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.

Posted on February 26, 2016 at 7:33 AM9 Comments


David Leppik February 26, 2016 9:56 AM

It’s worth pointing out that the article is based on the assumption that sexual intimacy is private. While that’s the case in modern western culture, it’s hardly a cultural universal. The Romans were famously public with their sexual activity, as an obvious example. Single-room houses have been the norm until relatively recently, which makes it hard to hide anything from your kids. And before that, one-room, whole-tribe houses were found in England and northern Europe. (The movie Beowulf shows that realistically.)

That’s not to say that secret romances are anything new, or that surveillance isn’t harmful. But if we become a less sexually private culture, facilitated by technology, that won’t be totally new territory, nor is it guaranteed to be worse than the present culture.

ianf February 26, 2016 10:49 AM

David, don’t be silly, of course it is based on assumption of privacy in sexual matters… what other assumption would have been appropriate in this here U. of Idaho’y academic context open to public consumption?

[This author is not Mary Beard, able to safely lecture an amphitheater full of half-awake students on street prostitution and public latrine etiquette in Pompei.]

Thomas February 26, 2016 4:11 PM

My reaction to the fitbit is pretty much “if I really want a company to know every time I have sex I’ll just email them”.

Surely someone sitting on all that 24×7 activity data has written an algorithm to analyse for amorous activity and find correlations (and perhaps more interestingly, lack of correlations) in couples.

Anonymourous February 26, 2016 7:02 PM

We are already being controlled and driven toward a design.

Ever since the paper came out in Britain, on the perfect female face, now that little elven heart shaped face is all you see on the majors.

Seriously, next time you see a news, or any entertainment show from Rupert Murdochs companys, look 4 the pointy chin gals. Same with any British movie.

I also postulate that this is driving some of the child porn. People see this face design, and subconciously realize that it is childlike. Now they have been normalized, habitualized, and socialized to consider this a norm.

r February 27, 2016 4:42 PM

The funny thing about data mining invading privacy? According to the NSA uhh they don’t have human eyes looking at it there’s no violation right?

Computers and robots don’t have sex, we had the automatons strip out any uniquely identifying information before we forwarded it to our overseas subcontractor… or maybe that’s actually done on sight and not prior to shipment… and any in-transit cc: is not our concern?

Clive Robinson February 28, 2016 3:26 AM

@ r,

According to the NSA uhh they don’t have human eyes looking at it there’s no violation right?

That’s like getting illegal copies of the Oscar awards review movies and when caught telling the judge that as you were not in the room watching them “no violation”…

mething tells me it would increse your stay in lockup not decrease it.

Mark February 29, 2016 4:19 AM

“Wearable sex trackers are another breed of technologies in this space. The SexFit is a Wifi-enabled ring that sits at the base of the penis (currently in proto-type stage) that tracks thrusting rhythm, speed, and calorie burn; the associated iPhone app “tells you whether to slow down or speed up your thrusting”.

Perhaps I’m a bit oldschool, but talking to your sexual partner strikes me as a better method.

Besides, how does it know what is too fast/slow? Does your partner have an app in which they rate your thrusting speed? Will we all be thrusting at the same speed in the future? Is our thrusting speed to be decided by some algorithm?

I hope that said algorithm is made open source then.

xcv February 19, 2021 4:27 PM

Type “ne” in the Google Search bar, and Nessa Barrett comes up.

“Just” this, “just” that, all in order to justify “the usual” off-the-books life-ruining car-trashing home-wrecking activities by the stars and their watchdogs and bodyguards.


“Budding” female singer 17, 18 years old with 6 million some followers on TikTok, the Chinese social media long banned for U.S. military but now welcomed in the Armed Forces under the Biden administration.


It’s the whole mental health gig, lock, stock, and barrel, aggressively promoted and compelled by every pop celebrity as a means of instant gun control at every suspicion, which makes them feel comfortable as stars because the cops can take arbitrary and uncontestable action to “protect” them from allegedly aggressive followers or ardent suitors.

I don’t believe in suicide or suicide attempts. It’s either a prima donna shitshow or else people are drugged against their will by force or deception, and then promoted and compelled into extreme bizarre behaviors against all clean and sober judgment.

xcv February 19, 2021 4:51 PM

Nessa Barrett? Any relation to the recently appointed Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, by any chance?

Oh no, no relation, no dishonor intended, I don’t think she’s recusing herself from the Supreme Court bench either.

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