Ideas surrounding surveillance pervade strongly within our society. With the advent of the internet and all the complications and possibilities it brought in terms of communication, access and expression also came the possibility that the information we used being used by those in power or the providers of access. Websites like Google store thousands of billions of bits of user data creating detailed and diverse user profiles that customise their products and experiences. The Government too has access to a lot of this sort of personal user data with the US government being the most famous recent example of how leadership could use an arm of their organisation (the NSA) to monitor not just their own citizens but the citizens of many nations internationally. The weirdest thing about this new dimension of always on, always aggregating internet surveillance I’ve found is that there’s a good deal of ambivalence as to the surveillance activity actually happening. My own brother, when I brought this topic up just said to me “What does it matter? It’s for security, I don’t do anything illegal”. It’s an interesting point of view that I think is tempting to agree with but as Evgeny Morozov points out, It actually matters a great deal.
Morozov’s article is an extensive breakdown of why the concept of privacy matters today. One of his most resonate points is the one that directly addresses people like my brother – that the debate surrounding privacy must be politicised. My brother might say “But I don’t care about politics” but this isn’t the point here, it’s not about which side you’re on. This debate is in fact about bringing concerns of privacy into a wider scope articulating the political consequences regardless of their direct effect on our lives. To put it in a super blunt way – it’s not all about us and protecting our own butts from the law, its thinking about the greater political ramifications of influence that collecting private data may have.
Morozov after this tends to get a pit provocative in his views regarding privacy. They kickstart the debate by bringing back consideration of the political but seem a little antagonistic in their wording. He says we need to “sabotage the system” and reconsider “our fixed preconceptions about how our digital services work and interconnect”. This sort of ‘throw out everything we know’ tone doesn’t matter so much when he brings it back to this idea of democracy being more important than the matters of privacy in terms of public debate. Other authors like Daniel Solove, while still helpful in their explanations of how things like the NSA scandal are relevant to privacy, do not focus enough on the bigger picture for the layman to care. I mean the aggregation effect for instance is interesting but why should the average and (mostly) law abiding citizen care about the compilation of data to create an image of himself?
There’s a film from a few years back (12 now WHAT? 2002 was 12 years ago?), based on a science fiction novel by Phillip K. Dick called Minority Report. This film has all this stuff about precognition but that’s not important to this debate about surveillance. The film does however paint a vivid picture of a realistic extension of modern surveilling technologies. Ads are customised to Tom Cruise’s character as he walks past them in the train station and his iris is scanned as a mechanism of ‘ticketing’ on board the train itself. Here’s where Morozov’s consideration of the political becomes relevant again. The police use this to control crime, to chase suspects and in this case an innocent one. Ads and transport information are providing aggrevated information to the police for the purpose of subtle control. It’s not the fact that he’s committed a crime, it’s the fact that they can use all this information to assume control and impart the belief that someone may have committed a crime. I think that’s where my brother and others who don’t care are going wrong. They’re missing the point that they don’t have to necessarily have committed a crime for surveillance to be a concern. If they like their freedom, they should care.