The Death of Privacy: Technology and the Challenge for Social Activists

Tuesday, 27 October 2009 11:42 By Tolu Olorunda, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

The death of privacy.
(Photo Illustration: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t, Adapted From: freestyle_ttorry, bkbral, danstrange / flickr)

    There is something immeasurably insidious about a government that spies on its citizens. And if there is one universal truth, it is that no country has a monopoly on such activities. Whenever a ruling class, from whatever region, begins to feel threatened by the unforeseen, emerging independence of the underclass, one of the next steps taken is to monitor conversations, document strategies and invade privacies. It's an inevitable impulse that bears witness to the fierce determination of Struggle.
So, it should surprise no one that In-Q-Tel, "the investment arm of the CIA," is enlisting the services of Visible Technologies, a software firm notorious for monitoring social networking activities. Noah Shachtman, contributing editor to Wired magazine, reported this new discovery last week. He described the process in great detail:

Visible crawls over half a million web 2.0 sites a day, scraping more than a million posts and conversations taking place on blogs, online forums, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and Amazon.... Then Visible "scores" each post, labeling it as positive or negative, mixed or neutral. It examines how influential a conversation or an author is.

    In an appearance on "Democracy Now!," Shachtman elaborated further: "Visible ... takes Twitter updates and takes comments on YouTube videos and sort of sorts them out and decides which people have the most weight in the blogosphere, which people are the most influential." And though he mentions that, as of yet, Visible doesn't "touch closed social networks, like Facebook," news that Microsoft and Google recently signed deals with Facebook and Twitter to publicize users' status updates and feeds doesn't provide much relief.

    First, it's important to acknowledge how unsurprising these events are. It was always assumed - at least by this writer - that with greater access to social networks would come an end to privacy - more so in the traditional sense. So that, while the Internet is a great resource for information sharing, partnership and networking, it also situates a user in the midst of a global community, which immediately eliminates the possibility of secrecy - regardless of any allusions to anonymity.

    It's also crucial to acknowledge that in no way is this groundbreaking - or the first of its kind. The deal between In-Q-Tel and Visible might indeed be unprecedented, but unaccountable surveillance of citizens is nothing new. J. Edgar Hoover's FBI didn't need Visible's services to invade the security and privacy of civil rights activists in the '60s and '70s. And even after COINTELPRO was legally abandoned and discredited, the second Bush administration didn't discriminate in illegally tapping the phones of journalists and other nonterrorist-linked citizens - courtesy of "immune" (infallible?) telecommunication companies. In such a society purportedly prided on respect for liberty and freedom, the challenges for those who hope to make it as good as its promise appear limitless. It's even much harder when all notions of security are wiped out to fulfill the wishes of ambitious agencies.

    Technology scholars Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen and Harry Lewis explore this phenomenon in their new text, "Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion," released last year. Among other things, they point out that even when a cell phone is turned off, federal agents could still monitor ongoing conversation via software installed on the phone - anonymously and stealthily, of course - that leaves the microphone everlastingly on.

    For many, such news is devastating. For others, however, it is but the tip of the iceberg - the start of things far worse to come.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing nearly two centuries ago, feared that "[t]he arts and technology of each era are only window dressing and do not give people life. The harm of improved technology may balance out its good." Emerson might be surprised to find his prophetic analysis corroborated so precisely in the lives of millions around the globe who've become wholly dependent on the services hand-held gadgets provide. To an extent, these practices evince a lack of self-control inherent in the users; but those involved in social work can also speak positively to the good a portable camera, a portable audio recorder or a portable camcorder can bring - when used appropriately.

    For instance, the much-discussed - and much-hyped - Iranian election "revolution" earlier this year unleashed, for the first time, the power of mass-based, advocacy-aimed social networking. Several reports of human rights misconducts, vividly documented by citizen journalists, exposed a global audience to the everyday realities of some Iranian citizens.

    The caught-on-tape death of Oakland resident Oscar Grant is another noteworthy example. For too long, arbitrary police power had gone unchecked, bestowing unprecedented - unmanageable - authority in the hands of officers - occasionally to the detriment, and death, of unarmed, innocent citizens. This time, however, the reactionary "justifiable homicide" defense failed to win public sympathy, as millions were exposed to raw footage - captured on a cell-phone camera - of a police officer's boot, in full Orwellian mode, pressed firmly against the head of Grant, right before being shot in the back by another officer. (That police personnel reportedly seized several cell phones at the scene, following the shooting, yields greater significance.)

    The political sphere also hasn't been unscathed by the claws of new technology. Many remember the racist remarks made by former Republican Sen. George Allen at a 2006 campaign stop in Virginia, which eliminated any chances - however strong - of reelection or a 2008 presidential run.

    Arizona Sen. John McCain's captured "bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" chorus at Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, is another remarkable reminder of, as described by acclaimed scholar Henry Giroux, new media's "centrality to democracy."

    Referring to the above-mentioned "Iranian uprising," Giroux argued that it "[suggests] new possibilities for engaging the new media as a democratic force both for critique and for positive intervention and change." More importantly, he wrote, it "provides some resources for rethinking how ... how certain pedagogical practices are employed in mobilizing a range of affective investments around images of trauma, suffering, and collective struggles."

    It's key to reject the politics of fear at a critical time such as this. Activists, throughout history, have always understood that fear is perhaps the single most destructive force in any movement. Fear of surveillance, fear of coercion, fear of arrest can extinguish all moral vigor from the most courageous of men and women.

    It's easy, following news of the CIA's latest intentions, to shut down one's social networking accounts, or begin engaging in self-censorship. It's easy to cower before the great walls of intrusion. But it's also easy to see this for what it is: a desperate attempt to keep track, and possibly mitigate, this prestigious moment in history - when a growing, global citizenry is beginning to understand that information shouldn't always be funneled to fit a particular narrow interest, that, as Patti Smith once sang, "people have the power" to change the conditions that surround them; that without engaged activism, without accountability brought to bear, without a demand, power would concede nothing - not even the privacies of everyday people.


    Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic whose work appears regularly on and, among others. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

(Photo Illustration: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t, Adapted From: freestyle_ttorry, bkbral, danstrange / flickr)
Last modified on Tuesday, 27 October 2009 17:34