State surveillance, private surveillance, and you

Here is a piece on Google and “Surveillance valley”:

I do find it interesting that our discussions of this kind of surveillance and erosion of privacy tends to be focused on the NSA (as well it should) and that the arguments for both tends to be that you can trust which ever large scale instiution under discussion, whether that’s the federal government or a large corporation…



Interesting piece, seems to be from the perspective of someone who is confirming their bias… but I guess when your point of view is not incorrect, you get some leeway.

One day I will meet the instantiated homunculus of my digital profile and we will fight to the death for the right to be the ‘true’ Scotsman. :wink:

Agree with him, or not, I think he’s bringing up an important point of the surveillance state–it’s not just the government tracking us, it’s private corporations tracking us too. It may be a suffused with confirmation bias, but it should be part of this discussion. People seem to have no problem with Google or Facebook knowing a fair deal about their personal lives, but not the NSA. I’m less concerned about either side of that issue and more concerned about us only talking about a part of that issue. There are larger things at stake here, it’s not just about state surveillance, but about important changes to how our society functions, I think.


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This may be out of place but the comparison between myself and my digital profile reminds me of the film Stalker.
In it the characters are led to believe that upon entering a room, perhaps affected by or containing abandoned alien technology, their deepest wish will be granted.
The conceit being that you may very well not enjoy your deepest wish; what if, underneath the veneer of your persona, you are really too greedy to wish your dead relative back to life and instead just get richer and richer?

I suspect my on-line profile may represent me in such a way. With the vast amount of data that could potentially be extracted from the footprint I’ve left on the net over the years casting a shadow that’s more real than I am.

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+1 for Stalker reference!

I think how real our online profile is is kind of beside the point a bit… there are many aspects of life where we act differently for different “audiences”… We don’t show the same face to our partners as we do to our parents, as we do to our children, as we do to our co-workers. In addition to that, the line for many people between real life and digital life is incredibly thin. At times, for some people, those people they know who aren’t as plugged in as others in their lives get left out of their lives… I don’t think that means that our digital lives are more or less real, but they are something that creates consequences that we absolutely need to think about and talk about. One aspect of that is the rise of the digital surveillance state, and my overall point is that thinking about it in terms of just the federal government using our data is missing a part of the story. Corporations that create, sell, and make use of this technology are part of this too.

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It makes me wonder how much information is contained in which walled gardens in digital space.
Does the NSA have access to all of it, is theirs the most complete toy-model, or perhaps I should ask, “are they the most capable at creating such a model”?
What if another agency (but in the spirit of the word ‘entity’) has access to less data but a modelling process that more accurately represents reality?
What level of accuracy would constitute a legally valid representation and could such analysis be admissible as evidence in a court? I’m guessing something like this is already extant, criminological psychoanalysis for one.

The data is and will be out there for collection and analysis*, I think the important question then becomes; What is legally admissible in a court?
Everything else is marketing theory.

At any rate, even with all of the myriad complexities implied, it’s interesting stuff. I feel like we’re still just dipping our toes into a shallow tributary, emptying into a great ocean of possibilities.
I don’t expect it will ever be any less difficult or vexing to traverse.

*Unless of course it becomes the case that the data isn’t out there.

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I like that this discussion is going on here. Thanks for the link.

I am of this camp, mostly because of two big issues which I have with the NSA and not with Google.

  1. NSA data collection is compulsory. If I could decide to “unsubscribe” for their “service,” I wouldn’t be nearly as frustrated. But short of leaving the country and renouncing citizenship, I’m stuck.

  2. Google’s “spying” is transparent. They say outright exactly what they’re collecting and why. Heck, they even have pop-up messages when their policies change. Yeah, it’s concerning when you read through their privacy policies and discover exactly how much they really are collecting, but at least that information is readily available. If it weren’t for Snowden, we still wouldn’t know about a lot of what the NSA’s collecting. And frankly, I’d bet that what they’re collecting goes even beyond what he leaked.

Also, I see a real benefit from Google’s services every day. I haven’t personally seen any benefit from what the NSA is doing.

My question is, if there is an upside, to google/etc having our data (and I’m not saying that there is or isn’t) are there downsides as well that we need to wrestle with and consider? While I can see your points, I do think we should also be a bit careful about all this and critical…

I think especially point two you make is especially important, and I think I agree, to an extent, but I think it’s messier. Sure, what google/etc collects is something you can find out about and understand, and from that stand point it is more transparent then the NSA. However, I think we do need to think about the fact that this is for the benefit of a corporation, by a corporation. Their goal is not public service, but fatter wallets. Plus, if there is something that google perceives as being against their economic interest, they are not going to release that. While they use “open source”, they also have quite a few things that are closed from the public, too. That isn’t saying that good can’t come of it, but it is something to be aware of and not ignore, which I think too many people do.

As to the point of “unsubscribing”, I think we need to figure out how these sorts of things are changing social relations and if it’s good, bad, or somewhere in between. I think being active online has been helpful for people who are normally isolated socially for whatever reason. But, it can have the effect of causing social isolation, in part because it is just another digital class divide in our society. Not everyone is online, nor are they online in the same ways.

I think we’re seeing massive social changes based on new capitalist technologies, and we need to do our best to shape and steer it in a true a democratic way as possible, at the very least. I for one tend to not trust large corporations on principle, given their destructive history, even when they are doing things that are good and beneficial, from our POV. But I’m generally a skeptic on such things, so you can take that with a grain of salt, I guess. If we are creating new class divisions, based on the digital divide, we should at least chart how and why this is happening and understanding the role that google/etc plays in the surveillance state is part of this (because it’s not an either/or thing with the stuff with the NSA, I’d argue–there are lots of unknowns with regards to that relationship, I fear).

