Book extract: Surveillance in the post-Snowden era – Part II

Victoria University media studies lecturer Kathleen M Kuehn explains why concerns about privacy are distorting the debate on the role of surveillance.

From Part I.

Privacy and power post-Snowden
Putting aside the ‘privacy discourse’ does not mean that privacy has no value, but that its tendency to monopolise every debate about surveillance has done little to actually advance its cause. Solutions promoted within narrow, legalistic frameworks ignore discrimination and the ‘richness of the surveillance experience’.

This default tendency to frame surveillance as a privacy issue, often unquestioningly, is what Colin Bennett and Charles Raab call the ‘privacy paradigm’. Their critique is that the focus on threats to personal privacy is at the expense or ‘exclusion of so many other possible concerns that may be of wider community interest’.

First, the privacy debate assumes people see just how invasive surveillance is to their everyday lives. This is different from asking whether or not they care about surveillance, because most people, when asked, will claim that they do. Rather, it assumes that individuals are conscious of the ‘surveillance problem’, or aware of what exactly that means. While writing this book, I have met many people – students, other university lecturers, professionals, older people alike – who have never heard of Edward Snowden or are surprised when I explain the systems of data capture he revealed. But given the nature of most surveillance systems, it is unsurprising that most carry on unaware.

Part of the problem, surveillance scholar John Gilliom believes, is that privacy debates predominate over those about the practices and politics of surveillance. ‘Privacy discourse,’ he says, ‘has become something like background noise in a complex cultural environment.’ The stories are so common they are like the ‘socio-political equivalent of elevator music hovering in some strange space between silence and meaningless presence’.

Surveillance studies researchers have begun looking beyond privacy because it forecloses on other ways of thinking about the complexity of surveillance. Gilliom’s research involving everyday people reveals privacy to be of comparatively little concern ‘when competing with the hunger, fear, and homelessness that are part of a broader system of inequality that is complicit with systems of surveillance’:

By moving away from the discursive monopoly of the privacy paradigm we might begin to hear about things like need and care, or religious objections, or fears of concentrated powers, and other unimagined claims as well. And we might, as we add these differently critical voices and ideas to the conversation, begin to learn more about the politics of surveillance.

As some advocates argue, big data itself may have the potential to give marginalised groups ‘the opportunity to appropriate the tools of bureaucrats and corporations to have their voices and concerns heard’. Māori, Pasifika, non-profits and community groups, for instance, could create their own ‘evidence’ that

gives them a place at the table, providing them with ‘a better opportunity to influence national or local government policy and to mobilise their own community-led responses to their issues’.

Liberating public discourse from the privacy paradigm creates space for new ideas and action, such as tackling national insecurity at its roots, as opposed to managing risks by means of more surveillance. It can also open a space for introducing non-coercive means of peacekeeping, dialogue and other non-violent forms of conflict. As David Lyon argues, the high priority given to ‘security’ removes ‘the possibility for debate and undermines the position of those who argue that other priorities – such as human security: feeling safe, having enough to live on – compete with the thing called “national” security’.

If democracies are about citizens holding the state to account, then reframing privacy in social terms, and surveillance as a structural issue, is one way of doing it. Mechanisms must be put in place ‘to limit the concentration of power inherent in situations that involve unchecked surveillance’. As Stalder argues:

The current notion of privacy, which frames the issue as a personal one, won’t help us accomplish that. However, notions of institutionalised accountability will, because they acknowledge surveillance as a structural problem of political power. It’s time to update our strategies for resistance and develop approaches adequate to the actual situation rather than sticking to appealing but inadequate ideas that will keep locking us into unsustainable positions.

If individual notions of privacy no longer adequately account for the complexity of surveillance today, then perhaps a social response is the best way forward.

Where do we go from here?
It has been 15 years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Yet despite the ubiquitous, indiscriminate collection of the world’s communications, globally dispersed terrorist-related attacks continue to happen: the beheadings of Western journalists and others by Islamic State, the murder of Charlie Hebdo employees, mass shootings and murder in Paris, Nice and elsewhere, as well as regular suicide bombings around the world.

Post-9/11 strategies for defeating ‘new terrorism’ are consistent with the notion of ‘control societies’ I began this book by discussing. Intelligence agencies have justified mass surveillance as necessary for addressing the new insecurities of modern times. Today’s decentralised terror networks make risk management and prevention exponentially harder. Surveillance has shifted from the targeted monitoring of enclosed populations, known enemies and home front risks towards identifying terrorists operating over comparatively ‘open’ systems and spaces. As the 2009 Murdoch report noted, ‘A national intelligence system and apparatus that covers this spectrum is beyond the reach of many countries as a standalone capability … There are considerable benefits from the networking of national intelligence systems.’

These systems involve a range of deeply interconnected public and private networks. The intensified synergy of state and commercial surveillance has been discussed in several contexts: the privatisation of telecommunications infrastructure, the state’s dependency on data from private companies, economic espionage and the surveillance-industrial complex. At risk of sounding conspiratorial, a look at the political economy of surveillance reveals an institutional structure with a vested interest in the support and expansion of surveillance and security.

