Bernard E. Harcourt: Surveillance State? It’s So Much Worse

7 Dec

A Mad Frenzy of Disclosure
November 29, 2015

Bernard E. Harcourt, author of the new book Exposed: Desire and
Disobedience in the Digital Age (Harvard University Press), is
founding director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical
Thought and a professor at Columbia University and the School for
Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, in Paris.

The invasiveness of today’s digital technology is breathtaking. We
know that our network service providers, search engines, and social
media monitor our every digital action to recommend products and
fuel consumption. Google collects and mines our Gmails, attachments,
contacts, and calendars. Twitter watches our activity on all the
websites that carry its little icon. Facebook’s smartphone app
collects information from all our other phone apps. Likewise,
hackers seamlessly infiltrate the financial systems of large
retailers like Target and Neiman Marcus. Neighbors, and Google’s
streetview cars, tap into our unencrypted networks and record our
usernames, passwords, and personal emails.

And, thanks to the Snowden revelations, we know that the federal
government can easily obtain all of this information. The National
Security Agency has direct access to search histories, emails and
contacts, file transfers, Facebook messages, and live chats. Just
this past August, newly leaked documents revealed that AT&T
willingly collaborated with the NSA as recently as 2013 to provide
the agency access to “billions of emails” as they were being
transmitted, and installed surveillance equipment in at least 17 of
its Internet hubs on American soil. The reach is simply staggering.

But we are told it is not enough. National security leaders seize
selectively on horrific acts like the Paris attacks to demand still
more surveillance powers–even before investigating the
responsibility of ordinary intelligence failure, analyzing the
existing digital tracks, or engaging the complex issues surrounding
our new global violence. Leading presidential candidates call for a
national database of Muslims, even though data brokers and social
media already compile one.

Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’

Read an excerpt from Daniel J. Solove’s book, Nothing to Hide: The
False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security.
We are also told that, if we are innocent, we should not worry. With
so much data available and machines doing the searching, any random
citizen’s information would be as hard to retrieve as a needle in a
haystack–even as we learn of signals-intelligence agents at their
consoles spying on their friends and lovers, and of federal
investigations targeting family members of suspects on “material
support” prosecutions. President Obama signed the USA Freedom Act in
June, promising it would “strengthen civil liberty safeguards,” and
privacy advocates hailed it as a milestone. The act, which
authorizes bulk collection of U.S. citizens’ telephony metadata,
provides that telecommunications companies will hold and maintain
the data–and the government will reimburse them for the service.

We have experienced a total breakdown of the boundaries between the
state, the economy, and society.
Yes, in what government documents describe as a “partnership,” we
taxpayers will pay AT&T to collect and hold on to our data for when
the intelligence services need them. A win-win solution for everyone
–except, of course, the ordinary, tax-paying citizen who wants a
modicum of privacy.

Critics across the political spectrum have used the term
“surveillance state” to describe the new political condition we live
in. Some argue that we need to “dismantle the surveillance state,”
others that we need to “rein in the surveillance state,” and still
others that we simply need to adjust “to life in a surveillance

But that figure of speech no longer suffices. Surrounded by a
Lernaean Hydra of retailers, data brokers, social media,
multinational corporations, hackers, and our own intelligence
agencies, we have experienced a total breakdown of the boundaries
between the state, the economy, and society. This fundamentally
transforms our citizenship. The liberal ideal–that there could be
a protected realm of individual autonomy–no longer has traction
in a world in which commerce cannot be distinguished from governing
or policing or surveillance or simply living normally in the digital

After World War II, writers and judges framed privacy in humanistic
terms: a distinctive realm for the self to develop, at liberty not
to agree or conform with the majority. But after 9/11, judges,
especially, began to conceive of privacy more often in terms of
costs and benefits, efficiency, and rational choice–market logic
in furtherance of a security agenda. Today, privacy is much more
likely to be thought of itself as a type of private property:
something that can be bought or sold in the market. So we sign up
for free Gmail, and Google Docs or Dropbox, and in exchange give
access to our entire private lives.

The other common metaphors for our political condition–the
panopticon or Big Brother–are equally misleading. Today, we are
not forcibly imprisoned within the omnipresent line of vision of a
central watchtower. There is no “telescreen” anchored to the wall of
our apartments that we cannot turn off. No, the strategic games are
quite different.

