Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, March 17, 2014

Commodifying Publicity

Jenny Davis has written a provocative short piece over at Cyborgology entitled Commodifying Privacy which I will summarize in the following terms:
[One]: Davis takes as her point of departure Irwin Altman's definition of privacy as “the selective control of access to the self.”

[Two]: She complicates this definition by declaring privacy violations situational, proposing: "[E]ach context contains its own set of privacy norms, or expectations about how much of the self will be accessible. From this perspective, a privacy violation is that which violates privacy norms. Or in other words, privacy is violated when the self is more accessible than one has agreed to."

[Three]: She assumes that "the empirical circumstances of the contemporary, highly connected, era" of networked cellphones and surveillance render this level of choice over the terms of accessibility inoperative. She goes on to describe this unprecedented access to self "the key privacy dilemma of the contemporary era."

[Four]: For those who are unsettled by the unprecedented access to selves immersed in digital networks there emerges a need, she says, to find ways to alter the terms of their exposure and regain some measure of control over the terms on which their selves are accessible.

[Five]: Davis proposes (and I suspect this proposal is the reason she wrote the article) that there is "a silent battle between privacy as a right and privacy as a commodity" being waged in the form of the private for-profit provision of services and commodities that create greater control over accessibility of networked selves competing against freely available applications that would do much the same thing.

[Six]: Davis is worried that the appearance and normalization of for-profit services providing control over access to self via exclusive commodities will render privacy a commodity in a way that erodes privacy as a right.
I hope that I have managed to do justice to Davis' arguments summarizing it in the form of just these serial points, but although I sympathize very much with the worry she expresses in [Six], my primary reason for recapitulating her argument in this way is that, perhaps somewhat to my own initial surprise, I think I disagree with all six of the separate points she makes in this argument as I have reconstructed it. Further, I think these disagreements get at deeper disagreements I have with much contemporary "privacy" and "technology" discourse.

Let me begin at the end, with her [Six], and say that if I agree a battle is being waged (and it seems to me a rather more noisy than silent battle) between privacy as a commodity and privacy as a right, I would have to declare skirmishes between freeware versus for-profit privacy tools a sideshow compared to the clashes of citizens with and through their governments over expanding and intensifying surveillance in the name of state security embodied especially in the erosion of citizen protections against unwarranted searches and seizures. I am supposing that the activism that drives both much provision of freeware privacy tools as well as efforts to re-impose legal protections and regain citizen-accountable Congressional oversight over government spying would lead Davis to array both of these against the commodified privacy-provision that worries her (and me, too). But given the way technology-focused theory often treats legality as more or less dispensable in the face of the play of autonomous technological forces one can never be entirely sure of such things. I mean, I would also like to suppose that activists would be as worried by the exposures to harm and fraud and harassment resulting from profitable private surveillance, but I am far from being able to assume that this attitude is widely shared even by those most worried over state surveillance.

I would add, and here I nudge backward toward her [Five], that for me the greater threat of commodified privacy provision is not its erosion of universal privacy intuitions, but the substitution of entertaining experiences of privacy theater for the substantial reality of privacy in the first place. This is a specific danger in the way she formulates the "need" to which these commodities are answerable, in her [Four], for a "sense of privacy" or a "sense of control" in response to a feeling of unsettlement demanding different sorts of feelings in its place. When it comes to it, I tend to agree with Davis' conclusion that the commodification of privacy as, at best, service-provision, at worst, a new species of mass-mediated infotainment, would be injurious to the political substance of privacy as a right, but for me this is largely because the privatization of public goods almost inevitably tends to result in their fraudulent exploitation by minorities as a general matter.

Before I am accused of quibbling with Davis here, let me insist again that of course I sympathize with her conclusions, or at least with her conclusive worries, while disagreeing with what I take to be her premises (about which I could be wrong). But when it comes to questions of privacy, these premises seem to me pretty urgent. To get at what I see as our more fundamental difference, let me continue moving backwards along her argument to her [Three]. While I do not deny what Davis calls "the empirical circumstances of the contemporary, highly connected, era" -- one need, after all, only count the cameras, count the GPS monitors in consumer devices, count the exabytes of surveillance data stored, count the selfies and cookies and profiles and drone heat signatures to know the score -- I do emphatically deny that this proliferation of devices has altered the fundamental terms on which the political substance of privacy is based or even, again fundamentally, experienced. Here, as so often happens in "technology" discourse, I fear that a certain gizmo-fetishization is distracting our attention from fundamental understanding in ways that facilitate the very threat and loss of privacy we would bemoan.

