Understanding surveillance and privacy from multiple perspectives

Monday, August 30, 2021

It’s no secret that our everyday technologies gather personal data. But these increasingly entrenched conveniences, from Internet of Things–enabled smart TVs to online voting systems to crowdfunding platforms, can also perform harmful surveillance.

Knowing how tools track user behaviour and collect personal information is important. Understanding their implications for social inequality within Canada and globally is perhaps even more pressing. What’s more, the challenge demands multiple areas of expertise.

That’s where an interdisciplinary graduate course called Surveillance and Privacy comes into play. First offered to graduate students across the university in fall 2020, the course was developed and taught by Professor Jennifer Whitson from the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Professor Ian Goldberg from the Cheriton School of Computer Science in the Faculty of Mathematics. The course examined privacy within society and challenged the students to develop projects demonstrating how interventions into privacy violations, censorship, and digital discrimination need to leverage interdisciplinary perspectives to be successful.

photo of Professors Jennifer Whitson and Ian Goldberg

Jennifer Whitson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies. Ian Goldberg is the Canada Research Chair in Privacy Enhancing Technologies and a Professor at the Cheriton School of Computer Science.

“Learning about privacy also means learning about situations and people that do not have any,” says Marvin Pafla, a computer science PhD candidate who attended the class. “Given the forces of centralization, surveillance, and capital, we are indeed in a dark place. A strong response from civil societies is needed. Research and education will have to play a part in this.”

Professor Goldberg is the Canada Research Chair in Privacy Enhancing Technologies and Professor Whitson’s expertise includes surveillance studies and governance of digital media. While they have collaborated in various ways as research members of Waterloo’s Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute, the grad course is their first teaching collaboration.

“What began as a casual teaching conversation quickly turned into a surprising opportunity when we realized we’d both assigned the same readings for the first few weeks of our respective sociology and computer science courses,” says Professor Whitson. The coincidence initiated an important conversation about the benefits of interdisciplinarity within teaching, and resulted in the Surveillance and Privacy course with students engaging in a wide range of fields including computer science, sociology, law, communication and philosophy.

Alexi Orchard, a PhD student in English language and literature, enrolled in the class because she was interested in learning more about the relationship between privacy and surveillance. Of her experience, she says, “I appreciated learning how to conduct an accessible, inclusive dialogue so that all participants can meaningfully contribute. To productively engage with interdisciplinary topics, like the ones in this course, individuals must be willing to be open-minded.” She was also intrigued by the team-teaching approach for the course with instructors from sociology and computer science.

To help the students understand the widespread harms of surveillance including social sorting and digital discrimination, social science perspectives were paired with computer science methods to parse through possible socio-technical solutions. “There is a hunger to better understand the impact of technology on our social lives, and how it sorts and structures opportunities, and how we might visualize a more ethical, equitable society via the design of different technologies,” Professor Whitson says. “This is where the knowledge of political scientists, English scholars, legal scholars, sociologists, etc., comes in handy.”

With an emphasis on collective mentoring, the course enabled students from different faculties to collaborate on final projects that showcase the scope and value in applying their diverse expertise. Professor Whitson says her ultimate goal for this course is to foster future collaborations and friendships. “We wanted to develop a taste for working with and learning from colleagues in other fields and dipping into other courses, readings, and projects that normally they’d think weren’t meant for them.”

Alexi Orchard worked on a project with classmates titled, “Surveillance Never Sleeps: Privacy Practices of Sleep Tracking Apps,” which examined data sharing among 13 sleep tracking apps to determine whether the data collection complied with privacy policies — as it turned out, many did not. She says, “Through this project, we also discussed the ethical implications of this technology and the cultural movement toward personalized healthcare and wellness.”

As one of the first inter-faculty graduate offerings of this kind, Professors Whitson and Goldberg’s course demonstrated great potential for more interdisciplinary teaching and learning. “I would love to see more courses adapt this model in terms of combining instructors and students from different faculties,” says Professor Whitson. “Actively teaching together breaks down disciplinary silos and fosters a creative tension that may be unique now, but not for long I hope.”

As part of October Cybersecurity Month, hosted by the Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute, Professors Whitson and Goldberg will be launching the CPI’s Public Outreach Talk series on October 21, 2021 with a keynote on “Privacy Research that Matters.” All are welcome to attend. Further details will be posted on CPI’s website.


The original article, by Kaitlin O’Brien, Faculty of Arts Graduate Recruitment Officer, appeared in the summer | fall 2021 issue of Arts and Letters, a newsletter for alumni and friends of Waterloo Arts.

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