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Surveillance!? We’re Shocked! Shocked!

Of all the victims of the NSA’s massive surveillance effort – from world leaders to you to civil liberties and privacy – there is one particular group that has been accorded relatively little sympathy. Granted, the question of whether or not this group deserves sympathy is another question. After all, it is hard to imagine the NSA’s efforts being nearly as successful were it not for the humble acquiescence of the world’s major tech companies (including social networking firms). Or to put it another way – for the NSA to read all of your e-mails there needs to be Gmail and Yahoo, just as it makes it much easier to connect the dots of your social networks by consulting the network you constructed yourself using Facebook.

What makes matters particularly precarious for these companies is that they are very visible co-conspirators. An individual frustrated about what has been revealed by Edward Snowden (and more revelations are still coming) has somewhat limited options; you can’t uninstall the NSA from the Internet and you can’t keep your smartphone from being an elaborate tracking device (though there is the “off pocket”). However you can deactivate your Facebook account, ditch your gmail address, use a search engine like DuckDuckGo instead of Google, and switch to TOR. Hence the problem faced by these tech companies is that the easiest ways for people to reform their snooped-upon ways is by changing the way they use these massive proprietary platforms. And that could be expensive for these companies.

Thus, the only surprise in the banding together of numerous tech firms to pen an open letter to the President and Congress calling upon them to “Reform Government Surveillance” (as the website for the letter is titled) is that it took so long for the groups to formally do so. The fact that this has happened now, instead of immediately after the first of the revelations, is a testament (not to be overly cynical) to the fact that concerns about the NSA’s actions are having some sticking power (and outside of the US many government’s are cautioning their citizens against US tech firms). AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo (oh my!) have banded together to cry “reform” and many of their executives like Google’s Larry Page, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Twitter’s Dick Costolo have provided quotes meant to convey to politicians and users alike that they are serious! So serious that they are pushing for a constitutional amendment defending Internet privacy…or, oh wait, they’re not doing that…how about putting together five requests?

The demands, or should we say “requests for reform?” Well, it is hard to argue with the five main points that are stuck up on the site (which are as follows):

“1. Limiting government’s authority to collect users’ information;

2. Oversight and accountability;

3. Transparency about government demands;

4. Respecting the free flow of information;

5. Avoiding conflicts among governments.”

It is hard to disagree with these five points, as they are deliberately broad and widely encompassing, and it is perhaps precisely for this reason that this open letter appears so lackluster and almost comical. “Reform Government Surveillance” does not come across as an actual demand but as a sort of shield that these companies can use to deflect criticism that they are not doing enough to combat government surveillance. Indeed, the five points supplied by the tech companies are five ready made principles for any politician to embrace – provided they are not particularly seriously committed to actually changing much of anything. The reason these five principles work so wonderfully is that they don’t require any change beyond the vague acknowledgment that maybe change would be a good thing. They are the perfect examples of the type of changes Langdon Winner warned against (in Autonomous Technology) thusly:

“it is perhaps more likely that the effort will merely succeed in putting a more elegant administrative façade on old layers of reverse adapted rules, regulations and practices” (Winner, 320)

Or, to put it even more simply, the tech firms are begging you to still trust them with your information after they have already proven that they cannot and should not be trusted with your information.

The reactions of the technology companies throughout this whole tawdry affair has been rather reminiscent of the scene in the film Casablanca wherein Captain Renault feigns outrage at the gambling going on at Rick’s Place. Declaring in a huff: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” at which point Captain Renault is handed his winnings. Likewise the tech companies are doing their own Renault routine, they are “shocked, shocked to find that surveillance is going on in here!” At which point they pocket their pay and continue using the surveillance apparatus for their own means. After all, it is rather absurd for these companies to be so surprised by surveillance when their business models are entirely reliant upon the same tools.

In fairness there is a difference between Google or Facebook harnessing massive amounts of data and the NSA doing the same – the former groups want to sell you things while the latter wants to sell you patriotism and the idea of security. And yet any honest reckoning with the surveillance capabilities of the NSA must recognize that the NSA is merely making use of particular technological potentialities. This is a clear moment in which we can see that (as Lewis Mumford put it) “the machine is ambivalent” for the machine cares not whether it is used to sell you shoes, encourage you to “friend” somebody, or whether it turns your information over to the government (or all three simultaneously). Yet it may be the case that a particular bias of current digital technology is towards the gathering and then exploiting of mass quantities of data – if companies like Google see the benefit in this is it any surprise that government’s would lust after the same information?

Part of what is at work in these companies call to “Reform Government Surveillance” is a below the surface recognition that the critique of the NSA’s actions might wind up leading people to question the technological infrastructure that has allowed the NSA to be so successful. After all, there’s something rather humorous about seeing Facebook and Google declare that they care about their users’ privacy. If they truly did would they be routinely changing the Terms of Service on their platforms in ways that continually and systematically alter the meaning of privacy? Furthermore, if they really cared, why did we have to rely upon Edward Snowden for these revelations – why did not one of these companies take the principled stand of declaring “the government is demanding all of this data…we say no.” They certainly would have had the clout and financial resources to weather the storm (and would have likely received quite a bit of public support).

“Reform Government Surveillance” should be viewed as the public relations farce that it is, and while it’s true that these tech companies have some sway in political circles, the five vague principles they are calling for are an open invitation for President Obama to say “I agree” and then the conversation is considered “closed” even though no real reforms have taken place. Ultimately this open letter is the tech companies pretending that they really do have your privacy and civil liberties at heart, wherein actuality they only have your wallet at heart. It is a not particularly elaborate ruse in which the companies and the government attempt to tell everybody that they can stop worrying because “the adults in the room” are going to handle this.

Truth be told the tech companies may prove to be a real force in arguing for reform but to do this they need to be pressed to demand actual reform not five feel good principles, and to get them to move in this direction we need to prove their fears well founded: by threatening their bottom lines. The real lesson of the tech companies’ “Reform Government Surveillance” call is that these are the companies we should not be using.

In their Captain Renault reprisal these companies may enjoy pretending to be “shocked” to find surveillance going on, but we need to stop being pretending to be surprised.

After all, the game is rigged, so maybe we should stop playing along.

Works Cited

Winnger, Langdon. Autonomous Technology. MIT Press, 1989.

On Related Topics

Is Privacy Really a Priority?

How Cheaply We Are Bribed

The Panoptic Con

How Not to Heed a Warning

The Triumph of Technique – The Logic of the NSA

“More than Machinery, We Need Humanity”

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

9 comments on “Surveillance!? We’re Shocked! Shocked!

  1. Anglo D. Branch
    December 19, 2013

    Thanks for the awesome informative article. It answer many of the questions and concerns about privacy and the data NSA has been gathering. I’m very convinced that these Tech companies Google, Facebook and Twitter can careless about there customers privacy. Thank “Edward Snowden” revelations. The bottom line is moola.

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