Enduring Sharedom

by Jalees Rehman

“The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.”

—Hannah Arendt

The recent revelations by the whistleblower Edward Snowden that the NSA (National Security Agency) is engaged in mass surveillance of private online communications between individuals by obtaining data from “internet corporations” such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft as part of a covert program called PRISM have resulted in widespread outrage and shock. The outrage is understandable, because such forms of surveillance constitute a major invasion of our privacy. The shock, on the other hand, is somewhat puzzling. In the past years, the Obama administration has repeatedly demonstrated that it is willing to continue or even expand the surveillance policies of the Bush government. The PATRIOT Act was renewed in 2011 under Obama and government intrusion into our personal lives is justified under the mantle of “national security”. We chuckle at the absurdity of obediently removing our shoes at airport security checkpoints and at the irony of having to place Hobbit-size toothpaste tubes into transparent bags for a government that seems to have little respect for transparency. Non-US-citizens who reside in or travel to the United States know that they can be detained by US authorities, but even US citizens who are critical of their government, such as the MacArthur Genius grantee Laura Poitras, are hassled by American authorities. Did anyone really believe that the Obama administration with its devastating track record of murdering hundreds of civilians – including many children – in drone attacks would have moral qualms about using the NSA to spy on individual citizens?


The Stasi analogy

One of the obvious analogies drawn in the aftermath of Snowden's assertions is the comparison between the NSA and the “Stasi”, the abbreviated nickname for the “Ministerium für Staatssicherheit” (Department of State Security) in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR or DDR). Articles referring to the “United Stasi of America” or the “Modern Day Stasi-State” make references to the massive surveillance apparatus of the East German Stasi, which monitored all forms of communications between citizens of East Germany, from wire-tapping apartments, offices, phones and secretly reading letters. The Stasi “perfected” the invasion of personal spaces – as exemplified in the Oscar-winning movie “The Lives of Others“. It is tempting to think of today's NSA monitoring of emails, Facebook posts or other social media interactions as a high-tech version of the Stasi legacy. A movie director may already be working on a screenplay for a movie about Snowden and the NSA called “The Bytes of Others“. However, there are some key differences between the surveillance conducted by the Stasi and the PRISM surveillance program of the NSA. The Stasi was a state-run organization which was responsible for amassing the data and creating profiles of the monitored citizens. It did not just rely on regular Stasi employees, but heavily relied on so called IMs – “inoffizielle Mitarbeiter” or “informelle Mitarbeiter” – informal informants. These informal informants were East German citizens who met with designated Stasi officers, reporting on the opinions and actions of their friends, colleagues and relatives and at times aiding the Stasi in promoting state propaganda. In the case of the PRISM program, the amassing of data is conducted by private “internet corporations” such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft, who then share some of the data with the state. Furthermore, instead of having to rely on informal informants like the Stasi, “internet corporations” simply rely on the users themselves who readily divulge their demographic information, opinions and interests to the corporations.

Corporate erosion of our privacy

It seems strange that the outrage ensuing after the PRISM revelations is primarily directed at the US government and the NSA, but not at the corporations which are invading our privacy. Criticisms of the role that private corporations have played in the PRISM program primarily focus on the fact that these corporations divulged the information to the government, but seem to ignore the fact that corporations such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft continuously invade our privacy and use our data for their own marketing goals or share it with their clients. Centuries of persecution and oppression by governments – monarchs, dictators or democratically elected governments – have sensitized us to privacy invasion by governments, but we seem to have a rather laissez-faire attitude when it comes to corporate invasion of our privacy. In fact, we associate the expressions “corporate espionage” or “corporate surveillance” with corporations spying on each other but not necessarily with them spying on us. If we had found out the US Postal Service kept track of how many letters we send to certain recipients, perhaps even scanned our personal letters for certain keywords and then used this information for its own marketing purposes or sold it to interested parties, most of us would have considered this an egregious violation of our privacy. Yet we know that “internet corporations” such as Google and Facebook routinely practice this form of privacy invasion. In our neoliberal world of unfettered capitalism, the state is increasingly answering to corporate interests while ignoring the concerns of citizens. We have to ask ourselves whether such an eviscerated state is the only threat to our civil liberties, or whether we need be more sensitive to violations of our privacy and liberties by private corporations.


