Let’s start with a pop quiz. Who said the following: ‘if you have something you don’t want anyone to know maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place’. Was it A) Josef Goebbels or B) Google CEO Eric Schmidt. The answer is B Google’s beloved Eric Schmidt. If you answered A you were probably thinking of Goebbels almost identical saying ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’. While some may feel strangely comforted by the Google CEO’s claim recognising that you indeed have nothing to hide, the term quickly loses its charm when you hear it comes from Nazi Germany’s minister for propaganda.
The internet has established a culture of surveillance that is edging towards normality. Whether it be casual phone hacking, identity fraud or the NSA hoovering all your metadata internet surveillance has been accepted as part of everyday life. According to privacy specialist Bruce Schneier, ‘our response to all this creeping surveillance has largely been passive… because they haven’t been laid out in front of us’, suggesting that society in their ignorance of surveillance accept it. In the past, we have reacted violently towards being watched. It is no surprise that Germany, a country that suffered from the murderous legacy of both Soviet and Nazi surveillance, offers the most effective safeguards to privacy.
On the local level, surveillance technology is readily available and dangerous. For the hacker, these toys may be a way to further intoxicate an adolescent fantasy of being James Bond. Yet in the community, these tools are weapons of mass disruption as dangerous and creepy as the knife and the gun. Devices can be bought for $120 that allow people to extract all phone data, ‘seeing photos, contact, call histories, calendar appointments and websites visited’ just so long as you can get hold of the device. Other bargains are on offer, for $100 you can intercept peoples phone calls and for just $50 you can buy a keyboard logger tracing every little stroke. In the words of the novelist Douglas Coupland the absurdity of personally owning these technologies are similar to ‘grown men unironically wearing assault rifles to a Missouri Walmart’.
Silicon Valley almost encourages youths to play with totalitarian technologies. Platforms like Facebook and Google make all of their money from selling your information to advertising companies. Every like, search and private browsing session is being sold to companies who then target you with advertisements. To put Facebook and Google in local terms, they are like having having a friend that recorded all your conversations, made note of your movements and then sold the information to shops on the high street so they could find you at the moment in the day when you’re most likely to buy a certain product. If this person existed, they would be known as an extortionate stalker which is exactly what Facebook and Google are.
Harvard professor Zuboff has argued that humanity has lost freedom, while Couldry, an LSE sociologist, claims we have become colonized by this technology. The former alludes towards a despotic relationship with power where ‘authority is supplanted by technique… independent of (human) consent’, suggesting that the ability to wield surveillance technologies is sacrosanct to legitimizing a person or companies position of power. There is no avenue yet to correctly challenge these companies and government opposition has been impotent.
Surveying the wreckage of the Second World War, Huxley, author of Brave New World, warned that improved technologies can lead to increasingly efficient forms of authoritarianism. Reflecting on the today, Zuboff declares that ‘only we the people can reverse this course, first by naming the unprecedented, then by mobilizing new forms of collaborative action’.