Worrying about the Public-Private Surveillance Partnership: A response

English: Joseph Stalin, Secretary-general of t...

English: Joseph Stalin, Secretary-general of the Communist party of Soviet Russia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The following is a response to Bruce Schneier’s article The Public-Private Surveillance Partnership. In the article, he argues that the primary business model of the internet is mass surveillance. A public-private partnership makes it happen and to defend it. I find the partnership idea of interest. However, the article forgets how the modern state emerged and how the modern corporation works. It misunderstands the public sphere and what it means to be represented, which is the flaw within the analysis and much of the analysis about surveillance.

You don’t own your personal data.

Let us be clear about the issue, you do not own your personal data. You do not own your Driving licence number, you do not own your social security number, and you do not own your mobile phone number. All of these are data owned by someone else. In most cases, the state owns your personal data. You must register your name with the state. In many cases, such as digital items such as downloads, you do not own them, you only have access to them.

Because the state represents you, it controls your data. If it controls your data, it controls you.  The only other organisations that might represent you, and your identity, in the modern world are the church (the church owns your baptism record not the state) or a corporation, (the corporation owns your employee number).  The former has been weakened by liberalism and the state system. The latter expresses the logic of the state system in the economic realm. However, Jurgen Habermas has already explored the issue of the public space in his excellent work the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.  Habermas argues that the internet is not a public sphere, which creates a problem for us because we can only oppose the private sphere if a public sphere remains.

Your rights in the physical domain are not the same in the digital domain.

People mistakenly expect the digital domain to be just like the physical domain. The two realms do not work in the same way. Your rights in the physical realm do not translate into the digital realm because you do not own your identity in the digital domain. If you want to own your digital identity, then you would need to change identity in the physical realm. Are we prepared to revise our understanding of human rights to include digital rights? Are we prepared to say we only access our physical person in the way that we only access our digital person?

The digital revolution has revealed rather than created the surveillance partnership.

The digital revolution has not created the surveillance partnership; it has revealed what was implicit within the power of the state as record keeper. The state, though, is another corporation so this is why it is redundant to speak of a public-private partnership. We need to reconsider the relationship between individual and corporation; there we see the challenge for the future. The more time we spend worrying and whining about surveillance the less time we have to resolve the problematic relationship between the individual and the corporation. The relationship is not going to be changed by tinkering with FISA or FICA. They are simply symptoms of the problematic relationship. They represent the positive laws of the state deciding the constitutionality and legality of the surveillance.

Once the leviathan has been overcome by the web, who will defend us?

The problem, though, is that once the state is overwhelmed as a record keeper, (bit coin, Facebook represent a rival approach), who will protect the individual?  The state is already being challenged. If you want to be identified on the web, do you give your state id or your gravatar? Who issues your gravatar? For all its flaws, the state (the legitimate decent state) has protected the individual from the state of nature.  However, technology both fulfils the state’s intrinsic nature (expand everywhere to protect and promote the individual’s rights) and undermines it (create the basis for which it can be rivalled as a record keeper).  Our future is uncertain because we are trapped by the illusions of modernity. The state has constructed such illusion such as human rights and privacy to satisfy the individual. After World War 2 and more recently at the end of the cold war, we believed the totalitarian state had been defeated. We thought  human rights would restrain the state and prevent the rise of totalitarianism. Yet, we simply replaced one totalitarianism, that of National Socialism, with liberal totalitarianism.

Can we return to the natural rights origins of the state and found a new digital society?

What must be done? We will need to return to a natural rights view of how the individual and the corporation (e.g. the modern state) are reconciled.  We do not want to return to a state of nature, if the state is no longer supreme, and we still want what the state provides in terms of positive rights, equality. To put it bluntly, if you want a further web of human rights based on the state’s positive laws, you must accept a decline in your privacy. We may even have to accept our humanity becomes problematic. Yet, are we willing to defend our humanity at the cost of an acceptance of the natural limit to your rights? Do we want the benefits of liberalism, despite its emergent problems or do we want to change how we relate to the state.

Even if we welcome the state’s decline because the web succeeds, we have to consider what will replace it. I doubt our digital identities will lead to world socialism or harmony. Yet, whatever path we choose, we need to discuss and develop what we want or it will be done to us. Either we must accept an increased state involvement or we must accept what a post-state society will become. We may not like either but we can only avoid the choice if we change our relationship to the essence of technology. However, that does not seem to be something we want to do because it would create an inconvenience and limit our ability to enjoy what the web provides even though it now demands so much.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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1 Response to Worrying about the Public-Private Surveillance Partnership: A response

  1. mikevroman says:

    Very good. A much better description of the paradox than I could give. More of us need to enter the conversation about this than are currently involved.

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