Long before the leak of the PRISM documents, critics such as Evgeny Morozov in “The Net Delusion“, Rebecca MacKinnon in “Consent of the Networked” or Robert McChesney in “Digital Disconnect” warned us about the invasion of rivacy by “internet corporations” which are collecting information about us. We do not have to pay to use Google and Facebook, but the reason why these for-profit corporations offer us “free” services is because they use and market the information we unwittingly provide them. This type of information-gathering is probably legal, because when we sign up for accounts, most of us agree to their terms and conditions. Even if new laws or regulations are enacted after the PRISM scandal to limit surveillance, it is likely they will only pertain to how government agencies manage information on individuals or how corporations convey such information to government agencies, but it is unlikely that new laws will limit the information gathering for corporate benefits.

Why is it that we tend to be so lenient towards “internet corporations”? One reason may be the mythopoesis surrounding the “internet”. Instead of viewing Silicon Valley executives of “internet corporations” as capitalists who sell our privacy for profit, we envision them as benevolent, entrepreneurial hipsters who eat organic quinoa salads and donate some portion of their profits to philanthropic causes. Some of us may buy into the myth of the egalitarian nature of the “internet”. The “internet” is not egalitarian, especially not when it comes to the sharing and marketing of information by corporations. For example, there is a fundamental asymmetry when Facebook collects data on its users but does not feel compelled to reveal exactly how it uses the information. Jeff Jarvis, a vocal supporter of “internet corporations” has already expressed concern that users may start questioning their blind trust in the “internet” as a consequence of the PRISM revelations, skillfully avoiding a discussion of corporate privacy invasion. This strategy of placing all the blame for privacy violations on the government may be the best strategy for corporations. Google's attempt to challenge the US government, asking for permission to disclose any data requests from the NSA, enables Google to portray itself as a knight in shining armor and evade the far more uncomfortable discussion of corporate uses and abuses of amassed data.

Culture of sharedom

Evgeny Morozov's recent book “To Save Everything Click Here” provides an excellent insight into the mythos of the “internet”. The physical internet consists of computers, routers and servers that are connected to each other, whereas the mythical “internet” is a cultural icon to which god-like powers are ascribed. Morozov refers to this ideology as “internet-centrism”. The ideology of “solutionism”, a term borrowed from the world of architecture and urban planning, refers to:

…an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental, and narrow-minded solutions— the kind of stuff that wows audiences at TED Conferences— to problems that are extremely complex, fluid, and contentious.

“Solutionism” and “internet-centrism” can act in concert, creating a virtuous cycle in which the mythical “internet” is seen as a means to provide the ultimate solutions to the problems of humankind. This view of the “internet” and the afore-mentioned neoliberal awe of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs all may contribute to why privacy invasions by internet corporations are forgiven or ignored.

One additional cultural phenomenon that has allowed “internet corporations” to erode our privacy is that of sharedom, the incessant and growing desire to share our opinions and details of our personal lives with a broad audience. Just like “solutionism” or neoliberalism, sharedom is not a product of the “internet”, but it has become a major fuel for the mythical “internet”. Sharedom is just another word for nothing left to hide. Reality television, for example, is a manifestation of sharedom. The MTV reality TV show “The Real World” was first broadcast in 1992 when the “internet” was still in its embryonic stage. Millions of viewers could watch minute details of the lives of strangers living in a house together. One may view reality TV as a form of mass exhibitionism and mass voyeurism, but as Mark Greif has pointed out, one of the key aspects of reality TV was that it allowed viewers to “judge” the people they were observing. While reality TV only allowed a small group of people – selected from thousands of applicants – to “share” their lives with a broad audience, the “internet” gradually enabled everyone with an online connection to share their lives. We started living in transparent cages – Massive Open Online Cages (MOOCs) – and the “internet” permitted the audience to give instant feedback by passing online “judgments”, such as leaving comments on social media posts or blog posts. This culture of sharedom was an unexpected bounty for “internet corporations”, because it not only made us less cautious about our privacy but also supplied them with massive amounts of free personal data that could be marketed.

