How Big Tech Convinced Us to Become Our Own Informants
In 1992, two years after East and West Germany reunited, the new government made an unprecedented gesture in response to demands from the people: It released the archives of East Germany’s former security administration, the dreaded Stasi. Probing the vast files, German artist Simon Menner compiled a collection of the Stasi’s photographs which he published in 2013, affording a voyeuristic glance at the former voyeurs. Or as the artist puts it, giving us a look at what Big Brother “gets to see when he’s watching us.”
Some of the photos are frankly hilarious. We’re privy to a seminar on disguises—basically, pics of men with dad bods wearing fake mustaches. The agents of the notorious surveillance state look oddly harmless with their double chins and 1980s turtlenecks. Other images are unsettling. One set of photos, taken from an outpost overlooking a public mailbox, documents everyone who drops in a letter. Another consists of Polaroids depicting the interiors of private houses before searches were conducted—a sort of pre-rummage picture by which agents could reset the objects and leave no trace. We see a box of children’s toy cars, a ruffled bed in the morning light, a wall covered in porn posters. Many of the inhabitants had no idea their homes had been entered until after the archives were released.
When I saw Menner’s exhibit in Chicago, I felt a comfortable distance—a triumphant distance, even—while gazing on the secret lives of these dad-spies. I knew, though, that it was a false comfort. In June 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. National Security Administration can pry far deeper into the lives of its citizens than the Stasi ever could. What his leak went on to divulge made the Stasi look like amateurs: the ability of the NSA to collect communication records without a warrant, and the existence of a secret PRISM program that harvests info by directly accessing the servers of Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and others. There is no longer any need to surveil a mailbox when the metadata of most emails sent in the U.S. can be retrieved on demand by the NSA. No need to snap photos of bedroom posters when Google and Facebook know more about their users’ personal lives than the users themselves.
In the new book Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age, Bernard E. Harcourt attempts a comprehensive account of the rise of the state’s omniscience in the digital age, how it has shaped society and what the victims of surveillance can do to regain their status as private individuals. It has been two years since Snowden’s revelations, but a defense of privacy is as needed as ever. The knee-jerk response from British, French and U.S. politicians to the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people, was to call for more surveillance. Some even went so far as to blame Snowden for the slaughter, as if informing the public of the basics of their government were itself an act of terrorism.
If you really want to get your head around modern surveillance, Harcourt says, forget Big Brother; he’s retired. The attack on privacy in the digital age is unprecedented in history and even the most dystopian metaphors can’t quite capture its nature and scale. The popular comparison between George Orwell’s 1984 and post-Snowden America not only understates some aspects of the problem (the Telescreen surveillance camera’s ability to track its subjects is rudimentary compared to what the iPhone can do), but it gets “the most crucial dimension flat wrong,” Harcourt writes, “namely, the role that desire would play in enabling digital exposure today.” Whereas in 1984 the government had eradicated taste, creativity and sexuality, those same drives are behind our careless dissemination of personal info when we shop, download apps or post on social media.
Harcourt also critiques the popular label, “surveillance state.” When Microsoft developed its latest Outlook email program and SkyDrive storage platform, the company (secretly) programmed them in collaboration with the NSA and FBI so that the government could decrypt the data. The list of private companies lending their power to surveillance is huge: Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Skype, AOL, Verizon, AT&T, Boeing and on and on. What's watching us is not a state, but a sort of state-tech complex.
Instead, offers Harcourt, we’re living in an “expository society” in which we have become our own informants. We have forsaken privacy, once a place of solace, where we could experiment with ideas and moods and develop a personality and a political attitude without feeling the gaze of the NSA and the world’s 3 billion Internet users.
But here’s where Harcourt gets into some dangerous victim-blaming territory. This “digital desire” argument awkwardly balances the guilt of surveillance somewhere between the state-tech complex and the individual. Call me an ideologue, but I don’t see how, in light of the PRISM program, personal responsibility is the issue here. Sure, much online activity today is guided by desire, and fulfilling desires is often a luxury that isn’t worth the evisceration of privacy. But desire and necessity aren’t oil and water—they blend perfectly in the digital age.
As Harcourt points out himself, the birth of the expository society "has coincided with a larger shift toward a neoliberal worldview, in which market rationalities dominate every sphere of life, including the social and personal. We have begun to think of ourselves, more and more, as calculating, rational actors pursuing our self-interest by means of cost-benefit analyses that convert practically every good into commoditized form."
This extends, of course, to our “desire” (I would say our duty) to be noticed and known. Earning an income, for an increasing number of precarious workers these days, is a miracle that must be performed daily. Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t, and every self-helper you meet will advise you—almost superstitiously—to put your name out there, be more available, quash your qualms. In hard terms, that means bye-bye privacy.