What seems to me indispensable for any understanding of privacy is that it is a political phenomenon and not an (or even the) anti-political one. While it may seem paradoxical to say so, privacy is not the opposite of publicity, it is not the removal from publicity, it is a mode of publicity. At least since feminism revealed the personal is political (and the point was and is made by others just as forcefully, of course) we are no longer afforded innocent complicity in liberalism's brute distinction of the private from the public -- if ever we were. Privacy is a set of political entitlements and experiences indispensably responsive to and imbricated in the terms on which we live our public lives. And at the root of the right to privacy, as at the root of every political right, is the rite: that is to say, the substance of political norms and forms and affordances are ritually, collectively materialized in public and in history.

The problem with conceptions in which privacy is thought to protect the self from public exposure as such or to enable the self to control the terms under which it is accessible in public -- conceptions such as the ones which Davis seems to take as her point of departure in her [One] -- is that the self which privacy is presumed in them to protect is in fact produced in public, and that a precondition for a public in which such selves can be produced is that one cannot control the terms of the self's exposure in advance in the way these conceptions demand. (I talked about a comparable conception of privacy in Paul Hughes' "A Cypherpunk's Manifesto" years ago in my dissertation.)

The trouble here is not ameliorated, I think, by the complexity introduced by declaring the terms of exposure and control situational as Davis does in her [Two]. Anybody who has ridden in an elevator on a long ascent which makes several stops along to the way to pick up passengers and has observed the way in which these passengers automatically and as it were intuitively relocate themselves to accommodate the crowd to protect the "private space" of each passenger in ways that seem endlessly to redefine what that private space substantially consists of, recognizes that enormously complex norms (freighted with an acute sense of violence, as witness what happens when any passenger refuses to follow the implicit rules and stubbornly refuses to move as the elevator crowd swells) govern such terms. But what is really at stake in this discussion of privacy, and what I fear the discussion of it as a privacy threatened by technologies in particular tends to foreclose -- is the substance and stakes of the publicity of which privacy is a part and on which privacy -- and so much else -- depends.

At the heart of conceptions of privacy as the control of the self's exposure is the fantasy of a pre-political pre-discursive selfhood the protection of which inevitably eventuates in paranoid projects of control identified with an autonomy aspiring in the direction of an omnipotence for which any qualification is experienced as the threat of catastrophic impotence. (I must say that privacy talk is especially prone to these logical excesses when it is yoked to technology-talk: "technology" as the quintessential discourse of human capacitation as at once a dream of powers and a nightmare of threatened impotence.) That the self is exposed to scrutiny by others, and as such is open to interpretations over which one has no control, is the condition on which we embark in the public lives in which the selves we would expose or protect on our terms are substantiated in the first place. What we seek to be deprived from by privacy in publicity, I submit, is the imposition or fixation of any one authoritative interpretation of or on the self so scrutinized -- yes, even if, and sometimes especially when, that interpretation is our own presently preferred one. As Davis points out, not everybody is "unsettled" by the sense of exposure accompanying participation in networked practices. One should add, while most everybody is occasionally unsettled by the results of our exposure to scrutiny (as when we are misunderstood or exposed in the wrong or unsure of ourselves or seeking the solitude necessary for reflection), this does not justify -- let alone render intelligible -- any unsettlement with or repudiation of publicity as such. (For more on the basic contours of this argument, I recommend my Twitter Privacy Treatise stunt, especially if you cheat and read the elaborations provided in the Moot to that post.)

