2: Definitions

Adrian Castillo

Asking for the true meaning of a word involves inquiring about its context, that is, the other words around it. With that in mind, think about the words “surveillance” and “espionage”; they may appear identical in meaning–and although closely associated by negative undertones–they can be distinguished primarily by purpose and less by practice: Surveillance means “close watch kept over someone or something (as by a detective).” By contrast, espionage means “to watch secretly, usually for hostile purposes” (Merriam-Webster, n.d., para.2).

Beyond their literal and precise meanings (denotations), words suggest ideas and carry with them emotional associations that can be positive and negative, rarely neutral (connotations). Thus, the definitions below provide basic descriptions from the Oxford English Dictionary and examples grounded in real-life events courtesy of distinguished scholars. Both enable us to have a shared understanding of our subject; they allow us to find “true meaning.”

Surveillance: the act of carefully keeping close watch over someone or something to gather information, influence, manage, or direct. The word originates in the early 19th century with French, surveiller, sur- ‘over’ + veiller ‘watch’ (from Latin vigilare’: ‘vigil watchful’) (Oxford University Press, n.d.-a; Monahan & Wood, 2018). Choi-Fitzpatrick (2020) notes that current surveillance programs exploit technologies such as drones and satellites for negative and positive purposes (e.g. weaponized remote-control war, advancing climate change research).

Espionage: the process of secretly gathering confidential information using human sources (agents) or technical means (like hacking into computer systems) without permission from the source of information (Oxford University Press, n.d.-b; MI5, n.d.-a).

  • Interesting Fact #1: In 2020, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) detected “espionage and foreign interference activity at levels not seen since the Cold War” (Tunney, 2021, para. 3). The target was usually non-governmental organizations, including academic institutions and private companies. Research and development firms, like biopharmaceutical companies involved in vaccine development (Tunney, 2021), were particularly targeted.
  • Interesting fact #2: The English security service M15 explains that espionage can take many forms, including military (theft of defense capability intel), industrial (theft of trade secrets for economic gain), or political (theft of negotiating positions), and often supports efforts to sabotage politicians or influence decision-makers and opinion-holders (M15, n.d.-b).

Privacy:  a person’s right to keep matters secret and not be watched or disturbed by other people. In addition, privacy can be defined as freedom from unauthorized intrusion (Oxford English Dictionary, n.d.-c; The International Association of Privacy Professionals [IAPP], 2021). A related term is “information privacy,” which can be defined as “the right to have control over how your personal information is collected, shared, and used” (IAPP, 2021).

  • Interesting fact #1: Recognizing privacy as a human right depends largely on a particular country’s laws and social and ethical norms. Therefore, a person’s right to privacy varies widely according to the distribution of freedom and authority in different societies (Wenar, 2020).  As an illustration, China rates as one of the worst abusers of internet freedom; according to Statista (2019), “censorship and surveillance [in the country] [have been] pushed to unprecedented extremes” (para.3). How free is the Internet? Governments worldwide differ considerably regarding internet access, limits to online content, and violations of user rights. To learn more, check this world map, courtesy of Statista (2019).
  • Interesting fact #2: Can you have personal security without privacy? The simple answer is yes. Privacy and security are related concepts; however, you can have perfect security without privacy. Consider that security is only a technical method to protect your personal information, for example, antivirus software. On the other hand, privacy is a right safeguarded by laws and regulations that give you control over how, when, and by whom your information is used (Herzog, 2016). As a result, while security is necessary, it is not sufficient for enshrining privacy as a right (IAPP, 2021). Remember, becoming both private and secure is part of exercising your digital citizenship.

Data Commodification: the process of acquiring, storing, and treating often personal data like a product that can be bought and sold (Oxford University Press, n.d.-d). Examples include biometric and health-related data, as well as internet browsing patterns, click-through rates, geolocation coordinates, and other sensitive information. 

  • Interesting Fact #1: The five most valuable firms in the world today (Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet) are essentially data firms as, without data, these businesses could not operate or even generate any value (Sadowski, 2019).