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Technology allows almost everything to be monitored almost everywhere
28 April 2014

A conference next week will explore the wide-ranging consequences, issues and opportunities arising from society’s dependence on interactive technology.

The University of Queensland is staging the multi-disciplinary forum to mark Privacy Awareness Week.

Leading international and Australian privacy scholars and officials attending include The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG, Princeton University Professor Edward Felten, Professor Lisa Parks of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Dr Jennifer Gabrys (Goldsmiths), and Federal Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim.  

Conference organisers Mark Andrejevic, a privacy researcher with UQ’s Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies, and privacy law expert Mark Burdon, of UQ’s TC Beirne School of Law, say the event will look beyond the rhetoric of “big data” to consider who controls our information and how it will be used in the future.

“As cars, phones, and computers get ‘smarter’ the information they collect means they know a lot more about us than they used to – and so do the companies that provide them,” Dr Burdon said.

“Our networked devices now act as ‘sensors’ recording details of our whereabouts, activities, environments, calling patterns and even our moods.”

“A world in which this level of information is collected about individuals and entire societies challenges our notions of privacy and surveillance since everything we do, everywhere we go, all our interactions will be monitored, recorded and analysed,” Dr Burdon said.

“But it’s not just about us humans – thanks to the proliferation of sensing devices and the growing embrace of information and communication networks, both wired and wireless, almost everything can be monitored almost everywhere: air quality, ocean currents, fish migrations, traffic flows, and so on.”

The use of everyday devices as sensors had led to some surprising technological innovations, such as carpets which can predict when a person is likely to fall, gaming systems that become national security warning systems and even mobile phones that can be used to identify chemical warfare attacks.

Dr Andrejevic said the range of purposes for which such sensors were being deployed continued to expand dramatically.

“We are entering a world in which our phones – and thus advertisers – will know our moods, and our cars will know when we’re breaking the speed limit or making an illegal U-turn,” he said.

“Our dependence on devices has led to the collection of data on an unprecedented scale.

“We generate about 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day - the equivalent of 250,000 Libraries of Congress.

“Facebook alone reportedly enters the equivalent of around 50 Libraries of Congress into its databases each day.

“Sensor-driven data is generated so fast that human hands cannot collect it and human minds cannot comprehend it.

“This means we are turning toward increasingly powerful forms of automated data mining that claim to be able to know and predict our own activities, moods, and preferences better than we can,” Dr Andrejevic said.

Dr Burdon said another key issue for the “sensor society” would centre on power - the power of technology to sense, monitor and collect data, the power of prediction, and the power of those who control it.

“We are rapidly entering a world in which large companies and the nations that regulate the ownership and use of data will have an unprecedented glimpse into our actions and interactions, our communications, and even our thoughts and feelings,” he said.

“These issues need serious consideration, because it is clear there is no going back; sensors and the forms of data mining they enable are now an embedded part of our lives and they will be more so in the future,” Dr Burdon said.

Event details: Defining the Sensor Society conference, Thursday 8 and Friday 9 May 2014, Social Sciences and Humanities Library Conference Room, Level 1, Duhig Building (No. 2), The University of Queensland St Lucia Campus. View the conference program here

Media: Dr Mark Burdon, TC Beirne School of Law +61 7 3365 8597,, Dr Mark Andrejevic, Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies, +61 7 3365 7175,, or Melissa Reynolds, Law Marketing +61 7 3365 2523,