31: Mitigate potentially inaccurate and harmful “surveillance scoring”

Updated: Oct 21

We examine “surveillance scoring” as outlined in a recent Washington Post article, and present ways to mitigate the potentially inaccurate and harmful effect of surveillance scoring as well as advocate for stronger privacy legislation.

Surveillance scoring

In a revealing and insightful Washington Post opinion piece, dated July 31, 2020, and entitled "Data isn’t just being collected from your phone. It’s being used to score you.", authors Harvey Rosenfield and Laura Antonini provide examples of how your smartphone apps not only collect data but also, often through third parties, calculate what they consider predictive scores that can affect how you are treated by providers ranging from landlords to insurers to customer service departments. They attribute the rise in “surveillance scoring” to two trends:

"... First is the rampant (and mostly unregulated) collection of every intimate detail about our lives... This fire hose of data — most of which we surrender voluntarily — includes our demographics, income, facial characteristics, the sound of our voice, our precise location, shopping history, medical conditions, genetic information, what we search for on the Internet, the websites we visit, when we read an email..." (the bold-faced emphasis is ours, identifying sample data that we advocate you mitigate, as outlined further below):

The second factor they cite as producing "surveillance scoring" is emerging technologies that can process this massive new wealth of data.

We applaud the Washington Post putting the spotlight on surveillance scoring, a process that is largely invisible, “practically irreversible,” and with no corrective procedures when errors are made. What we advocate in this post is two-fold:

  1. Mitigation steps to fight such data collection and scoring, examples of which are outlined below with references to previous posts

  2. Comprehensive national privacy legislation governing data collection and scoring that provides real plain-language consent; access to personal data, scores, and methods used; and transparent correction or removal procedures.

Mitigate inaccurate and harmful “surveillance scoring”

If we take a look at the sample areas of data collection marked in boldface in the quoted Washington Post excerpt above, there are mitigation steps you can take to reduce significantly data collection and subsequent scoring reliant on it:

  1. Demographic data: When using apps or browsing the internet, divulge the absolute minimum data required. For example, certain government agencies and insurers may legitimately require your date of birth, but there is no reason or requirement to provide your true exact birthdate to social media or e-commerce apps or sites.

  2. Facial or voice capturing: If an app asks to use your device camera or microphone, only allow it if absolutely necessary. For example, a video conferencing tool needs access to both, but if an e-commerce site asks, be suspicious.

  3. Location data: Do not allow an app location access unless it is vital for its operation and you need the app, such as for example, a map navigation tool. To minimize spying, do not allow access to your location to e-commerce or service-providing apps or sites. For example, a weather app is somewhat more “convenient” if it knows your location, but how hard is it to browse a weather site and type in your zip or postal code instead? (See Stop location tracking or at least minimize it.)

  4. Genetic information: The privacy of genetic testing that is conducted by a healthcare provider should be governed by health data privacy regulations. But sites to which you voluntarily submit your DNA for heritage analysis or other personal reasons may not be so governed, and potentially that data could be misused (See, for example, Privacy and DNA Tests).

  5. What we search for on the Internet: Use a privacy-sensitive search engine, such as DuckDuckGo or StartPage (see Reduce tracking by Google Search or replace it for search engine privacy).

  6. The websites we visit: Use a privacy-focused web browser, such as Firefox, Safari, Brave, or Tor. (see Reduce personal data collected and web tracking; choose and use browsers wisely)

  7. When we read an email: Use secure email services that respect privacy.


In addition to data collection itself, surveillance scoring presents another dimension for potential abuse.

  1. Take mitigating steps now that will enhance privacy while minimizing the harmful effects of data collection and scoring.

  2. Write your legislative representatives about the need for comprehensive privacy protection legislation to include requiring transparency of use of your data, real consent, access, correction, and appeal process.

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