Thinking about Intimate Surveillance
Law Professor Karen Levy writes about the rise of surveillance in our most intimate activities—love, sex, romance—and how it affects those activities.
This article examines the rise of the surveillant paradigm within some of our most intimate relationships and behaviors—those relating to love, romance, and sexual activity—and considers what challenges this sort of data collection raises for privacy and the foundations of intimate life.
Data-gathering about intimate behavior was, not long ago, more commonly the purview of state public health authorities, which have routinely gathered personally identifiable information in the course of their efforts to (among other things) fight infectious disease. But new technical capabilities, social norms, and cultural frameworks are beginning to change the nature of intimate monitoring practices. Intimate surveillance is emerging and becoming normalized as primarily an interpersonal phenomenon, one in which all sorts of people engage, for all sorts of reasons. The goal is not top-down management of populations, but establishing knowledge about (and, ostensibly, concomitant control over) one’s own intimate relations and activities.
After briefly describing some scope conditions on this inquiry, I survey several types of monitoring technologies used across the “life course” of an intimate relationship—from dating to sex and romance, from fertility to fidelity, to abuse. I then examine the relationship between data collection, values, and privacy, and close with a few words about the uncertain role of law and policy in the sphere of intimate surveillance.