In 1984, the fundamental strategy of oppression was to eradicate
desire. With its Junior Anti-Sex Leagues that advocated complete
celibacy and drove to abolish the orgasm, the central tactic was to
neutralize the passions of the men and women of Oceania, to wear
them down into submission with the smell of boiled cabbage and old
rag mats, coarse soap, and blunt razors. The goal was to replace
jouissance with hate–“hate” sessions, “hate songs,” “hate weeks.”

We expose ourselves knowingly and willingly, in a mad frenzy of
disclosure, in order to become ourselves.
Today, by contrast, everything functions by means of “likes,”
“shares,” “favorites,” “friending,” and “following.” No telescreen
is forced upon us, instead we gleefully hang smart TVs on the wall
that record all our preferences, and even our words. The drab
uniform and grim gray walls in 1984 have been replaced by the iPhone
in its radiant pink, yellow, blue, and green. “Colorful through and
through,” its marketing slogan promises, and it is precisely the
desire for color-filled objects–for the sensual swoosh of a sent
email, the seductive click of the iPhone camera “shutter,” and the
“likes,” clicks, and tweets that can be earned by sharing–that
seduce us into delivering ourselves to the surveillance
technologies. As Siva Vaidhyanathan suggests in The Googlization of
Everything, “ChoicePoint, Facebook, Google, and Amazon want us to
relax and be ourselves.”

A survey released in October found that among Americans’ greatest
fears are the corporate and government tracking of our personal
information. And yet we continue to expose ourselves knowingly and
willingly, in a mad frenzy of disclosure, in order to become
ourselves. We post our political opinions, musical choices,
memories, and most important moments–yearning to multiply our
digital traces. We have become digital subjects.

Even those of us who do not partake in the rich world of social
media end up sharing our intimate lives and political views
digitally. It is impossible to have a social or family life without
text messages, cellphones, and email. It is impossible to live fully
in today’s world without searching the web, buying online, swiping
an access card, retrieving money from an ATM. It is impossible to
have a professional life without using apps like Doodle and
SurveyMonkey or responding to Paperless Post.

And we expose ourselves even further as we buy in to the discourse
of “datafication”: the idea that amassing large data sets and mining
and analyzing them will reveal truths about our society and
solutions to problems that we might never have discovered. That
quantifying (and sharing) what we eat, how much we exercise and
sleep, or how many minutes we have meditated will help us diagnose
our shortcomings and reach our personal ideal. All we have to do, we
are told, is let the data speak.

To be sure, analyses of large data streams have identified important
events before we would otherwise have noticed them. We hear
endlessly how Google searches can forecast flu epidemics or digital
monitoring may have some positive effects on policing. And at times,
these new mediums allow us individually to be healthier or more

But the digital realm does not so much reveal truths about society
and ourselves as produce them. Our desires and practices are
constantly shaped, guided, pointed in particular directions. Netflix
tells us which films we will like, Amazon which books we will read,
Spotify which songs we will enjoy.

As the monitoring and marketing of our private lives changes who we
are, power circulates in a new way. George Orwell depicted the
perfect totalitarian society. Guy Debord described ours rather as a
society of the spectacle, in which the image makers shape how we
understand the world and ourselves. Michel Foucault spoke instead of
“the punitive society.” But punishment now has become inextricably
linked with pleasure. Today we live, rather, in a society of
exposure and exhibition. We live in what I would call the expository

The means of surveillance have inextricably inserted themselves in
our daily activities. This is radically new. And that is what we
must begin to resist.

Some have. Jennifer Lyn Morone(TM), turning her life into political
performance art, has declared herself a corporation, to try to
reprivatize her personal data. Others, like Edward Snowden, have
sacrificially exposed the surveillance. Still others, like Julian
Assange, have created platforms to promote radical transparency
throughout society. And there are myriad more common ways of foiling
the system or resisting the intrusiveness, techniques like
encryption, private servers, even sticking Post-it Notes on the
optic eye of your computer.

In the end, it falls on each and every one of us–as desiring
digital subjects, as teachers and students, as conscientious ethical
selves–to do everything we can to resist the excesses of our
expository society. Particularly in the face of such grotesque
exploitation of unquestionably horrid violence, it is imperative
that we disrupt this new political economy. It is time to wake up
and get real. In fact, like the fading colors on a Polaroid instant
photo, time may already be running out.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: