Agre’s Two Models of Privacy and Social Media

Choice B Question 3

In “Surveillance and Capture: Two Models of Privacy,” Agre describes two different methods used to impinge on privacy. These models become metaphors for privacy and were developed in response to cultural phenomena. While these models share a few features, they have distinct aspects and have applications for differing situations. Historically, the most prevalent model of privacy is the surveillance model and the more recently developed capture model has principally evolved with the advent of information technology.  Agre details particular distinctions for each of the two models of privacy.  While these two models of privacy retain their individual characteristics they can act synergistically and in the setting of social media have come to describe a hybrid model of privacy whereby authoritative or financial powers can integrate surveillance methodology adapted to linguistically parse particular activities with the intention of intervention.


According to Agre, the Surveillance model of privacy depends on visual metaphors. It posits an encompassing, occult, politically motivated intrusion into personal space by a centralized bureaucracy. His description invokes Orwellian constructs and brings to mind oversight of a population by totalitarian government, entities akin to the Gulag or McCarthyism. The first premise of the surveillance model of privacy supposes a “big brother” type oversight by a prevailing political power. Secondly, the political power imposing the observation does so covertly, in a nondisruptive manner at the time of collection. There is an implied imposition on the boundaries of personal space. This modality gathers the collected information in a prescribed fashion and maintains the data set within its bureaucratic structure. Finally, the surveillance model of privacy is particularly associated with political motivation, in line with government political objectives and without regard to the well-being of the individual.


In contrast, the less familiar Capture model makes an effort to garner information and uses linguistic metaphor to describe personal actions independent of political oversight or motivation. It is typically under the providence of information technologists deliberately attempting to allow computers to track information in real time. The capture model relies on linguistic cues to identify particular human activities. It specifically intends to identify these activities and reorganize the data set in ways that can be used for intervention. The captured information is reorganized into a structure much like a catalog. The collection of these activities can decentralized, a facet of an institution or part of a smaller, localized collection. Typically the capture model is an apolitical collection that is reconstructed and assigned linguistic value by means of mathematical coding like algorithms.


Social media is a prime example of new media in which user “privacy” and any attempt to guard personal information, whether fabricated or not, is exploited through both the Surveillance and Capture models of privacy. The postulate of distinction between the two models in regards to social media is discussed in Danah Boyd’s publication “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life”. Boyd studied the usage, manipulation, and cultural implications of teenager involvement with social networks, specifically Myspace. Boyd points out that even as the user creates their online presence, they are asked to input acquaintances emails, generating an invitation to join the site. This seemingly functional request  applies a facade of innocence to a method of capture.   Inputting all of a participants friend’s emails is similar to other capture methods Agre uses to explain the model; “a cash register in a fast food restaurant as ‘capturing’ a patron’s order, the implication being that the information is not simply used instantly, but is also passed along to a database”(Agre 744) Likewise, a list of friends email addresses is information used on the spot, and also be stored in the Myspace database potentially for future intervention.


Agre posits that when the individual whose activities are being captured, realizes what their information will be used for and how it could potentially affect their life, they will; “maintain an orientation to the ‘image’ they project to whoever is making use of the captured information.”(Agre 748) Thus the information is not captured organically or non-invasively and becomes a sort of performance for an “invisible audience”. This idea correlates with Boyd’s description of teenagers trying to maintain privacy from their parents. When a parent enacts surveillance, elements of the capture models are engaged to concurrently gain information regarding their child’s online presence, parents need only find one teenager in their child’s friend group and they can identify their network. In theory, if one teenager realized any parent of someone amongst their friend group would potentially look out for their child’s online profiles, there would in theory be a panopticism model wherein teenagers would self regulate their profiles to reflect the image their parents find appropriate, since they never know when a parent is going to be checking up on their profile. However, what happens according to Boyd is that when teenagers are reprimanded for output that has been captured by their parents they, as Agre puts it; “adjust their conduct based on their understanding of what will become of the data and what this entails for their own lives,”(Agre 748) and they all make fake profiles;  then they have; “created a network that completely mirrored the network that their parents had seen.”(Boyd 16) While parents continue to implement surveillance on their teenager’s facade of an online profile, the teenagers can simultaneously operate offensive, but realistic decoy profiles off the radar of their parents.

The surveillance and capture models of privacy have distinguishable features outlined by Agre, however they seem to work concurrently in some cases. As social media and internet usage evolves, there will be more opportunities for the intersection these two models of privacy as technology allows family, industry and social organizations to become “big brother.” Agre notes; “technological change is often inseparable from broader social changes”(Agre 747). It appears that the capture model, once the domain of computer technologist is expanding into a surveillance model as society continues to expand the role of the internet.

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