the location of an individual user in a mobile network. Using evidence-based approaches, we can know what consumers are thinking, how they are feeling, and even what they will do next with a high degree of accuracy. Embedded surveillance devices will likely replace clunky mobile and wearable handsets and headsets, which will introduce an ability to transcend physical boundaries.
Toward an Exaggerated Surveillance
Like most things passed off as new, surveillance itself is not new. Its antecedents are as old as our earliest creation accounts; when the gods gazed out onto the cosmos they had created and “saw everything” (Genesis 1:31). It is ironic that surveillance via low Earth-orbiting satellites is back up in the “heavens,” scanning the entirety of the Earth in an astonishing 90 min. The trajectory of surveillance technologies together with their underlying social, ethical, economic, environmental, and religious implications and impacts must be considered. Alarming statistics like those found in Britain indicate there is one camera for every 11 persons. What is the culmination of all of this surveillance? Where are we headed? Are we simply to fear cameras mounted on walls and ceilings that watch us from above? Or is there something even more pervasive coming, beyond that device that accompanies most of us everywhere we go—the modern smartphone?
We argue that überveillance will harness the existing brownfield fixed and mobile network infrastructure in an attempt to gain absolute knowledge of an individual's state of being and his/her relationships . It is an alleged transparency of every individual's motivation, intent, sentiment, behavior, and actions. It is that ability to find the consumer, like a needle in a haystack, with precision based on historical movements and current context. The private space is that final frontier that we will inevitably trespass. It is that which Orwell stated was the only thing left that was sacred, that space between our skull where we were once free to roam, think, feel, and reflect without scrutiny. New pervasive technologies have the ability to extract thoughts, removing all barriers for marketing and consumption .
From Wearables to Bearables
The veillances that incorporate surveillance—dataveillance, sousveillance, and überveillance—are all that capture the gaze from above, below, and within. From cameras mounted on high on a wall to cameras mounted on the head of a person to cameras within the person, the veillances explore the notion of watching from a variety of perspectives. Überveillance fuses together all of the different gazes, providing the most pervasive kinds of information by converging the right data through the various lenses. There is the data that are sourced through shopping mall cameras and social media and gaming platforms, that which is taken by another wearer (e.g., through head-mounted display recording devices), and finally, implantable devices that can report on the physiological characteristics of the body. Together, this converging melting pot of technologies and infrastructure can provide an end-to-end, holistic view of any person. This is technology driven by the notions of machine learning, which knows an individual better than he or she knows him-or herself. The feedback loops we will be providing, not only for mobile phones but also for GPS-enabled step counters and neural bands that denote emotion may well pave the way for new laws on the act of trespassing (into the mind) and intellectual property laws (ownership of unique and private thoughts). The microchip implant is that lowest common denominator device for subjects that will render the IoT phenomenon a real potentiality .
Überveillance is the disturbing technological scenario of converging various types of sensors into an implantable device beneath the skin. In layman's terms, überveillance is a kind of closed-circuit television on the “inside” looking out, rather than on the “outside” looking down. It is “above and beyond,” an exaggerated 24/7 surveillance embedded inside the human body. It not only records the vital physiological signs of an individual, diagnosing and predicting patterns of change in health (e.g., temperature and heart rate), but it also has the capacity to trigger outward recording based on nearby sensors (e.g., image sensors). Überveillance is dehumanizing in that it uses implantable technology to provide a unique ID to ascertain an individual's true location and conduct real-time monitoring without any cease, that is, constant and unending. This state of condition not only begs the question of “the death of privacy” and of autonomous action but also that of data integrity and the potential for misinformation, misinterpretation, and information manipulation .
Überveillance is a compound word, conjoining the German word “über,” meaning over or above, with the French word “veillance.” The concept is very much linked to Friedrich Nietzsche's vision of the Übermensch, who is a man with powers beyond those of an ordinary human being, like a super man with amplified abilities. Examples include heart, pulse, and temperature sensor readings emanating from the body in binary bits wirelessly or even through amplified eyes, such as contact glass, that might provide a visual display and access to the Internet or social-networking applications.
Überveillance centralizes all forms of watching (from above and below, by collectives, and by individuals) because the sensor devices carried or embedded in the body are the lowest common denominator in tracking elements—the individual. The network infrastructure underlies the ability to collect data directly from the sensor devices worn by the individual, and big data analytics ensures an interpretation of the unique behavioral traits of the individual, implying not only predicted movement but intent and thought.