Privacy trade-offs

We often hear about the trade-off between privacy and security and the need for an optimal balance, which maximizes the privacy of the individual while maintaining the security of our society. This sounds like a reasonable argument, but it ignores the fact that this is not the only privacy trade-off. Corporations are interested in maximizing their profits and since individual data is a marketable commodity, their interest is to find a balance between maximal profit and maintaining some degree of privacy for users that makes them feel comfortable enough to share personal data that can be marketed. In addition to this trade-off between profits and privacy, the culture of sharedom also creates the trade-off between publicity and privacy. Jill Lepore has recently discussed the challenges of this trade-off in an essay in the New Yorker:

In the twentieth century, the golden age of public relations, publicity, meaning the attention of the press, came to be something that many private citizens sought out and even paid for. This has led, in our own time, to the paradox of an American culture obsessed, at once, with being seen and with being hidden, a world in which the only thing more cherished than privacy is publicity. In this world, we chronicle our lives on Facebook while demanding the latest and best form of privacy protection—ciphers of numbers and letters—so that no one can violate the selves we have so entirely contrived to expose.

Another form of trade-off is that of convenience versus privacy. Using a website such as Amazon to purchase products offers a lot of convenience: It remembers which products we have previously bought, it offers targeted recommendations for new or related products that may be of interest based on our profile, and it even remembers which products we recently browsed. The more we use Amazon, the more accurate their profile of our interests becomes, as evidenced by the accuracy of Amazon's recommendations for new purchases. All we have to offer Amazon in exchange for this convenience is a window into the privacy of our soul.

I remember coming across the expression “Faustian bargain” to describe how we exchange our privacy for the sake of convenience. When Goethe's Faust agreed to serve the devil Mephistopheles in the after-life, he was rewarded with youth and a beautiful lover. We may not approve of Faust's choice, but his deal at least merits some consideration. We currently sacrifice our privacy for the benefit of corporate profits and in exchange receive free shipping, targeted ads and coupons. No youth, no lovers. Our deal does not even rise to the level of a “Faustian bargain“.

Silent Listeners

The recent study “Silent Listeners: The Evolution of Privacy and Disclosure on Facebook” conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University monitored the public disclosure (information visible to all) and private disclosure (information visible to Facebook friends) of personal data by more than 5,000 Facebook users during the time period 2005-2011. The researchers identified two opposing trends. Over time, Facebook users divulged less and less personal information such as birthdates, favorite books or political information to the public. On the other hand, the researchers also noticed a trend of revealing more personal information to Facebook friends. Apparently, there was a growing awareness of how public disclosures can compromise privacy, but users were also emboldened to reveal more personal information when they deemed their audience to be trustworthy. As the researchers correctly pointed out, these “private disclosures” are always available to Facebook itself, third-party apps and to advertisers, referred to as “silent listeners” by the researchers. This is a key point when it comes to privacy settings on social media websites. Users are able to control how much information is displayed to other individuals and future laws and regulations may protect users by curtailing disclosures to government agencies, but information disclosures to the company that provides the service itself and its corporate clients are often beyond our control.

The poll “Teens, Social Media and Privacy” conducted by the Pew Research Center confirmed this lack of concern about third-party access to personal data in a group of 632 teenagers. Overall, 60% of teenagers said that they were either not at all concerned or not too concerned about third-party access (such as advertisers or third-party apps) to their personal information. Only 9% were very concerned about it. Individual comments made by teenagers in a Pew focus group further underscore this cavalier attitude towards corporate access to personal data:

Male (age 16): “It's mostly just bands and musicians that I ‘like' [on Facebook], but also different companies that I ‘like', whether they're clothing or mostly skateboarding companies. I can see what they're up to, whether they're posting videos or new products… [because] a lot of times you don't hear about it as fast, because I don't feel the need to Google every company that I want to keep up with every day. So with the news feed, it's all right there, and you know exactly.”

Male (age 13): “I usually just hit allow on everything [when I get a new app]. Because I feel like it would get more features. And a lot of people allow it, so it's not like they're going to single out my stuff. I don't really feel worried about it.”

Value of privacy

The revelations about how the government is using surveillance data obtained by “internet corporations” should prompt a broad debate of how we value privacy, especially because it is difficult to affix a price-tag on this intangible non-commodity. This debate will hopefully lead to greater transparency in regards to how governments access and handle personal information. However, it is important to also raise awareness of the potential abuse of personal information by private corporations. If we truly value our privacy, we need to develop methods that restrict government and corporate access to our personal data. In the process we will have to unravel our myths surrounding internet-centrism, solutionism and sharedom.

Image Credits: Automated envelope sealer used by the Stasi to close opened letters after review of the letter contents (image by Appaloosa – Wikimedia Commons), a Stasi surveillance post (image by Lokilech – Wikimedia Commons)