The Concepts of Privacy and Surveillance

It is no surprise that with information comes power. The deluge of details that the world is creating every single second may only serve to create an information-driven arms race, only furthering the deterioration of privacy in the networked age. Is it even possible to retain a semblance of privacy anymore, whatever privacy may mean?

Unpacking that word is difficult, as most privacy scholars look at the concept in terms of rights. But the idea of privacy has always been a fluid concept and therefore ill-covered by laws. Privacy itself, according to Julie Cohen, needs to be rooted within a social and cultural context, as it is not only involved in the creation of identity but also in individuals’ interactions with culture. This goes against the rootless idea of a liberal individualistic construct of privacy, in which the self thrives in isolation. Cohen’s hope is that by situating the person within the context of their lives, a better understanding of privacy in all its nuances in the networked society can be created and codified into law.

Once the idea of privacy is contextualized in that way, this will hopefully alleviate issues that arise due to the personal context. For instance, when privacy is willingly given up by some due to the more “seductive” side of surveillance, which leads to a “cornucopia of benefits and pleasures, including price discounts, enhanced services, social status, and entertainment”, this can lead to inequality, as those most needing such benefits must trade in their privacy to obtain them. While Haggerty recognizes the role that surveillance plays in solidifying social inequalities, he doesn’t necessarily see that as the only outcome of surveillance.

Unlike privacy, the concept of surveillance has a component of power in it, as it is something that is done to someone. However, with new technologies, Haggerty, writing in 2006, believes that citizens can now monitor the powerful in a sort of surveillance reversal. While that is a slightly optimistic take, there have been a few major incidents of this happening since 2006. The work of WikiLeaks as an accountability counter-power to corrupt government power, as well as Chelsea Manning’s exposure of the intrusive eye of the US State Department’s misdealings in various parts of the world serve as excellent examples of this power shift Haggerty mentions. Let us also not forget Edward Snowden’s revelations of US mass surveillance and the subsequent policy implications. 

But what is interesting is something Cohen only briefly mentions: how surveillance creates “fixed records” of the past. She only speaks of this in terms of the individual, but on a larger scale and in relation to governments, these surveillance records, in the hands of citizens, could be used for accountability purposes. Perhaps this is Haggerty’s hope as well. This is precisely what is happening in Guatemala, as secret police records of their surveillance of citizens (as well as records of killings and kidnappings during the civil war from 1960-1996) have recently been uncovered. (See the book Paper Cadavers by Kristen Weld for more details.) Decades after the civil war began, these “fixed records” are allowing human rights activists to bring accountability and justice. By obtaining the records of surveillance, citizens are able to upset the power balance and turn the eye back on the observers.