Überveillance has “to do with the fundamental who (ID), where (location), and when (time) questions in an attempt to derive why (motivation), what (result), and even how (method/plan/thought).” Examples of embedded devices include medical instruments such as heart and brain pacemakers, cochlear implants, and prosthetic implants . Examples of nonmedical instruments include those used for access control, electronic payment, and home automation. In the last 18 months, we have witnessed the advent of an explosion of wearable technologies in a variety of form factors, such as smart watches and glasses and electronic tattoos and an equal number of proof of concepts for digital contact lenses, swallowable pills, and implantable radio-frequency identification.
Überveillance is Not the Same as Über Surveillance
After the word coined by author M.G. Michael had entered academic discourse, a number of researchers suggested the term “über surveillance” as a more precise alternative to “überveillance.” Über surveillance would have been redundant in the dictionary, which already included the synonyms “mass surveillance,” “wholesale surveillance,” and “total surveillance.” At the same time, Bentham's famous “all-seeing” panopticon certainly captures the chief elements of our collective efforts to describe newer forms of surveillance. Über surveillance, then, if we can put it this way, is one of the results of überveillance. They are not the same thing. A good illustration of this is the translation of überveillance into “supervigilancia” by some South American writers. This does not carry over the deeper content and underlying narrative of the word, for instance, the Nietzschean, Orwellian, and apocalyptic components of überveillance, but rather it endeavors to translate über surveillance instead. We do not think that supervigilancia entirely expresses the idea of über surveillance either, but it does tease out other significant implications such as supervision and control.
We remain passionate on questions dealing with the applied ethics in relation to surveillance, especially in places where the application of überveillance would violate the body, that is, the “sacred space” or where surveillance in general would impact our abilities to act as free agents outside any “visible” or “invisible” coercion. Of interest in the commercialization of this high-tech implantable gadgetry has also been multinational and corporate involvement in the creation of demand, supply, and merchandizing of “spy wear” and the interplay of these global entities with governments. We need to be highly discerning as to what lies behind the electrified glass tubes that flash WYSIATI (i.e., “what you see is all there is”) . It is just not true, above all, when it comes to embedded surveillance devices, and we will suffer the awful consequences if we do not ask for more information.
Embedded Sensors and the Iot
Pervasive Consumer Electronics
Enter Google Glass, Autographer, Memoto, TrackStick, Fitbit, and other wearable devices that are worn like spectacles or apparel or tied round the neck. The more pervasive innovations, such as electronic tattoos, nanopatches, smart pills, and information and communication technology implants, seamlessly become a part of the body once attached, swallowed, embedded, or injected . These technologies are purported to be lifestyle choices, which can provide myriad conveniences and productivity gains as well as improved health and well-being functionality. Wearables are believed to have benefits such as enhancements to self-awareness, communication, memory, sensing, recognition, and logistical skills. Common experiences can be augmented, such as when a Disney character knows your child's name because of a wrist strap that acts as an admissions ticket, wallet, and ID .
Gone are the days when there was a stigma around electronic bracelets being used to track those on parole; these devices are now becoming much like a fashion statement and a desirable method for not only safety and security but also convenience and enhanced experiences. However, one must consider that an innocuous method for convenience may prove to create “people as sensors,” in which information is collected from the environment using unobtrusive measures but with the wearer—as well as those around the wearer—possibly unaware of the extent of the data collection. In addition to issues around privacy, other questions must be asked such as, what will be done with the data now and well into the future?
Ubiquitous Systems for Tracking and Monitoring
Embedded sensors have provided us with a range of benefits and conveniences that many of us take for granted in our everyday lives. We now find commonplace the autoflushing lavatory and the autodispensing of soap and water for hand washing. Many of these practices are not only convenient but also help to maintain health and hygiene. We even have embedded sensors in lampposts that can detect oncoming vehicles and are so energy-efficient that they turn on as they detect movement and then turn off again to conserve resources . However, these fixtures are static; they form a basic infrastructure and often have eyes (e.g., an image and/or motion sensor) but not legs.
