Felix Stalder on Thu, 27 Jun 2002 00:39:59 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Privacy Won't Help Us (Fight Surveillance)

Privacy Won't Help Us (Fight Surveillance)
by Felix Stalder and Jesse Hirsh

We live in a surveillance society. The creation, collection and processing
of personal data is nearly a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Every time we use a loyalty card at a retailer, our names are correlated
with our purchases and entered into giant databases. Every time we pass an
electronic toll booth on the highway, every time we use a cell phone or a
credit card, our locations are being recorded, analyzed and stored. Every
time we go to see a doctor, submit an insurance claim, pay our utility
bills, interact with the government, or go online, the picture gleaned from
our actions and states grows finer and fatter.

Our physical bodies are being shadowed by an increasingly comprehensive
"data body." However, this shadow body does more than follow us. It has
also begun to precede us. Before we arrive somewhere, we have already been
measured and classified. Thus, upon arrival, we're treated according to
whatever criteria has been connected to the profile that represents us.

Insurance premiums, for example, can be based on health data that is
already available to insurance companies. For our convenience, we are told,
the companies already know everything they need to know about us. The
problem is that we don't know what they know, and cannot be sure that their
information is correct, or become aware of the kinds of decisions that are
based upon it.

If we are denied insurance coverage, or if our premiums are higher than
usual, there is little way of knowing how this decision came about, nor how
we can appeal it. After all, receiving a commercial service is a privilege,
not a right. If we apply for jobs and do not get them, perhaps it's because
of our qualifications, but perhaps it's because we were deemed to be part
of a high-risk group for developing health problems, and the company
doesn't want to hire employees who might get sick in the future.

This situation makes a lot of people nervous, for good reason. According to
every opinion poll taken - at least before the panic regime took over
following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 - the vast majority
of respondents were "concerned" or "very concerned" about the misuse of
personal data.

Access to large data-sets of personal information is a prerequisite for
social control. Those who hold such data have a crucial tool that allows
them to influence the behaviour of those whose data is being held.
Marketing is an obvious example. The more a seller knows about its
prospective customers, the better their needs can be targeted or

Marketing involves subtle forms of manipulation: creating desires at the
right moment, in precisely the right way, so that they can be satisfied by
merchants. Similarly, governments want to collect data about their citizens
in order to increase the accuracy of their planning, as well as combat
fraud and tax evasion. Of course, don't forget the ballooning security
establishment, which wants infinite amounts of information about everyone
to combat an ever-growing list of enemies.

The cumulative effect of the culling all this information is that "they"
know more than ever about "us," while we still know very little about them,
including who they are and what they know about us. An increasing number of
institutions have the ability to manipulate us (with various degrees of
success), influence our behaviour, and subject us to specialized treatment
in a wide range of situations. For instance, when you call your bank and
have to wait in line for 25 minutes, perhaps you are not a preferred
customer, whose call would have been answered immediately, perhaps not. The
problem is, you don't know whether this kind of discrimination is taking
place, and have no way of fighting against it.

The standard answer to this problem is calling for our privacy to be
protected. However, privacy is a notoriously vague concept. Europeans, for
example, have refined it to mean "informational self-determination," which
basically means that an individual should be able to determine the extent
to which data about her or him is being collected in any given context.

Following this definition, privacy is a kind of bubble that surrounds each
person, and the dimensions of this bubble are determined by one's ability
to control who enters it and who doesn't. Privacy is a personal space;
space under the exclusive control of the individual. Privacy, in a way, is
the informational equivalent to the (bourgeois, if you will) notion of "my
home is my castle."

As appealing as this concept is, it plainly doesn't work. Everyone agrees
that our privacy has been eroding for a very long time - hence the notion
of the "surveillance society" - and there is absolutely no indication that
the trend is going to slow down, let alone reverse.

Even in the most literal sense, the walls of our castles are being pierced
by more and more connections to the outside world. It started with the
telephone, the TV and the Internet, but imagine when your fridge begins to
communicate with your palm pilot, updating the shopping list as you run out
of milk, and perhaps even sending a notice to the grocer for home delivery.
Or maybe the stove will alert the fire department because you didn't turn
off the hot plate before rushing out one morning. A less futuristic example
of this connectivity would be smoke detectors that are connected to alarm
response systems.

Outside the home, it becomes even more difficult to avoid entering into
relationships that produce electronic, personal data. Only the most zealous
will opt for standing in line to pay cash at the toll both every day, if
they can just breeze through an electronic gate instead.

This problem is made even more complicated by the fact that there are
certain cases in which we want "them" to have our data. For example, it can
be a matter of life and death to have instant access to comprehensive and
up-to-date health-related information about the people who are being
brought into the emergency room unconscious.

To make matters worse, with privacy being by definition personal, every
single person will have a different notion about what privacy means. Data
one person might allow to be collected might be deeply personal for someone
else. This makes it very difficult to collectively agree on the legitimate
boundaries of the privacy bubble.

>From an individual's point of view, making dozens of complex decisions each
day about which data collection to consent to and which to refuse, i.e. to
actively exercise informational self-determination, is clearly impractical.
The cognitive load is too high for all but the most dedicated privacy
enthusiasts. We can see the consequence of this in the well-known paradox
that while most people are concerned about privacy, when asked in general
terms, in practice most do little to protect it.

This dilemma indicates that the notion of privacy - based on concepts of
individualism and separation - has become unworkable in an environment
constituted by a myriad of electronic connections. So rather than fight
those connections - some of which are clearly beneficial, but most of which
are either somewhat ambiguous or even disconcerting - we have to find ways
to ensure that those who enhance their power from these connections are

Rather than continuing on the defensive, by trying to maintain an
ever-weakening illusion of privacy, we have to shift to the offensive and
start demanding accountability. In a democracy, political power is
ostensibly tamed by making the government accountable to those who are
governed, not by carving out areas in which the law doesn't apply.
Extensive institutional mechanisms have been put into to place to create
and maintain accountability, and to punish those who abuse their power.

We need to instate similar mechanisms for the handling of personal
information - a powerful technique that is as crucial as the ability to
exercise physical violence - in order to limit the concentration of power
inherent in situations that involve unchecked surveillance. The current
notion of privacy, which frames the issue as a personal one, won't help us
accomplish that. However, institutionalized accountability will, because it
acknowledges surveillance as a structural problem of political power. It's
time to update our strategies for resistance and consider some fresh
tactics and perspectives.

[This essay was written for a critical reader on biometrics, wars on
terror, social control in informatic environments, counter surveillance
techniques and actions which is currently being put together by the
Surveillance Unit of the UTS Community Law and Legal Research Centre and a
coalition of other surveillance/policing activists from Melbourne.]

Les faits sont faits.

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