Article published in The Washington Spectator, 20/11/2013.
Translated by Sandra Kingery.
It makes sense that we are indignant (perhaps not indignant enough) about the spying scandal, but what we should not be is surprised, as if we had just discovered that we are being observed. We have the right to be angry, of course, but not the right to be shocked, because we should already have known that this is the nature of the internet. Our reaction deserves the reproach Nietzsche afforded people who spend their lives being surprised to discover things they had previously hidden.
This uncertainty exists because we were still stumbling along with the hangover from a precipitate celebration, which united very distinct revelers around the internet’s various promising possibilities. Some were pleased that anyone could express an opinion without the permission of those who run newspapers and that books could be published without being submitted to a publisher’s filter. Others claimed that the citizens were on the verge of doing away with political parties, institutions, and their representatives. There were those who celebrated the death of all secrets and the coming of total transparency. We believed that we would all be watching from now on, like unobserved critical observers, that knowledge would be universally available, and that everything in the future could be shared.
We thought that informing ourselves about the weather and the news, connecting to social networks, buying online, or sending instant messages was a great deal. We seemed to be unaware of the fact that it meant we were sharing information with anyone who wanted it. Being connected means providing information about oneself, one’s location, and one’s actions. Following the scandal created by Snowden’s revelations about the spying carried out by the NSA, the less agreeable aspects of a state of affairs that we helped create have become clear. Yes, we citizens have a lot to do with the spying scandal. Those who have collaborated in this spying include not only diverse governments, but also those of us who use the web. Can we then claim without exaggeration that we are spying on ourselves?
The internet is a hub of self-exhibition, even for the most discreet user. Existing on the internet means revealing oneself in a way, showing oneself through data, itineraries, relationships, and decisions. Moving about on the web, taking advantage of its virtualities, implies establishing a series of dependent relationships to it. Cyber activism is also unexpectedly revealed to be a form of cyber passivism.
The logic of the web implies acquiring possibilities for communication, exhibition, and movement in exchange for dependence on that very web. We can observe because at the same time we let ourselves be observed. That is why the internet has become an immense surveillance machine. I am referring to the phenomena of crowdsourcing censure, of regressive vigilance in which internet users can participate, but especially to the most banal vigilance inscribed in the web’s very nature. The more we know because of the web, the more the web knows about us. Or are there people out there who believe this was completely free? The implicit digital contract consists of us extracting and sharing information. We feed the web with our daily actions and the traces of what we visit, through which we are making contributions, voluntary and involuntary, to the global traffic of data. There is no operation on the internet that cannot be archived or, in other words, identified. Even the most coded communication leaves traces and can be reconstructed. The internet is the realm of traces and clues, in which nothing becomes lost or faded with time, nor is it hidden behind a private curtain. Google searches are recorded; all Facebook interactions are saved. Web usage implies a giant exchange of data between users and servers. Even spies leave traces, and people like Snowden track them in order to challenge or obstruct that surveillance.
For that reason, one could even maintain that these cases that reveal secrets, like those of Snowden and Bradley Manning, display the self- regulatory capacity of democracy, a political system that is only possible in places where the work of the secret services ends up being known … and the messenger survives. Could we imagine a similar revelation in Russia or China?
In the face of those who have exaggerated its democratizing possibilities, we now know that the internet is more of a bazaar than an Agora. The business of “profiling” attests to this fact. The web is a great marketplace of information about consumer habits, continuous market research. Users’ opinions, their likes and dislikes, desires, and geographic location are patiently complied by a series of companies that take this data as their own private property. By feeding the databases, users increase the value of the companies that offer apparently free services, allowing the company to get to know them better and afford them what (they believe) they need. If we collaborate so placidly in this tracking of ourselves, it is because everything has an anarchic-liberal ideological feel, giving the impression that the clients are the ones who are in charge and that everyone is courting them in order to predict and satisfy their needs. What Snowden has done is show how this observation not only served to satisfy the desires of the consumers but to manage them strategically in accordance with political objectives. That is why it is no coincidence that great internet companies and governments are collaborating, on the one hand, because of the business that this data represents and, on the other, in the name of security or geostrategic interests.
We are most likely entering a second internet era, an era in which some naiveté will disappear and certain risks should be addressed. Conflicts between freedom and control, government and citizens, providers and users, between transparency and data protection will become more acute, and we will need to respond with a balanced solution. We will need to regulate phenomena such as “the right to be forgotten,” privacy and the willingness to reveal data. New procedures for protection and encoding will surely be invented, as will new legal regulations and new forms of diplomacy and cooperation.
Spying will not disappear, but it will have to be more respectful of legal questions and, especially, more intelligent. Because, in the end, spying does not do much good since it does not alleviate the need for traditional relationships where trust created the space for sessions to share information that now appears damaged. Among other things, given the enormous quantity of data—those 100,000 gigabytes that, it seems, are swirling around the world—, information must be processed and interpreted; accumulating unlimited data can be an obstacle to finding the information we want. Spying on too many people is an indication of a lack of understanding about what is going on. The intelligence services have long recognized that there is less need to compile data than to improve the filters. The sociologist Niklas Luhmann said that trust is the chief reducer of complexity, but it seems the National Security Agency has not read him. That is why they keep recycling the joke according to which “in God we trust; everyone else we monitor.” In other words, they spy on too many people. What Obama could find out by calling Merkel directly is greater than what he can get by bugging her phone and thus destroying the confidence between them. Building trust is our great challenge, including and principally in regards to security measures. The world is too complex to be observed from a single location; spying also means trusting those who deserve it and sharing the work of surveillance.