What happens when these sensors—for identification, location, condition monitoring, point of view, and more—become embeddable in mobile objects and begin to follow and track us everywhere we go? Our vehicles, tablets, smartphones, and even contactless smart cards are equipped to capture, synthesize, and communicate a plethora of information about our behaviors, traits, likes, and dislikes, as we lug them around everywhere we go. Automatic license plate scanners are not only mounted in streetlights and on bridges but now also on patrol cars. These scanners snap photos of automobiles passing and store such data as plate numbers, times, and locations within massive databases. Store owners are combining the use of static fixtures with mobile devices to better understand the psychographics and demographics of their customers. The combination of these monitoring tools is powerful. Cell phone identifiers are used to track the movements of the customers (even if the customer is not connected to the store's Wi-Fi network), with the surveillance cameras collecting biometric analytics to analyze facial expressions and moods. Along with an augmented capability to customize and personalize marketing efforts, the stores can identify how long one tarries in an aisle, the customer's reaction to a sale item, the age of the shopper, and even who did or did not walk by a certain display .
Human beings have now become an extension (voluntarily or involuntarily) of these location-and affect-based technological breakthroughs; we, the end users, are the end point of a complex network of networks that are increasingly adaptive in nature . The devices we carry take on a life of their own, sending binary data up-and downstream in the name of better connectivity, awareness, and ambient intelligence. “I am here,” the device continuously signals to the nearest access node, handshaking a more accurate location fix as well as providing key behavioral indicators, which can easily become predictors of future behaviors. However, it seems as if we, as a society, are rapidly in demand of more communications technology—or that is the idea we are being sold.
Claims have been made that our life has become so busy today that we are grasping to gain back seconds in our day. Some ask, why should we waste time and effort by manually entering all of these now-necessary passwords when a tattoo or pill could transmit an 18-bit authentication signal for automatic logon from within our bodies? We are led to believe that individuals are demanding uninterrupted connectivity; however, research has shown that some yearn to have the freedom to “live off the grid” even if for only a short span of time .
Überveillance and Big Data Analytics
Continuous Customer Social and Behavioral Tracking
Private enterprise and government agencies have increasingly sought to gain greater insights into the behaviors and sentiments of their customer base and citizenry by applying predictive and social analytics in response to the need for goods and services to meet societal expectations. New creative industries are emerging around open innovation models, some of which are linked to open government data initiatives, which are in part funded by taxpayers. Companies, together with governments and emergency service organizations, now apply various techniques from crowdsourcing to genetic algorithms and from neural networks to sentiment analysis to study both structured and unstructured forms of data that can aid in product and process discovery, productivity and well-being, and even national policy. These data are collected from various sources including data from users themselves and data that are external to the organization such as geodemographic data from statistical government agencies, private market databases, and “public” profiles on social-networking sites .
While we have conducted data mining ever since the first records were maintained in the modern world, we now can speak of something known as “big data,” which brings together not only large amounts of data—both quantitative and qualitative—but also various data types (text, audio, and visual) that would never have been previously considered together. Currently, we are being challenged to analyze these large amounts of data that require ever-increasing processing speeds, and we are also being challenged to store the data economically and feed the discoveries back into business process life cycles in a timely manner.
As an example, big data analytical techniques might be used to draw on continuous customer behavioral trends using numerous sources, either targeted to an individual or in aggregate to a group. Near-real-time sensor data from telematics could provide us with detailed behavioral characteristics, and we could analyze these alongside visualization techniques, such as geographical customer “walk-throughs” in a shopping center that would grant us insight into the complex decision-making processes of a shopper. Data scientists claim that big data can reveal patterns that were previously hidden from view. To carry the analogy further, big data aims to reconstruct the very personal, precisely customized, and hitherto private thought processes of a consumer. Big data can be used to observe and analyze from the moment someone enters a store (either online or offline) to the point of considering whether to purchase an item and making the transaction. Then, an organization might try to predict the likelihood of a repeat visit and generate a detailed expectation of what will happen the next time. Big data explores details of the relationship between people's intent and actual behavior and how people interact with objects around them.
Digital Footprints Glow in the Dark
Each of us already carries a digital footprint, akin to digital DNA, that, when analyzed, may be able to denote our uniqueness, i.e., aspects about the self that would otherwise go unnoticed, including how we write a blogpost and use colocated words, our level of language and type of punctuation, the clothes we wear in different contexts, and the places we frequent. Do we spend our Sunday mornings outdoors playing sports, indoors online, shopping, visiting friends, in religious worship, or in a bad part of town ? When and how power and energy is used in our homes will reveal many details about us. Big data will draw on aspects of our home, work, study, and social life to make assumptions beyond typical market segmentations and delve deep into ontological questions like “who are you?” . This data will have metaphysical implications. It will become common for people to consciously attempt to alter their digital footprint to prevent disclosure, just like a secret note sent by an admirer who has purposefully changed his/her handwriting to go undetected. The existence of big data will change, in both small and large ways, how we live. When devices are implantable or embedded, they can supply corporations with intimate details about our personhood, such as when our pulse rate begins to race and when our temperature rises; even the intonation in our voice can speak volumes if these data are being tracked continuously .
