Online Privacy in the Age of Surveillance


The personal privacy landscape is continually undergoing profound transformation in the current era of extensive technological advancements. The digital age directly caused unprecedented connectivity and convenience, but also resulted in online surveillance. Currently, people globally are continuously navigating virtual realms by using social media, seek information using the Internet, conduct business and financial transactions for online commerce, in the process leaving behind personal information that is meticulously scrutinized.  The high level of interconnectivity is indicated in Picture 1. As a result concerns about protection of personal information and privacy are increasingly becoming important. This article will explore the intricate nature of surveillance and online privacy with the aim of identifying the implication of increased private data collection by private corporations and government entities.

GWP Virtual Network Meeting 2015

PIcture 1: “Global Interconnectivity on the Internet” by Global Water Partnership is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Landscape of Online Surveillance

The digital age brought about considerable expansion of the landscape of online surveillance which in turn reshaped the way people can interact with the virtual world. Currently, private corporations and government entities continuously engage in monitoring and data collection based on online activities of individuals.

Picture 2: “Digital Surveillance” by Mohamed Hassan is licensed under CC0 1.0

Government Surveillance:

For government agencies, the driving force is mostly national security concerns that have necessitated sophisticated data collection practices. In countries such as the United States, government agencies have executed mass surveillance programs such as PRISM, a program run by the NSA to collect internet communication from Internet companies within the country (Etzioni, 2015). Another example is the Investigatory Powers Act executed by the United Kingdom government for bulk data collection from various platforms including emails, social media, and messaging services (Davies, 2020). Government agencies primarily employ various state-of-the-art technologies such as data mining algorithms and well-equipped data centers to sort through extensive datasets. Additionally, most government agencies employ facial recognition technology to identify as well as track individuals in public spaces. In most cases individuals are unaware of the extent to which governments monitor their online as well as physical activities. Government surveillance is capable of casting a wide net over digital interactions ranging from online communication and online searches to tracking location using smartphones.

Corporate Data Collection

Private cooperations on the other hand are continuously embracing data-driven business models which rely on collecting personal information from the target consumers on unprecedented scales (Saura et al., 2021). Currently, corporations rely on social media platforms, ecommerce giants, and search engines who accumulate user data and use that information to enhance user experiences and tailor advertisements. Private corporations mainly make use of web beacons, tracking cookies, and device fingerprinting as tracking technologies (Martínez Sánchez et al., 2022). Such technologies give companies the capacity to monitor browsing habits, preferences and in some cases offline activities of users. As indicated in Video 1, corporations are supposed to seek user consent prior to accumulating the data. The corporations then make use of algorithms to analyze the acquired user data to shape the content individuals shown in search results and newsfeeds in the aim of personalizing content. To a large extent, such customization positively enhances user experience. However, it also raises valid concerns around filter bubble phenomenon where users are only exposed to content in line with or reinforcing existing beliefs.

Video 1: “Protecting Personal Privacy” by Metaliteracy Learning Collaborative is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Implications for Privacy Rights and Individual Life

Far reaching implications when it comes to privacy rights are being experienced as a result of the increased surveillance. Primarily, there is extensive erosion of online privacy that is compromising personal autonomy as well as threatening individuals right to privacy as a part of fundamental human rights. For example, social media algorithms have been designed to present users with advertisements that align with their digital patterns. This practice goes on to influence the users towards making a particular purchase that they may not have done if they were not subjected to the constant, and customized advertisements. Similar perspective is also presented in how algorithms can be utilized in political campaigns thereby influencing political views of a country. Furthermore, in extreme insights, the algorithms can actively deny users access to information so that the target audience are influenced in a particular direction. For instance, Cambridge Analytica actively influenced the Kenyan voters in Kenya’s elections in 2017. Consequently, it shows that the surveillance can be used to actively alter political decisions (Laterza, 2018).

It is worth noting that the filter bubble created by the suggested content creates a scenario where one is only consuming content that has similar themes. This serves to entertain users especially on social media platforms such as TikTok because the video reels viewed all cater to the interests of the individual. In this regard, the context of the matter takes a negative implication on someone’s life because it means that the individual is likely to spend significant amount of time online due to the dopamine effect. Similarly, the individual’s mind becomes narrowed to only consider content or items that are related to the content. This puts a negative implication on creative capacity as well as problem solving abilities that individuals possess.

Existing legal frameworks meant to protect these privacy rights are not very effective in the digital age as they are ineffective in keeping pace with constantly evolving methods of surveillance. Because privacy as a fundamental right is rooted in ethical and philosophical values of dignity, autonomy, and freedom, ensuring personal privacy is protected in the age of increased surveillance is important (Mulligan et al., 2020). Hence, it is common to come across governments putting in place laws to support privacy rights albeit at a limitation where public safety takes up priority. Furthermore, the implementation of the laws is done to ensure that the corporations are also respective of their consumers’ and employees’ individual rights to privacy.

Privacy Protection and Advocacy

While laws and regulations are already in place, it is still common to come across breaches in users’ privacy rights by corporations. In similar context, governments have also been guilty of breaching their citizen’s privacy rights. To counter this issue, privacy advocacy has come to characterize how individuals at the community level are compelling corporations and governments to respect privacy rights (Leizerov, 2000). Privacy advocacy, as explained in Video 2, represents social movements whose aim is to inform individuals of their rights to privacy, create social pressure towards enforcement of privacy rights by the governments and corporate community, and to seek justice where necessary.

Video 2: “Digital privacy” by Advocacy Assembly is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Exemplified success in privacy advocacy is demonstrated in Leizerov (2000) which presents the approach taken against Intel to ensure that the company would be held responsible for breaching consumers’ privacy rights. Arguably, when such social movements are able to push entities towards responsibility it is possible that privacy rights will be better respected. These measures are reducing threats on digital privacy as indicated in Picture 3 below

Picture 3: “Digital Threats to Digital Privacy” by Exaly is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Technological Solutions and Privacy Tools and the Future of Online Privacy

At the individual level, people are taking up measures to promote their privacy on digital platforms. For instance, WhatsApp is providing users with the ability to have their chats encrypted to prevent hacking. Similarly, people are subscribing to virtual private networks (VPN) as well as opting for browsers that do not have any form of tracking, surveillance, or monitoring. Furthermore, people are taking up the initiative to eliminate cookies from their digital devices because it is through cookies that they are monitored and tracked. Potentially, these technologies will be improved and innovated thereby improving individual ability to prevent the surveillance and increase their privacy levels on digital platforms.


Online privacy has become difficult to achieve in the modern era because different entities are motivated by different reasons to monitor and track users’ behavior online. For instance, governments track people to promote national security while corporations track people to improve their competitive capacity in the market. Consequently, corporations have the ability to influence consumer behavior, culture, and beliefs due to understanding their digital activities. While privacy rights are known, they are not always observed leading to emergence of privacy advocacy. Similarly, people are using private browsers, deleting cookies, using encrypted software, and VPNs.


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Leizerov, S. (2000). Privacy advocacy groups versus Intel: A case study of how social movements are tactically using the Internet to fight corporations. Social science computer review18(4), 461-483. 

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Saura, J. R., Ribeiro-Soriano, D., & Palacios-Marqués, D. (2021). From user-generated data to data-driven innovation: A research agenda to understand user privacy in digital markets. International Journal of Information Management60, 102331.