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The Ethics of Intimate Surveillance (1)

Intimate Surveillance’ is the title of an article by Karen Levy - a legal and sociological scholar currently-based at NYU. It shines light on an interesting and under-explored aspect of surveillance in the digital era. The forms of surveillance that capture most attention are those undertaken by governments in the interests of national security or corporations in the interests of profit.

But ‘smart’ technology facilitates other forms of surveillance . One particularly interesting form of surveillance is that relating to our intimate lives, i.e. activities associated with dating and mating. There are (or have been) a plethora of apps developed to allow us to track and quantify data associated with our intimate activities. Although many of these apps have a commercial dimension — and we shouldn’t ignore that dimension — users are primarily drawn to them for personal and interpersonal reasons. They think that accessing and mining intimate data will enhance the quality of their intimate lives. But are they right to think this?

That’s the question I want to answer over the next two posts. Levy’s article does a good job sketching out the terrain in which the conversation must take place, and so I will follow her presentation closely in what follows, but I want to add a layer of philosophical formalism to her analysis. I start, in this post, by sketching out the different forms of surveillance and explaining in more detail what is interesting and significant about intimate surveillance. I will follow this with some examples of intimate surveillance apps. And I will close with what I take to be the core argument in favour of their use. I’ll postpone the more critical arguments to part two.

1. The Forms of Intimate Surveillance
I have thrashed out the concept of surveillance many times before on this blog. In particular, I’ve looked at the frameworks developed by David Brin and Steve Mann to distinguish surveillance from sousveillance. Here, I want to develop a slightly different framework. It starts with a simple and intuitive definition of surveillance as the practice of observing and gathering data about human beings and their activities. I guess, technically, the concept could be expanded to include gathering data about other subjects, and if you wanted you could insist that data analysis and mining is part and parcel of surveillance, but I won’t insist on those things here. I don’t think we need to be overly formal or precise.

What’s more important are the forms of surveillance. What I mean by this is: who exactly is gathering the data? About whom? And for what purpose? Steve Mann might insist that the word ‘surveillance’ has a particular form built into its etymology: ‘sur’-veillance is monitoring and observation from above, i.e. from the top-down. As such, it is to be contrasted with other forms of ‘veillance’, such as ‘sous’-veillance, which is monitoring from below, i.e. from the bottom-up. This can be a useful distinction, but it does not exhaust the possibilities. In fact, we can distinguish between at least four different forms of ‘veillance’:

Top-down Veillance: This is where data is being gathered by socially powerful organisations about their subjects. The most common practitioners of top-down monitoring are governments and corporations. They gather information about their citizens and customers, usually in an effort to control and manipulate their behaviour in desired directions.

Bottom-up Veillance: This is where data is being gathered about socially powerful organisations by their subjects. For example, the citizens in a state could gather information about police abuse of minority populations by recording such abuse on their smartphones. Brin and Mann believe that bottom-up monitoring of this sort is the key to creating a transparent and fair society in the digital age.

Horizontal Veillance: This is where data is being gathered by individuals about other individuals (at roughly the same scale in a social hierarchy). Humans do this all the time through simple observation and gossip. We seem to have strong desire to know more about our social peers. Technology fuels this desire by providing additional windows into their lives.

Self-veillance: This is where data is being gathered by individuals about themselves. It is common enough for us to monitor our own activities. But modern technologies allow us to gather more precisely quantified data about our own lives, e.g. number of steps walked, average heartbeat, hours of deep sleep, daily work-related productivity (emails answered, words written, sales made etc.)

So where does intimate surveillance fit into this schema? Intimate surveillance involves the gathering of data about our romantic and sexual lives. Technically, intimate surveillance could span all four categories, but what is particularly interesting about it is that it often takes the form of horizontal or self-veillance. People want to know more about their actual and potential intimate partners. And they want to know more about their performance/productivity in their intimate lives. This is not to discount the fact that the digital tools that enable horizontal and self-veillance also enable top-down veillance, but it is to suggest that the impact of intimate surveillance on how we relate to our intimate partners and how we understand our own intimate lives is possibly the most significant impact of this technology. At least, that’s how I feel about it.