Quantified Self and Lifelogging
With each latest release, new media come packed with an even greater number of onboard sensors that can do everything from collecting data about one's physiological characteristics and recording real-time location coordinates to using embedded cameras to lifelog events 24/7. These data, knowingly or unknowingly collected and bandwidth permitting, may be wirelessly sent to a private or public cloud and stored, often for public view and under a creative commons license. Of particular interest are the embedded sensors that users wear (and will increasingly bear), which are actively gathering information about the world around them as well as their own world .
The consequences of commercialization of body wearable and bearable devices stem from two aspects that are underappreciated. The first is that a third party somewhere in the cloud usually owns the data gathered by these devices. The second is that the outright ownership of the device itself is in the hands of the supplier despite the user having purchased the device for use. For example, the 2013 Google Glass terms of service stated that “you may not resell, loan, transfer, or give your device to any other person. If you resell, loan, transfer, or give your device to any other person without Google's authorization. Google reserves the right to deactivate the device, and neither you nor the unauthorized person using the device will be entitled to any refund, product support, or product warranty” . As soon as personal information is stored on the Internet for ease of access from anywhere at any time, the possibilities of unauthorized access need to be considered. For example, four typical modes on most wearable sleep monitors indicate when you are 1) awake, 2) in light sleep, 3) in deep sleep (i.e., rapid eye movement), and 4) the level of efficiency reached between your rest and wake times. Additionally, monitors can tell adults how often they woke up during the night, how long the duration of sleep was, how long they were in bed, and at what times they awoke. Data on sleeping patterns can denote some very personal details about individuals, such as whether individuals may suffer from insomnia or obsessive compulsive disorder, are sexually active, are workaholics, and how they are likely to perform in stressful jobs, among a great many other things.
These new body wearables do not merely look inward to the body but very often outward to the world around them. Yes, they are able to gather an individual's physiological characteristics, but they are also able to reconstruct the world around them by way of location coordinates, current speed traveled and direction, rich high-resolution photos, and even in some cases audio capture. Not only are the wearers gathering data about themselves, but they are also gathering heterogeneous data about fixed and mobile entities, including infrastructure and living (people and animals) and nonliving things (vehicles). This is no longer simply derivable information like the “point of interest nearest you is given your position on the Earth's surface” but instead “Johnny is traveling at miles per hour and is a little sluggish today on his bike ride compared to yesterday, and that is as a direct result of the late night he had yesterday and the fact he consumed one glass of wine too many while at the nearby bar.” These devices start to tell us about exceptions to everyday patterns of individuals and the people around us .
People as Sensors
The metaphor of “people as sensors,” also referred to as “citizens as sensors” , , is being espoused as onboard chipsets allow an individual to look out toward another object or subject (e.g., using an image sensor) or to look inward toward oneself (e.g., measuring physiological characteristics with embedded surveillance devices). As optional prosthetic devices are incorporated into users, devices are recognized by some as becoming an extension of the person's mind and body. New developments in “smart skin” offer even more solutions. The skin can become a function of the user's habits, personality, mood, or behavior. For example, when inserted into a shoe, smart skin can analyze and improve the technical skill of an athlete, identify factors associated with body stresses related to activity, and even spot health issues that may result from the use of high-heeled shoes , . Simply put, human beings who function in analog are able to communicate digitally through the devices that they wear or bear. This is quite a different proposition from the typical surveillance camera that is bolted onto a wall overlooking the streetscape or mall and has a predefined field of view.
“People as sensors” is far more pervasive than the dashboard cams used in police vehicles and can be likened to the body-worn devices used by law enforcement to collect real-time data from the field (Figure 1). When everyday citizens are wearing and bearing these devices, people form a collective network by contributing individual subjective (and personal) observations of themselves and their surroundings. There are advantages; the community is believed to benefit with relevant, real-time information on such issues as public safety, street damage, weather observations, traffic patterns, and even public health. People, using their everyday devices, can enter information into a data warehouse, which could also reduce the cost of intensive physical networks that otherwise need to be deployed. Although murky, there is vulnerability, such as the risk of unvolunteered geographical information with the tracking of mass movements in a cell phone network to ascertain traffic distribution . Consider it a type of warwalking on foot rather than wardriving in a moving vehicle. It appears as if opt-in and opt-out features have not been deemed necessary, perhaps due to the perceived anonymity of individual user identifiers. The ability to switch off, turn off, unplug, or select the “I do not consent” feature in a practical way is a question that many have pondered but with arguably a limited number of pragmatic solutions, if any.
