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The Consent of the Surveilled
by Dr. Paolo Gerbaudo
After the revelations made by the American information analyst Edward Snowden about the operations of the American National Security Agency (NSA), and of its UK equivalent Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), many have claimed that we live in a present that closely resembles the nightmare scenario of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Indeed the details about the Prism programme of collecting, storing and analysing information about millions of Internet users in their daily interactions with social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and even online video games such as Angry Birds, casts an alarming picture of the degree of intrusion by state security agencies in our digital lives.
Never has it been so clear that the extent to which those very digital services and tools we associate with our personal freedom and sociability are also a means through which our actions can be monitored, our behaviour scrutinised and sanctioned—the intensity and systematic character of which has no historical precedent.
In the world of neoliberal capitalism, and a society dominated by gigantic corporations rather than by totalitarian governments, surveillance is not an operation forced upon us by a police state. Rather it is an activity, the success of which entails some degree of reluctant and unconscious cooperation on our part, a sort of half-hearted consent and indifference from those who are subject to surveillance.
Naturally, none of us would wilfully accept having our personal details controlled by state authorities. But we frequently accept online consent forms that allow companies like Facebook and Google to store enormous amounts of information about our everyday interactions, allowing them to use the data to conduct sophisticated market research and wage-targeted advertising campaigns that aim at micro-niches of consumers.
This is the ‘pact with the devil’ that we have struck with digital corporations. We have accepted the practice of giving away our personal data in exchange for free services, fully knowing (unless we were completely naïve) that these services would use our data to make money. What we did not realise was that this arrangement with corporations would also be one with the state security agencies, which want to use our data for very different reasons.
In the past, surveillance agencies would have autonomously collected information about their suspects. Now, agencies such as the NSA and the GCHQ act as parasites on the information economy, capturing data collected by commercial enterprises for their own marketing purposes, and turning it into a means of surveillance.
We are exposed to surveillance precisely by virtue of our choices—or better by virtue of our illusory choices, such as the acceptance that we expressed when we press the “yes” button to accept a digital service’s terms and conditions.
We have become the consenting surveilled, people who by accepting the system of Internet communication and its “free” economy, have ended up unwittingly accepting the surveillance of state security agencies.
We are entangled in part because we desire to be exposed, because we want to share our lives with distant others, expressing our everyday activities, our successes and our disgraces, our happy moments and our sad times. When we post on Facebook, when we Tweet, when we comment on a YouTube video, we should never forget something that was very clear to Winston in front of his telescreen: the machine does not only transmit; it also receives.
Or—to adapt this proposition to the case of social media—whatever we write, whatever we do, will not be seen just by its intended receivers, but also by other parasitical receivers, who want to know about what we do. If we are lucky, this is to sell us products and services; if we are unlucky, it could be to lock us in jail.
Dr. Paolo Gerbaudo is a lecturer in Digital Culture and Society at King’s College London.