“Invasion of Privacy” vs. Desire for Surveillance


Dennis Baron’s blog post, “The phrase of the year for 2013 is ‘invasion of privacy‘” elucidates readers on the state of privacy connected with mass digital surveillance. Baron makes the point that privacy stretches back (in the US, at least) well into the late 19th century with the first mention in an issue of Harvard Law Review by Warren and Brandeis, and moves to discuss recent developments in social media, specifically Mark Zuckerberg’s position of privacy as it connects to the operations of Facebook.

Baron shares that new digital technologies have allowed for an invasion of privacy that perhaps private citizens have not yet fully realized. However, thanks to Edward Snowden’s efforts to inform citizens across the globe about the mass surveillance programs of the NSA, people are hearing and seeing more about surveillance in the news and in social media.

I agree that newer digital technologies like computer cookies, web beacons, widgets, and various other tracking technologies (see “Know Your Elements” provided by Ghostry) have given corporations and governments access to meta-data about individual keystrokes. Thankfully, employees and volunteers and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) haveĀ  worked to provide resources for people about tracking technologies, as well as engage in legal battles over privacy concerns.

However, I also think that digital technologies like closed-circuit cameras and televisions, biometric devices like facial scanners, license plate scanners, are all part of a larger multi-actor and actant (to borrow from Latour) surveillance assemblage (to borrow from Deleuze and Guattari) where no one corporation or government is wholly responsible for the mass surveillance systems that have been globalized in multiple fields from medicine, education, government, and so on, but rather multiple corporations, governments, businesses, and individuals may all be responsible for an overall surveillance state (that is, if people use any type of device for surveillance purposes).

If we begin to think about this larger multi-surveillance assemblage, then we also need to think about the desire to have so many types of surveillance systems. Simply, what’s motivating people to have so many types of surveillance systems?

Sometimes I think that the argument with regard to surveillance is not so much about invasion of privacy or privacy protection, which are both extremely important arguments that many people from public leaders, policy makers, researchers, attorneys, journalists, etc need to continue to make and engage with, but that the argument rests more with a desire—a desire to constantly watch, to hear, to record, to observe.

If we are to make changes in privacy laws, privacy protection, then I also think we need to address a larger component of this conversation–desire. If we don’t address our motivations for action, then I think we are missing a large part of the discussion on what even motivates us to engage in surveillance, much less to have desire for privacy.

I agree with Baron that the public/private blurring of privacy has already become an issue, especially with online tracking technologies capturing data about individual’s whereabouts on the web.

I think any headway people make in journalistic, legal, scholarly, etc circles about “invasion of privacy” and privacy protection will occur when we can also address the root cause of why people use surveillance tools to begin with–desire.