The Mind/body Distinction
In the future, corporate marketing may hire professional lifeloggers (or mobile robotic contraptions) to log other people's lives with commercial devices. Unfortunately, because of inadequate privacy policies and a lack of harmonized legislation, we, as consumers, may find no laws that would preclude companies from this sort of “live to life” hire if we do not pull the reins on the obsession to autophotograph and audio record everything in sight . And this needs to happen right now. We have already fallen behind and are playing a risky game of catch-up. Ethics is not the overriding issue for technology companies or developers; innovation is their primary focus because, in large part, they have a fiduciary responsibility to turn a profit. We must, in turn, as an informed and socially responsible community, forge together to dutifully consider the risks . At what point will we leap from tracking the mundane, which is of the body (e.g., the location of GPS coordinates), toward the tracking of the mind by bringing all of these separate components together using über-analytics and an über view ? We must ask the hard questions now. We must disclose and discuss the existence of risk, the values at stake, and the possibility of harm.
It is significant that, as researchers, we are once more, at least in some places, speaking on the importance of the Cartesian mind/body distinction and of the catastrophic consequences should they continue to be confused when it comes to etymological implications and ontological categories. The mind and the body are not identical even if we are to argue from Leibniz's law of identity that two things can only be identical if they at the same time share exactly the same qualities. Here as well, we must be vigilant in not forgetting the real distinction between machines and humans.
Competing narratives and criticisms of the research underpinning überveillance are more than welcome. This is a complex and controversial field, and we need to update and inform each other whether this has to do with new technologies, amendments to legislation, or simple and plain correction. Those of us who are genuinely concerned with the quickening erosion of our right to privacy as a fundamental component of our natural rights on which John Locke  and the social contract thinkers had some momentous things to say, will achieve little if anything—at least in the long term—if we go about it alone or sideline and downgrade colleagues who might approach the debate a little differently or inform it from another perspective.
The question remains as to why researchers, who believe that trajectories mapped out by engineers given the principle of exponential growth will invariably be realized in ubiquitous surveillance, continue to spend time and resources on the subject. The answer need not be intricate. It is because a large group of these researchers believe that, ultimately, whatever the cost, individuals will still possess the freedom to decide to what extent they integrate themselves into the electronic grid. Additionally, philosophers who have contemplated the question of technology and its impact on society, such as Martin Heidegger, Ivan Illich, Jacques Ellul, and those from the Frankfurt School, have argued that technology must be vigorously critiqued as the worst of all possible outcomes would be the dehumanization of the individual and the loss of dignity resulting in a “standardized subject of brute self-preservation.” One of the fundamental elements of such literature is the profound comprehension that technology has not only to do with building but is also a social process.
Charlie Chaplin's culturally significant Modern Times (1936) is an unmatched visual accompaniment, with the classic scene of the iconic Little Tramp caught up in the cogs of the giant machine, of the unintended consequences of the efficiencies of modern industrialization. A decade earlier, Fritz Lang's futuristic Metropolis (1926), the story of a mechanized underground city set in a dystopian society, likewise left its indelible mark. It was a prescient summary of what was to follow, the troubling link between teleology and technology.
It is fitting to conclude with a recent citation by Shay et al.  of the Cyber Research Center of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, which points to the maturation of the term überveillance and the realization of its potential consequences: “Roger Clarke's concept of dataveillance and M.G. Michael and Katina Michael's more recent überveillance serve as important milestones in awareness of the growing threat of our instrumented world.”
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This article was presented as a keynote address by M.G. Michael at the 2014 International Conference on Contemporary Computing and Informatics (www.ic3i.org).
Citation: M. G. Michael, Katina Michael, Christine Perakslis, "Überveillance, the web of things, and people: What is the culmination of all this surveillance?", IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine, Volume: 4, Issue: 2, April 2015, pp. 107 - 113, 13 April 2015, DOI: 10.1109/MCE.2015.2393007