2. Technologies of Intimate Surveillance
So how does intimate surveillance work? What kinds of information can we gather about our intimate lives? What apps are available to do this? Levy suggests that we think about this in relation to the ‘life-cycle’ of the typical relationship. Of course, to suggest that there is a typical life-cycle to a relationship is a dangerous thing — relationships comes in many flavours and people can make different patterns work — nevertheless there do seem to be three general stages to relationships: (i) searching; (ii) connecting and (iii) committing (with breakdown/dissolution being common in many instances too).

Different kinds of data are important at the different stages in the life-cycle of a relationship, and different digital services facilitate the gathering of that data. In what follows, I want to give more detailed characterisations of the three main stages in a relationship and explain the forms of surveillance that take place at those stages. Levy’s paper is filled with examples of the many apps that have been developed to assist with intimate surveillance. Some of these apps were short-lived; some are still with us; others have, no doubt, been created since she published her article. I won’t review the full set here. I’ll just give some choice examples.

Searching: This is when we are looking for someone with whom to form an intimate connection. We usually don’t want to do this in a reckless fashion. We want to find someone who is suitable, shares our interests, to whom we are attracted, is geographically proximate, doesn’t pose a risk to us and so on. This requires some data gathering. Various apps assist with this. Two examples stick out from Levy’s article: 

Tinder/Grindr: These are apps allows you to find people in your geographical locale. You set the parameters on what you are looking for (age range, how close etc) and then you can search through profiles matching those criteria and ‘like’ them. If the other person likes you too, you can make a connection. Note how this is unlike traditional online dating services like or eHarmony. Those services tried to do the searching for you by using a complex algorithm to match you to other people. Tinder/Grindr are much more self-controlled: you set the parameters and surveil the data.

Lulu: This is an app that allows female users to evaluate male users. It works kind of like a tripadvisor for men where women are the reviewers. They rate the men on the basis of romantic, personal and sexual appeal. This allows for women to gather and share information about prospective intimate partners. It is mainly targeted at undergraduate college students.

Connecting: This is when we actually make an intimate connection. Obviously, intimate connections can take a variety of forms. Two main ones are of interest here: (i) sex and (ii) romance. A variety of apps are available that allow you to track and gamify your sexual and romantic performance. Again, I’ll use two examples: 

Spreadsheets: This bills itself as a ‘sex improvement’ app. It enables you to record how frequently you and your partner have sex. It also records how long each sexual encounter lasted, the number of ‘thrusts’ that took place, and the moans and groans (decibel level reached). The dubious assumption here being that these metrics are useful tools for optimising sexual performance.

Kahnoodle: This (defunct) app tried to gamify relationships. It allowed partners to rank ‘love signs’ from one another that would then earn them kudos points. Once they accumulated enough points they could be redeemed for ‘koupons’ and other rewards.

With the rise of wearable tech and the development of new more sophisticated sensors, the number of apps that try to gamify our sexual and romantic lives is likely to increase. Apps of this sort explicitly or implicitly include behaviour change dimensions, i.e. they try to prompt you to alter your romantic and sexual behaviours in various ways.

Committing: This when we have made a connection and then try to commit to our partner(s). Again, commitment can take different forms and partners often determine the parameters of commitment for themselves (e.g. some are comfortable with open relationships or polyamorous relationships). For many, though, commitment comes with two main concerns: (i) fertility (i.e. having or not having children) and (ii) fidelity (i.e. staying loyal to your partner). Various apps are available to assist people in ensuring fertility (or lack thereof) and fidelity: 

Glow: This is an app that tries to assist women in getting pregnant. It does this by allowing them to track various bits of data, including menstruation, position and firmness of cervix, mood, position during sexual intercourse. The related app Glow Nurture is focused on women who are actually pregnant and allows them to track pregnancy symptoms. Both apps have an interpersonal dimension to them: women are encouraged to share data with their partners; the partners are encouraged to provide additional data, and are then prompted to behave in different ways. The app makers have also partnered with pharmacies to enable refilling of prescriptions for birth control etc. (There were also a bunch of menstrual cycle apps targeted at men that were supposed to enable them to organise their lives around their partner’s menstrual cycle - most of these seem to be defunct, e.g. PMSBuddy and iAmaMan)

Flexispy: This is one of a range of apps that allow you to spy on other people’s phones and smart devices. Though this could be used for many purposes, it explicitly states that one of its potential uses is to spy on ‘cheating’ spouses. The app allows you to see pictures/videos, messages, location data, calendars, listen to phone calls and ‘ambient’ audio. As Levy puts it, with these kinds of apps we enter a much darker world of intimate surveillance.