Picture this: You’re an intern at a company that is prepared to hire only one out of 10 of you gofers, and at lunch one day, your boss spots your 10-year-old phone and makes some joke about “keeping it old school.” Translation: Your prospect of getting a job just galloped away like Don Quixote charging a cellphone tower. Opting out isn’t only for the privileged, but it sure hurts more if you’re not independently wealthy.
That doesn’t mean we all have to roll over, it just means that a generation nourished by the Like button isn’t going to sacrifice much in order to preserve a virtue—privacy—that Snowden taught us we never had anyway. Cultural reform is certainly a good cause and could save our souls from becoming a commodity. But if we’re talking about dismantling a surveillance state, we need a political movement, not a temperance movement.
Harcourt doesn’t blame Facebook users for their own plight, per se. He simply points out that “the technologies that end up facilitating our surveillance are the very technologies we crave.” We should understand this, he argues, so that we can counter it. We have to see the Apple Watch for what it really is: a tracking bracelet that can beam more biometric data to the government than they even care to know.
But there is no unbreakable link between surveillance and communication technology. It’s not hard to imagine email without Google analyzing the content, online social networks based on open code software that doesn’t auction our data to advertisers or gift it to the government—all of this paid for by public funds with no strings attached, instead of by predatory companies. Harcourt acknowledges the possibility, but doesn’t put much faith in it.
He doesn’t put much faith in our democracy, either, and I’m with him on this. Only 75 percent of Americans have heard of Edward Snowden, reports Harcourt, and 56 percent said that the NSA’s tracking of phone calls was a good way to fight terrorism. The only reform to come out of the Snowden affair was the USA FREEDOM Act, which just went into effect, reneging the NSA’s right to store bulk telephone metadata in its system (the telecom companies will be keeping it for now, making it available upon request). The bill leaves the NSA’s mass collection of online communication untouched. Even so, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the bill “a resounding victory for those who currently [plot] against our homeland.” Some people can’t get enough surveillance.
Offered no alternative, the majority of Americans accept that they have more to gain from surveillance than to lose, forgetting that France had passed one of Europe’s most invasive surveillance laws months before the November 13 attack. We often don’t even see ourselves as the surveilled, because in liberal democracies, the most visible targets of surveillance are marginalized groups who could never affect the results of an election: drug dealers, illegal immigrants, the so-called criminal element, even sometimes real terrorists. Capitalist democracies, writes Harcourt, “rarely if ever recognize that they might have political prisoners. They tend to view all of their incarcerated as common-law detainees. Crime, in a democracy, is not thought of as a political phenomenon.”
On the other hand, civil disobedience, Harcourt believes, is one source of hope in the privacy wars. He profiles several kinds of disobedience, starting with the “siege tactic,” championed by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been publishing leaked classified documents on his website since 2009. His concept, according to Harcourt, “is to allow citizens to become the surveillers of the state and see directly into every crevasse and closet of the central watchtower.”
He presents some milder forms of disobedience, too; a sort of “reduce, reuse, recycle” of the privacy-rights movement. You can use a Tor browser that theoretically prevents anyone from tracing your Internet activity back to you. Facebook can’t track your interests, and your Google searches won’t end up at the NSA’s Utah Data Center. You can follow the tutorials of the Electronic Frontier Foundation to encrypt your emails. You can even buy a Blackphone from the startup Silent Circle, which won’t sop up your data gravy. In the end he admits, quoting security journalist Patrick Gray, “If the NSA is already targeting you, you’re screwed…But this is about stopping the wholesale violation of privacy.”
How does a society rebuild a private sphere once it has been dismantled? “The answer, I’m afraid, is not simple or easy,” writes Harcourt. “It calls for courage and ethical choice—for innovation and experimentation.”
Fortunately, courage has historical precedent. In 1989 and 1990, when the end of the East German state was imminent, the Stasi attempted to burn its files. Fearing the destruction of evidence, protesters stormed Stasi offices in several cities, ransacking formerly impenetrable buildings to rummage through boxes of photos and notes on millions of private lives. “It was a carnivalesque moment,” remembers Gareth Dale, who participated in the occupation of the Potsdam office. “The world turned upside-down.”
Unfortunately, it was only a matter of a years before the capitalist West, Germany included, would become capable, through digital technology, of compiling files of its citizens’ private information that could never have fit into the Stasi’s cabinets. It’s certainly another world now, and with tech giants helping the government map our private lives, we’re up against something bigger than the Berlin Wall. But that doesn’t mean the right kind of ransacking wouldn’t produce similar results. No file is ever too big to be turned upside down.