As discussed at the start of this chapter, the capacity for control is extending to the local level. Public and private interests again converge to capitalise on the cultural celebration of big data and its capacity to identify and resolve social problems. As these partnerships unfold, concerns over ‘personal privacy’ continue to dominate public debate over surveillance, shutting out equally pressing considerations, issues, concerns, voices and alternative frames of thinking.

Mass surveillance in a post-Snowden world is, therefore, not just a story about the state. No longer characteristic of authoritarian, non-democratic regimes, it involves the routine collection, storage, analysis and use of personal data by a variety of people, organisations and institutions. The era of ubiquitous surveillance is one in which citizens and consumers are encouraged to see their active participation as beneficial, in the name of national security and economic efficiency.

Quoting Haggerty and Ericson, ‘the proliferation of surveillance in myriad contexts of everyday life suggests the need to examine the political consequences of such developments’. But at what site of surveillance does this work begin?

One of the more spirited ideas that floats around New Zealand’s vocal anti-surveillance activist groups is that the Waihopai base should be dismantled and New Zealand should leave Five Eyes. But as we now know, the surveillant assemblage cannot be undone by targeting a single government agency, bureaucracy, institution or by ‘prohibiting a particularly unpalatable technology’:

In the face of multiple connections across myriad technologies and practices, struggles against particular manifestations of surveillance, as important as they might be, are akin to efforts to keep the ocean’s tide back with a broom – a frantic focus on a particular unpalatable technology or practice while the general tide of surveillance washes over us all.

Post-Snowden, waves of protests broke out around the world – from the US to New Zealand, Hong Kong to Britain. Many activists and digital rights organisations (e.g., the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Privacy International) urged Five Eyes governments to scale back what they saw as invasive, unconstitutional or unlawful spying practices. In New Zealand, the Internet and Mana parties jointly called for an end to New Zealand’s Five Eyes participation. At their ‘Moment of Truth’ event they demanded answers from the government about its surveillance activities. Other Opposition parties continued to call for more transparency from the Prime Minister.

But a cohesive social movement never formed, and the government drove its most recent surveillance-related bills through Parliament under urgency – the Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation Bill in three weeks flat. More than 600 submissions were received but only 63 were heard over the three days allocated. (In Britain, where the threat of foreign fighters and terrorism is greater, six months was allowed for deliberation on legislative changes.)

Under a proposed overhaul of New Zealand’s security and foreign intelligence agencies, a ‘cultural clean-out’ was promised in an effort to ‘restore transparency, accountability and … public confidence’ in the agencies. But we have seen little change; in fact, as some critics contend, the intelligence community’s powers are being expanded rather than reined in. It is easy to feel disheartened. But as the social theorist Gilles Deleuze says, ‘There is no need to fear or hope, only to look for more weapons.’

Social issues require a social response. It will take a global movement to tackle what is a global issue. Any challenge to the institutional power of mass surveillance will require the coordinated efforts of all nations. Much like the fight against climate change, such a movement could bring together experts, scholars, corporations, activists and political parties committed to addressing the structural roots and causes of surveillance-related issues, and changing the discourse about them.

At a local level, this starts with bringing the relevant issues to the attention of professional organisations, activists groups, scholars and politicians who have the tools and resources to help get important conversations going. This movement might also acknowledge that while we all fall under surveillance, some are watched more closely than others. Activists and politicians need to better engage with, and carefully listen to, communities that are disproportionately vulnerable to surveillance and its capacity for error. What categories of suspicion do we attend to first, and what strategies are there to mitigate against unwarranted suffering?

In this book, I have argued that the Snowden revelations of mass surveillance do not reflect an Orwellian society in which power is concentrated in a centralised totalitarian state that directly controls our lives. The contemporary functioning of power also exceeds Bentham’s panoptic enclosure, in which the known possibility of being visible induces an acquiescence to social norms and self-discipline. Surveillance post-Snowden is a much different beast. It is a ‘post-panoptic’ regime of control in which we are increasingly unaware of being watched because the systems of data capture are largely invisible to us. While we might sometimes modify our behaviour under the premise of being watched, such moments are increasingly the exception rather than the rule. The post-Snowden world is one in which we accept surveillance as part of what enables us to be free. Behind the scenes, however, a global range of political and economic institutions, networks, actors and entities are working hard to normalise these conditions so they remain to our liking. As surveillance scholars David Murakami Wood and C. William R. Webster argue, ‘We need to make surveillance strange again, and therefore open to rigorous examination and possibly change’.

This does not mean surveillance is better or worse than it used to be. But it does suggest a different power nexus and therefore a different set of responses to ensure the privacy and freedoms we enjoy remain intact. The common strategy of fighting for ‘more personal privacy’ does little to contest the regime of surveillant assemblage operating today. The challenge to it will have to be a social one.

© Extracted with permission from Chapter 4 The Post-Snowden Era: Mass Surveillance and Privacy in New Zealand, by Kathleen Kuehn, Published by Bridget Williams Books, Wellington,