The permanence of corporate surveillance

Image c/o Barbara Friedman on Flickr.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the nature of surveillance now as compared to how it operated in the pre-internet era (if we can even imagine such an era even existed). Surveillance is, of course, an age-old technique employed by the state to protect, to control and to manage. In many respects, the Snowden revelations shouldn’t have surprised us in the least. Did anyone really believe that a mass communication tool could be introduced without the state wishing to have a poke around in what was being communicated? Perhaps the only real surprise was the scale. Nonetheless, history provided us with the clues.

However, we can draw a very clear line between the kind of surveillance that was popularly recognised before 2013 and that which has come to light post-2013. The first, and most obvious, point to make is that surveillance has historically been targeted, not indiscriminate. Targets were identified and surveillance approved and conducted. It may be against particular groups, or specific individuals, but it was always targeted. Now, however, everyone’s communications are subject to collection and scrutiny. We are all, to a certain extent, suspects.

The other clear difference is the fluidity of the nature of our surveillance regimes. It is not merely the state that collects vast amounts of data about our activities, the corporate sector also gathers huge amounts of information about what w do, where we go, who we talk to etc etc. This data does not reside securely in the hands of corporations however. We know, following Snowden, that much of the data private corporations collect about our activities is also accessed by the state, either with or without the consent of said corporations. Thus we find ourselves in an environment of what has been¬†described as “liquid surveillance” – a fluid state of surveillance where data flows, particularly between the state and corporations.

But there is a further difference between that which occurred pre-Snowden and that which we know post-2013: the permanence of it. Before the emergence of the internet, the course of surveillance wasn’t always unimpeded. ¬†There were concerns and efforts to limit its scope or even to roll it back. The use of wiretaps in the United States is a good example of surveillance strategies being strongly criticised and, ultimately, rolled back.

Back in the early part of the 20th century, there was outrage about the federal use of wiretapping. This outrage wasn’t restricted merely to the strands of libertarianism on the left and the right (such as the right can be described as “libertarian” when it argues for the replacement of state authority with corporate authority), it cut across the entire mainstream of political opinion. Conservative newspapers were as outraged as the liberal press. The outrage was such that, in 1934, the Communications Act federally outlawed the use of wiretaps (reinforced by a Supreme Court ruling in 1939).

Although these safeguards were whittled away by successive administrations (Democrat and Republican), there was still a sense at the heart of the establishment that surveillance must be limited, at least this was the case publicly if not privately. In 1967, for example, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice stated that “privacy of communications is essential if citizens are to think and act creatively and constructively” (the mere fact that our current government thinks privacy of communication is unnecessary suggests they rather don’t want citizens to think and act constructively…). Privacy of communications is crucial in a democratic society, the fact that this was endorsed by the President’s Commission underlines the extent to which this was hardly a view taken by a few radicals outside the mainstream. It was, to all intents and purposes, a conservative viewpoint on the impact of such intrusions. The big difference now, I think, is I couldn’t envisage such an acknowledgement or a restriction upon contemporary forms surveillance.

The emergence of the notion that information is a commodity has changed all this. In a capitalist society, where information/data has value, where the harvesting of such data can produce profit, corporations are obliged to seek out that commodity, secure it and draw profit from it. Any effort to inhibit this will surely be resisted, both by the corporations themselves, and their allies in the political elite (particularly on the right of course). It is simply not possible to imagine a situation where the current environment is over-turned. Pandora’s box has been opened, there is no way we are going to be able to put everything back inside. Corporate surveillance is, therefore, a permanent state of affairs. It will never face the legislative restrictions that wiretapping faced in the last century. No, it is a permanent fixture because a commodity that drives profit will not ever be restricted so long as capitalist orthodoxy is dominant. Therefore, in a state in which data flows between the state and corporate bodies, it is hard to imagine that surveillance in a capitalist society can ever truly be curtailed.

We may well be able to limit the extent to which the state directly collects data on individuals, but will we ever really halt access to data that we have voluntarily surrendered to profit-making entities on the internet? Is it possible to prevent this in a capitalist society? It seems to me that it probably isn’t. Whilst a large state society results in intrusive state surveillance, surely a free market, “libertarian” society would result in wide scale corporate surveillance (under the guise of being voluntary…”voluntary” being a notion to which right-libertarians have a liberal interpretation)? And as we edge towards an extreme free-market state, won’t such surveillance become permanent and inescapable? Perhaps, under capitalism, corporate surveillance is here to stay?