I have tried to illustrate all these examples in the image below.

3. The Argument from Autonomy
By now you should have a reasonable understanding of how intimate surveillance works. What about its consequences? Is it a good or bad thing? It’s difficult to answer this in the abstract. The different apps outlined above have different properties and features. Some of these properties might be positive; some might be negative. To truly evaluate their impact on our lives, we would have to go through them individually. That said, there are some general arguments to be made. I’ll start with an argument in favour of intimate surveillance.
The argument in favour of intimate surveillance is based on the value of individual autonomy. Autonomy is a contested concept but it refers, roughly, to the ability to make choices for oneself, be the author of one’s own destiny, and perform actions that are consistent with one’s higher order goals and preferences. I suspect that the attraction of these surveillance apps lies predominantly in their perceived ability to enhance autonomy associated with intimate behaviour. They give us the information we need to make better decisions at the searching, connecting and committing phases. Through tracking and gamification they help us to avoid problems associated with weakness of the will and ensure that we act in accordance with our higher order goals and preferences.

Think about an analogous case: exercise-related surveillance. Many people want to be fitter and healthier. They want to make better decisions about their health and well-being. But they find it hard to choose the right diet and exercise programmes and stick to them in the long run. There is a huge number of apps dedicated to assisting people in doing this — apps that allow them to track their workouts, set targets, achieve goals, and share with their peers in order to stay motivated. The net result (at least in principle) is that they acquire greater control or mastery over their health-related destinies. I think the goal is similar in the case of intimate surveillance: the data, the tracking, the gamification allows people to achieve greater control and mastery over their intimate lives. And since autonomy is a highly prized value in modern society, you could argue that intimate surveillance is a good thing.

To set this out more formally:

(1) Anything that allows people to enhance their autonomy (i.e. make better choices, control their own destiny, act in accordance with higher-order preferences and desires) is, ceteris paribus, good.

(2) Intimate surveillance apps allow people to enhance their autonomy.

(3) Therefore, intimate surveillance apps are, ceteris paribus, good.

There are two main ways to attack this argument. The first is to focus on the ‘ceteris paribus’ (all else being equal) clause in premise (1). You might accept that autonomy is an important value but that it must be balanced against other important values (e.g. mutual consent, trust, privacy etc) and then show how intimate surveillance apps compromise those other values. I’ll be looking at arguments along those lines in part 2.

The other way to attack the argument is to take issue with premise (2). Here everything turns on the properties of the individual app and the dispositions of the person using it. I suspect the biggest problem in this area is with the surveillance apps that include some element of behaviour change, e.g. the sex and romance tracking apps described above. Two specific problems would seem to arise. First, the apps might make dubious assumptions about what is optimal or desirable behaviour in this aspect of one’s intimate life. The assumptions might be flawed and might encourage behaviour that is not consistent with your higher order goals and preferences. Second, and more philosophically-minded, by including behaviour prompts the apps would seem to take away a degree of autonomy. This is because they shift the locus of control away from the user to the behaviour-change algorithm developed by the app-makers. Now, to be clear, we often need some external motivational scaffolding to help us achieve greater autonomy. For instance, I need an alarm clock to help me wake up in the morning. But if our goal is greater autonomy, I would be sceptical of any motivational scaffolding that makes our choices for us. I think it is best (from an autonomy perspective) if we can set the parameters for preferred choices and then set up the external scaffolding that helps us satisfy those preferences. I worry that some apps try to do both of these things.
Okay, I’ll leave it there for today. In part two, I’ll consider a variety of objections to the practice of intimate surveillance.

