Creeping, or creepiness, refers to surveillance or tracking practices that obtain personal, sometimes private, information and then use that information in ways that the public or individual persons do not anticipate or understand. In today’s Digital Age, almost everyone confronts unexpected and sometimes unwanted technology-based surveillance in places as diverse as the shopping mall, the airport, and, especially, the online world. For example, a web-based ad may suggest the exact item a person would like to buy. After pushing the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button on Google Flights, a person’s dream destination may pop up. Such seemingly unexpected outcomes are the result of a set of sophisticated online tracking and surveillance systems through which information is collected, stored, bought, and sold, and sometimes even hacked and stolen. Because of the intrusive nature of creeping, some have raised privacy concerns with this practice. This entry examines the various types of creeping, including government, corporate, and personal.

Government Creeping

Governments, at all levels, have unique legal powers to compel citizens and companies to disclose information. In return, the public expects a certain level of protection for that information. Indeed, most government documents completed by citizens, at least in the developed world, carry some indication that they are “protected when completed.”

Releasing government data can lead to thorny ethical issues. In Slovakia, a businesswoman successfully sued the Fair Play Alliance, a nongovernmental organization that won the 2011 EU Open Data Challenge, to force removal of information about her and her companies, even though it was simply taken from public records. A Canadian municipality is legally obliged to disclose the fees it collects from development permits. However, since those fees are a fixed percentage of the project value, developers argue that the city is effectively sharing confidential business information.

Ill-considered social media posts can also have serious consequences when they attract government attention. A man in Colorado hit a vehicle while drunk, failed to stop, and posted about this on Facebook. Within minutes, the police were at his door. Other technologies can also provide incriminating evidence. In 2004, a man in Montreal, Quebec, was convicted of speeding, in a fatal accident where there were no witnesses, in part from data taken from his car’s Event Data Recorder, the so-called black box.

Data obtained by law enforcement from Facebook, Google, Stockhouse, and many other sites have been used successfully in trials, for purposes such as showing that a terrorist suspect was researching bomb construction or an accused murderer searched “how to dispose of a body.”

Corporate Creeping

Companies are also voracious collectors and users of data about people. Most users see some value in the auto suggestion features of online systems. Amazon displays what “customers who bought this item also bought” and highlights choices “inspired by your browsing history.” The latter list reveals that the company has indeed been tracking every entry and every click that the user has made over a long period of time. In a similar fashion, Facebook dutifully logs every search a user makes. The company says that these are visible only to the searcher. However, Facebook itself can view them, just as Google has access to every search term a person enters. With the proper paperwork, law enforcement can have access to these data too.

Just as some people argue that privacy concerns are overblown because they obey the law and have nothing to hide, some feel that this corporate collection of data about them is benign and even helpful. Others have expressed great concern, however, especially around the area of health information. Posting photographs of smoking or divulging this in an online survey could lead to problems if the person has purchased nonsmoker life insurance. Reports abound of insurance companies mining social media, looking for clues to a reckless lifestyle, such as skydiving photos. On the other hand, a Swiss company refused to buy the rights to the insurance policy of an elderly woman who supposedly had dementia and was likely to die soon. Her social media postings showed her living a vibrant lifestyle.

A British consumer loan company has taken social media creeping to a new level. Lenddo allows applicants to prove their identity and creditworthiness by giving the company access to their social media accounts. The better the friend network, the lower the interest rate. Of course, if the borrower happens to default on that loan, the company reserves the right to shame that person in his or her online community.

Some people believe that they will avoid techno-creeping by not using the Internet. However, technologies are moving into the workplace and the retail sphere that will make this impossible. In Japan, there is an app that tracks an employee’s activity at work through the accelerometer on a smartphone. It makes it easy for the boss to see who is sleeping on the job. While that might be unacceptable in some cultures, some U.S. companies have given fitness monitors to their staff, asking them to wear the fitness monitors round the clock. In some cases, the staff are promised perks such as extra vacation days or health club memberships for doing so.

The growth of predictive analytics and other algorithms, coupled with inexpensive storage and computing power, means that those who hold these data can analyze and reanalyze the data, not only looking for competitive advantage but also displaying a disturbing knowledge of our online and physical world activities.

Personal Creeping

A neighbor, coworker, and the merely curious now have unprecedented and often free access to information about people through online sources. Does the person have a firearm? Rent a post office box? Own a valuable property? The answer is probably available online. Unlike the days when people had to rummage through dusty files in courthouses, digitization means that the data can be accessed from anywhere.

People search engine sites such as Spokeo and Zoominfo collect every mention of a person in the media, every speech he or she makes, every publicly shared presentation. Data brokers collect information on people and sell it, often organized by demographic profile. Sometimes these data are incomplete or inaccurate. There have been horror stories of consumers who were unable to correct or explain their entries in privately run database systems. Increasingly, personal data are being indexed by identifiers such as the customary email address, which has become an alternative to government-issued identification numbers, whose use may be restricted.

Not content with stalking people in the virtual world, individuals are now flying inexpensive quadcopter drones to snoop on their neighbors. These unmanned aerial vehicles recently came under regulation in the United States, though the rules are fairly loose and difficult to enforce. Other people are wearing bodycams, much like police officers, and recording every interaction they have. Even people who eschew such technology usually carry smartphones, which increasingly are pulled out the minute something interesting happens, creating a full audio and video record that can be shared online.

Future Creeping

One of the biggest concerns of privacy experts is how data collected now might be used in the future. Just as DNA forensics have solved old murder cases, future data analysis technology, combined with changing social norms, may imperil personal privacy.

Predicted advances in health technologies, such as personalized medicine, suggest the advent of a world in which privacy will be the exception rather than the rule. The population will need to decide whether the good things offered by technology outweigh the increasing creeping into personal privacy that comes with it.

Thomas P. Keenan

See also Cybermarketing ; Drones, Commercial Applications of ; E-Government ; Law and Digital Technology ; Privacy, Internet

Further Readings

Angwin, Julia. Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance. New York, NY: Times Books, 2014.

Keenan, Thomas P. Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: Greystone Books, 2014.

Nissenbaum, Helen. Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.

Schneier, Bruce. Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World. New York, NY: Copernicus, 2003.