I think my major point with linking to this story is that we aren’t really have these discussions about the role of corporations in the surveillance state, but we are focused on the government, thanks to Snowden. Not bad, and it’s a great thing he did, at great personal cost to himself, but I just don’t think this is the only aspect we need to be focused on and be wary of.

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I re read my responses and I sorta skirt the central issue as you were presenting it.
My immediate thought; isn’t all the data the NSA collects coming from private sources?
State surveillance co-opts private surveillance. And personal surveillance, ala facebook. To a certain extent, the corporations are still gaming the situation, holding up their hands and demanding the right to reveal the extent of the spying that they are enabling.
Which, as @JonasEggeater points out, really does seem weird when they are ostensibly, publicly and quite vocally committed to the complete and total hoovering of all your base.

Sorta seems analogous to how the modern ‘naive optimist’ shields themselves from reality with a persona, that is itself becoming more embedded in the digital world with every passing year.

Maybe an AI will swoop out of the clouds and make all these hard choices go away for us.

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Absolutely, so the big tech companies are in it up to their eyeballs, and I’d wager at least some of this is furious backpeddling to make themselves look good.

I think part of the problem is that we are so used to thinking about our current system as one that separates private and public institutions, and I think they are much more in bed, today more than ever, than we normally like to think.

Our own surveillance could be a textbook example of Foucault’s philosophical exploration of the panoptican (not as jeremy Bentham imagined it for prisons, but for all of society), and also his ideas around the internalization of our own disciplining to conform to the power structure. In this case, we’ve made ourselves into our own policemen by charting what we are doing and thinking in very public ways. Much like we internalized consumerism as a way of thinking about the world and ourselves within it, I think we are doing the same with the digitization of the world.

But these are hard questions and it’s not just the “evil” state Or the “evil” corporations, I think. In theory, we should be able to bring the state to heel via democratic means, but in theory, we have less influence on corporations, other than voting with our feet/pocket books/eyes. Yet corporations have secret lives that they tend to keep hidden, and they present a particular kind of face to the public, which might not (and I’d argue usually doesn’t) match up with the internal corporate culture. That’s by design. Of course, while there is supposed to be a fair amount that is public in the way our state runs, much of it is not. Or it’s ignored, especially on the local level. We tend to focus on the big stories regarding politics, and the real dirty work, even when public, tends to be ignored or glossed over. But I think lately the state is just saturated with corporate money, and that’s a huge problem, because although it’s “one man, one vote”, it’s really more like dollars have far more votes than we do… We have lobby groups writing legislation and how many of those are funded almost entirely by large corporations?

Are you there Skynet, it’s me, Margaret?

I started to read Foucault, lead to him from an interest in Nietzsche before I got distracted by Zizek and Lacanian Psychoanalysis… I seem to remember his approach centering around the power derived from the politics of sexuality and if I’m not mistaken, was considered as kind of ‘neuvo’ (if you’ll excuse the Deridian pun) return to Freud.

Undoubtedly, we are our own jailers, externalised Prison-Industrial-Complex formality or the sculpted functionality of our dendrites.

I recently read that the richest 85 people control the resources equivalent to the poorest 3.5 billion people. And at first, that is sure a daunting number.
But what if 4 billion people, insofar as they shared an agenda, could all speak with one voice? And how difficult would it be for that to be arranged?

I was specifically thinking of Discipline and Punish, which I think he wrote before his history of sexuality… it’s probably his most historically based work, though his history of sexuality is pretty historical as well (compared to his harder stuff like the Order of Things or the Archeology of Knowledge, neither of which I’ve read, but I think both of which deal with the issue of power and language… So yeah.

So the question is, do we need to organize democratically on such a grand level? Is a “one world government” the answer now that we all seemed to hooked in together as a species? Or can we keep a globalized society and have localized democracy? I don’t know. Right now, our system still, globally speaking, privileges certain people over others, with general western, white males being the dominate player in world affairs, with localized elites have a say as well. As long as institutions like the World Bank, IMF, etc, are dominated by the US and Western Europe, which I’d argue are the real centers of power in shaping global capitalism, this will remain true. The more political and cultural bodies, such as the UN, the various organizations the UN has created over the years, like UNESCO, just don’t have the power that the economic bodies have…

Also, I’m disappointed my Skynet/Judy Blume joke didn’t get a laugh…

That wooshing sound was the joke flying over my head. :smile:

The modern philosophers mostly all sorta seemed ineffectual to me, perhaps a little too distant from the reality in which they are embedding their theories, or even denouncing reality as such, until I started on Lacan.

That approach seems the most amenable to real world interaction through psychoanalytic theory of individuals and groups. It also seems to be the only modern, western attempt to mainstream transcendent concepts, although it always seems to orbit the issue with indications and implications rather than the outright exegeses of koans and parables.

On mass organization, I wonder; do we really need all 4 billion people signed up to the same political party in order to push for change? No? How about the same ‘trade agreement’?
I think that the organisation will not be along such lines, whether political or financial. I suspect that ultimately, some kind of moral collective, arising from net-culture will be a motivating factor which first establishes, then pushes for political and financial reform of whatever entities are already in place.

Which might be why the clamping down on protest seems so important to the powers that be, right now.

@Mindysan33 and @JonasEggeater, I was browsing reddit and this story about Gabe Newall being up front about an anti cheating system which is being criticised (‘by cheaters’?!) as being too Orwellian. It reminded me instantly of this conversation.


If even Valve, which is quite the paragon of coolness in the company space, is doing routine monitoring, what else are we to expect?

edit: hmm, I’ll bet @William_Holz would also be interested in that link.

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