John Danaher holds a PhD from University College Cork (Ireland) and is currently a lecturer in law at NUI Galway (Ireland). His research interests are eclectic, ranging broadly from philosophy of religion to legal theory, with particular interests in human enhancement and neuroethics. John blogs at You can follow him on twitter @JohnDanaher.


The article takes at face value the products that claim to help people collect information about their own activities.  This is a fundamental factual confusion.  Many of these products do surveillance at the same time as autoveillance, because they enable companies to collect data about the users.

They can do this because they contain proprietary software, software that the users don’t have control over.  For explanation, see

I see nothing wrong in principle with a device that collects data about your own activities and makes them available to you.  But when the device snoops for someone else, it is treacherous and unacceptable.  And when the device contains nonfree software and connects to a network, you must expect it to do nasty things like that.  See for long lists of examples.

Interesting approach and informative.  And yet, this article manages to evade the core question: Is it possible to create positive sum conditions, where individuals, relationships and society all gain the benefits of light, without many disadvantages?

Or will we be stuck in zero-sum war-gaming of all against all? Alas, nearly every pundit who attempts to theorize in this field appears to implicitly assume the latter.  Or else the question never occurs to them.

The core point that Steve Mann and I have pushed is to consider the words Reciprocal Accountability.  It may be hopeless (utterly) to deny surveillance powers to the mighty. But their ability to HARM us with what they know about us can be limited by sousveillance that keeps their actions accountable. Cell-cams have not blinded the state. They have empowered the citizen to look back - at least at power-minions on the street - doing far more good for civil liberties than marches or protests.

Likewise with lateral transparency or co-veillance. The worst and most harmful online behaviors tend to be those wherein the perpetrator can act anonymously. These behaviors moderate when the trolls can be “followed home,” or when the victims can tell their moms.

Do we then lose the virtues and advantages of anonymity online? The reflex is to assume so, but that is just silly and unimaginative.  One can envision services that rent you pseudonyms, temporary identities that will be used to protect core identity… unless you use the pseudonym to wreak harm on others, in which case accountability can apply. Preservation of reciprocal accountability does not have to mean living under a perpetual glare. Assuming that it must is a sure sign of zero-sum thinking.

This is where “intimacy” comes in. If we are human, we will want some space and leeway. We also want safety from harm and the ability to tell pushy neighbors “MYOB!” Or Mind Your Own Business.

It may surprise you—given my authorship of The Transparent Society—that I admit this cannot be accomplished by transparency and coveillance, alone.  Transparency and accountability can protect you from most harms, but not the harm of nosy busybodies and prurient voyeurs who act within the bounds of law.  And we do not want the law to impede most vision.

This is where we need add one element.  A social element.  A general and rising consensus that people should leave each other alone, when no actual harm is afoot. A consensus that eccentricities and embarrassments (teenage photos posted back when you were rash and stupid) are not held against you, over time. That there is a sin worse than any quirk or stupid posting or awkward sex-selfie… the sin of gossipy bullying.

The good news? We are clearly heading in that direction. Every year, young people - and many older ones, too - make clear their intention to live in a society of forgiveness for harmless stupidites… while becoming less tolerant of harmful judgmentalists.

The bad news: this battle is far from won. It struggles uphill against ten thousand years of conformity pressures and zero-sum reflex. But those millennia are our greatest ally, in this revolution of light. We can look back on their darkness and say: “Not that.  We tried that. It’s no good.”

@Davin Brin, referring to ‘The good news? We are clearly heading in that…’

Forgiving harmless stupidities is a good idea, but it addresses only part of the issue.  When the US government decides to forgive Snowden and other whistleblowers, when bosses in general decide not to hassle employees about anything they do outside work, transparency will make for a liveable world.

Ironically, transparency about how the rich people cheat us depends on privacy for others.  The Panama Papers leaker doesn’t dare reveal per identity, for fear person will be prosecuted by the political leaders that protect tax-dodgers.

(I am using Marge Piercy’s genderless third-person singular pronouns:
person, per and pers.  They work like she, her and hers.)

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