As regular readers of the blog know, I do worry quite a lot about the panoptic sorts and data profiles and the storage of data traces on surveilled citizens in the midst of a terrorizing war on terror (just scroll to the topic heading "Surveillance" in the Superlative Summary for a taste). But for me the greater concern is not that citizens are exposed to scrutiny, since an ongoing exposure to scrutiny is constitutive of that citizenship. What worries me is that data profiles are coming to function as a fundamental re-narrativization of a citizen-selfhood intelligible only to computers misconstrued as peers: Where once the citizen was the one who educated, agitated, organized in collaboration with and struggle with her peers in history, who offered up works for judgment or offered up judgments herself to the scrutiny of others, citizenship is being re-framed by database aggregation as a state of being always already framable in advance as the target of an investigation, of a sales pitch, of a weapons system. It is not our exposure to such devastating interpretations that threatens our citizen-subjecthood so much as our reduction to these data-profiles by the amplification of just these interpretations to monologic authority. What is wanted most of all is the public expression and public assembly and public recourse to law without which the emerging prevalence of plutocratically profitable and parochially securitizing profiles cannot be arrested. The danger to our privacy is the reduction of interpretations to which and in which we are subjected and the consequent radical impoverishment of the publicity on which our citizen-subjecthood depends for its dignity, freedom, and pleasures. That this proposal is coming to seem paradoxical or even nonsensical given the terms in which privacy debates are increasingly conducted seems to me the greatest possible danger to our privacy as the rite it is and hence as the right it must remain.


jimf said...

> I would have to declare skirmishes between freeware versus
> for-profit privacy tools a sideshow compared to the clashes
> of citizens with and through their governments over expanding
> and intensifying surveillance in the name of state security
> embodied especially in the erosion of citizen protections
> against unwarranted searches and seizures. , ,
Monday, March 17, 2014
Snowden Docs Expose How the NSA "Infects" Millions of Computers,
Impersonates Facebook Server

New disclosures from Edward Snowden show the NSA is massively
expanding its computer hacking worldwide. Software that
automatically hacks into computers — known as malware
"implants" — had previously been kept to just a few hundred
targets. But the news website The Intercept reports that
the NSA is spreading the software to millions of
computers under an automated system codenamed "Turbine."
The Intercept has also revealed the NSA has masqueraded
as a fake Facebook server to infect a target’s computer
and exfiltrate files from a hard drive. . .

The revelation around the issue of Facebook has led
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to call President Obama
on Wednesday and demand an explanation. He later wrote
in a blog post, quote, "I’ve been so confused and
frustrated by the repeated reports of the behavior
of the US government. When our engineers work tirelessly
to improve security, we imagine we’re protecting you
against criminals, not our own government."

"Exfiltrate" -- never heard that one before.

jimf said...

Meanwhile, in Seattle,
Bill Gates Is Kind of a Dick
March 14, 2014

. . .

[A]lthough many people reflexively assume that someone so
concerned about helping the poor must be a progressive liberal --
Gates is anything but. The most prominent example:

> RS: Thanks to Edward Snowden, who has leaked tens of thousands
> of NSA documents, we are. Do you consider him a hero or a traitor?
> Gates: I think he broke the law, so I certainly wouldn't
> characterize him as a hero. If he wanted to raise the issues
> and stay in the country and engage in civil disobedience or
> something of that kind, or if he had been careful in terms
> of what he had released, then it would fit more of the model
> of "OK, I'm really trying to improve things." You won't find
> much admiration from me.

Gates objects to the very idea of leaking classified information
about government surveillance, because "the specific techniques they
use become unavailable if they're discussed in detail," a position
that could be comfortably espoused by the head of the Senate
Intelligence Committee.

Well, there's nothing new about that, I suppose:
Google fights Bush on search data
By Catherine Elsworth, David Derbyshire
January 22, 2006

Google is resisting Bush Administration attempts to force it
to hand over records about the behaviour of millions of people
who use its search engine.

The Justice Department wants data about every internet search
during a one-week period. It claims the information is vital
to restore online child protection laws the US Supreme Court
struck down. . .

The Administration has issued similar subpoenas to other
companies -- Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL. Yahoo and AOL said they
complied but no personal information was shared. Microsoft
refused to say whether it received a subpoena. . .

Google Rebuffs Subpoena in Porn Probe
January 19, 2006
Associated Press

. . .

Microsoft Corp. MSN, the No. 3 search engine, declined to say whether
it even received a similar subpoena. "MSN works closely with
law enforcement officials worldwide to assist them when requested,"
the company said in a statement. . .

I'll bet.