Forced Transparency or Equivellant Transparency, post-Snowden (or who is challenging the state’s surveillance agenda of radical transparency?)by Vian Bakir & Andrew McStay
With the centrality of digital communications to everyday life, people generate vast amounts of data about themselves and each other. Some of this is intentional and voluntary, such as through people’s own social media postings. Much, however, is incidental and involuntary such as being captured in other people’s social media feeds, as well as more abstract surveillant practices such as cookies and analytics (McStay 2011). Through ‘Big Data’ analytics, all digital data is potentially channeled, linked and exploited by commercial organisations for marketing purposes, although with care taken to de-identify data to preserve people’s anonymity. This includes online data (such as sites visited) and transactional data (such as banking and consumer histories) bought by market research firms such eXelate and Acxiom.
As well as surveillance for commercial purposes, the 2013 leaks by US national security whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed intelligence agencies’ indiscriminate bulk data collection and storage of suspicionless citizens’ digital communications. The leaks showed that through PRISM, internet and telecommunications companies were secretly being compelled by intelligence agencies in the USA, UK and other liberal democracies, to collect and hand over citizens’ digital communications data. This is complemented by ‘Upstream’ collection where intelligence agencies tap into underwater fibre-optic cable networks that carry telephone and internet data into and out of the country. With PRISM data stored in the USA for five years and upstream data stored for two years, this facilitates targeted future analysis of identified suspects and their networks to prevent terrorism and crime (Simcox 2015, ISC 2015).
So, we are dealing with a techno-cultural condition of increased and normalised transparency. However, transparency of whom and for what ends?
Transparency takes several forms. Liberal transparency is, historically, a liberal and enlightenment norm that opens up machinations of power for public inspection, rationally using the knowledge gained as a force for promoting societal net benefit and happiness (Bentham 1834). Radical transparency opens up not just public processes but also the private lives of citizens for inspection (Bentham 1834; McStay 2014). Where this is done without citizens’ knowledge or consent, we enter the domain of forced transparency where resistance to surveillance is tantamount to guilt, and where choice, control and autonomy are stripped away (McStay 2014). In a less dystopian vein, equiveillant transparency is achieved when the forces of surveillance and sousveillance balance out (Mann and Ferenbok 2013: 26).
Are we in in a state of forced transparency, post-Snowden, or are we closer to equivellant transparency?
Before Snowden’s revelations, we didn’t know about intelligence agencies surveillance of our digital communications. Once these were leaked, the mantra ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ took sway among many. These both suggest a dystopian condition of forced transparency. The pre-Snowden secrecy about surveillance means that the surveillance took place without citizens’ knowledge or consent. The post-Snowden mantra of ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear,’ strongly implies that resistance to surveillance is tantamount to guilt.
However, Snowden’s revelations have also provoked resistive challenges (paradoxically including by corporations who exploit our data for commercial gain). So, have we moved a little closer to equiveillant transparency?
For Mann and Ferenbok (2013) equiveillant transparency is where surveillance (ie monitoring from a position of political or commercial power by those who are not a participant to the activity being watched) is counter-balanced by sousveillance (ie monitoring from a position of minimal power, and by those who are participating in the activity being watched). Accepting the inevitability of surveillance, Mann and Ferenbok (2013: 26) seek to counter-balance surveillance by increasing sousveillant oversight from below (‘undersight’). They suggest this can be facilitated through civic and technology practices such as better whistle-blower protection, public debate, participatory projects and systems innovations.
Examination of post-Snowden resistance to surveillance in highlights where these civic and technology practices need strengthening, to move us closer to equiveillant transparency.
Whistle-blower protection. Let’s just say this is bad. After all, Snowden fled the USA in order to leak, and he is still in exile in Russia.
Public debate. Published research on the quality of public debate is hard to find, as systematic analysis of this is ongoing (eg by our Cardiff colleagues), but impressionistic analysis suggests that public debate has been globally patchy.
o Journalism. Impressionistic analysis suggests extensive reportage in the USA and Germany, but minimal reportage in the UK, confined largely to The Guardian, that broke the story of the leaks. The Intercept has since been the source of many stories.
o Films. Laura Poitras’ documentary film (CitizenFour (2014) won an Oscar – but how understandable are its core issue of NSA data surveillance to an uninformed audience? Probably more hinges, in terms of public understanding and capturing the public imagination, in Oliver Stone’s forthcoming film, Snowden (2015) – to be released at Christmas. Unfortunately, however, block-busters are not renowned for historical accuracy, narrative complexity, or the ability to relay complex and abstract information.
o A wide range of civil liberties, human rights, privacy, transparency and press freedom groups were consulted by Obama’s post-Snowden surveillance review boards in the USA.
o Academics investigating public acceptability of surveillance oriented technologies across Europe have held citizen summits (eg those arising from the EU-funded SURPRISE project examining factors affecting public acceptance and acceptability of security-oriented surveillance technologies.
o NGOs (eg Open Rights Group in the UK) and academics have held hackathons to educate the public to the importance of encryption
o Legal challenges:
§ Communication Service Providers in the USA, worried about the pro-privacy public outcry and associated damage to their brands following Snowden’s revelations, challenged the US government in court;
§ In the UK, Privacy International, Bytes for All, Liberty, and Amnesty International have been pursuing a legislative remedy against the British surveillant state since Snowden’s leaks.
o Technological solutions:
§ Google, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo! And WhatsApp recently started to automatically provide encryption for their users.
§ And the pro-privacy movement and encryption industry is courting the public to take their own action in encrypting their communications.
So, whistle-blower protections and public debate seem to be sorely lacking compared to participatory projects and systems innovations.
Plus ca change?
We have a confluence of interests here – libertarianism and money.
With participatory projects and systems innovations, we see an alignment between pro-privacy NGOs and libertarian big corporations keen to minimize state interference in their activities while retaining market trust.
With public debate, we see an alignment between the libertarian leaker, Snowden, and rich individuals backing the anti-state surveillance voice:
o The Intercept is where most stories have come out. The Intercept belongs to First Look Media, founded by billionaire ethical investor and eBay founder, Pierre Omidyar, in October 2013. (It’s grounded in the principle that its journalists would enjoy absolute editorial freedom and journalistic independence.)
o Laura Poitras, the independent documentary film-maker is from a family of wealth.
Which must lead us to ask, is sousveillance most powerfully expressed when libertarianism meets private and corporate wealth?
Is this the sort of ‘undersight’ we want?
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