The Asymmetric Panopticon

As I’ve noted before on this blog–in unison with many other commentators–the ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, then you shouldn’t mind the government spying on you’ argument is among the dumbest to be made in defense of the NSA‘s surveillance program. A related argument is the ‘we don’t have privacy anyway, so quit tilting at windmills.’

A composite assumption of sorts that emerges from these is that the citizenry has no privacy, has no reasonable expectation of any in today’s most notable sphere of personal, political and economic interaction – the Internet, and thus, should be prepared and accepting of essentially unlimited scrutiny of its activities by the government and even private corporations.

These assumptions, along with the wholesale swallowing of governmental and corporate rationales for secrecy in the face of shadowy external threats and proprietary imperatives respectively have led to a rather dangerous panopticon: we are visible at all times, under a steady and constant gaze, to these ever-powerful entities, but they, and their internal machinations are not. (As I noted in my post on Bill Keller last year, it has also led to incompetent journalists asserting that those who demand transparency about the government should disclose details about their personal lives.)

There is nothing remotely symmetric about this arrangement.

On the governmental end, more material than ever before is rated ‘Classified’ or ‘Top Secret’ thus ensuring that those who strive to make it available to the public eye face–as may be seen in the case of Julian Assange, Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden–prosecution and public ridicule. It is worth remembering that the government’s classification of material as ‘Top Secret’, which is the basis for legal prosecution of whistleblowers, is never up for contestation. Thus, one strategy to make transparency harder and whistleblowing more dangerous is to simply classify huge amounts of material thus. It helps too, to mount a furious barrage of accusations of treason and worse against the whistleblower. (A related strategy makes it harder to observe and record the work of law enforcement officers: New York’s S.2402 bill, will, if nothing else, make it much more dangerous to videotape police officers in action.)

On the corporate end, opacity is ensured by a bewildering combination of trade secrets, non-disclosure agreements, proprietary recipes, business methods, and the like; these ensure that those who collect data about us are almost always working in the shadows, away from the public eye, their machinations and strategies and imperatives poorly understood.

So, we find ourselves at this pass: we are told that we have no privacy and should not expect any, but those who want our data and use it to control the contours of our lives, have all the privacy they need and want and then some; we are told that if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear, but those who collect our data surreptitiously are allowed to hide what they do.  (Frank Pasquale‘s forthcoming book The Black Box Society: Technologies of Search, Reputation, and Finance will analyze and highlight this alarming state of affairs. As Pasquale points out, transparency should be a two-way street; data disclosure agreements should require the collectors to make themselves and their methods known and visible.)

The tables have been turned and we are pinned beneath them.  We cower, while our data collectors strut and preen.

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