“Life After Privacy”: Thoughts on Big Data (3)

This is the third part of my series on Big Data, focused on Firmin DeBrabander’s book,  Life After Privacy. In the first part, I laid out the argument of DeBrabander’s book as a whole. In the second part, I took issue with what I think of as his “victim-blaming” account of the rise of Big Data. In this part and the next few, I take issue with what I think of DeBrabander’s counsels of despair in dealing with Big Data.

Those counsels of despair might be captured in the following three claims: 

  1. Game Over: Because we’ve already surrendered our privacy to Big Data, there’s nothing to fight over.
  2. Out of Ammo: Because Big Data already controls the Internet, there’s nothing to fight with.
  3. Sour Grapes: Because we lack a good philosophical account of the nature and value of the privacy we’ve given up, we lack a defensible motivation to fight very hard to get it back.

Given this, DeBrabander regards the struggle for privacy as a red herring. The real prize we ought to be seeking is political freedom of a participatory, Arendtian sort, a value that not only bears little connection to privacy, but is in tension with it. Once we opt for an Arendt-style politics, privacy will become a secondary concern, if that. The relevant value will become collective participation in the common good, not privacy. 

Without deprecating the value of collective participation in the common good, I want to dispute these counsels of despair, beginning in this post with Game Over and Out of Ammo, and moving later on to Sour Grapes. In my view, DeBrabander’s victim-blaming diagnosis of our predicament yields an overly pessimistic view of the prospects for activist resistance without in the end producing a superior alternative. 

Game Over?
Consider DeBrabander’s first counsel of despair: because Big Data has won, and resistance is futile, we’re now obliged to resign ourselves to “life after privacy.” There’s a sense in which this is true: we can’t, at this point, literally turn the clock back to the privacy we enjoyed in the pre-computer and pre-Internet age, when the idea of surveillance capitalism was more a matter of dystopian science fiction than of real technological feasibility. At some level, surveillance capitalism is here to stay, at least for the forseeable future, and at some level, there’s nothing to be done but accept it. 

But there’s a big gap between “surveillance capitalism is here to stay” and “game over.” In equating the two, DeBrabander pays insufficient attention to the fact that, in First World countries at least, bad as things are, they could have been worse, and could get worse. Surveillance capitalism in First World countries is an encroaching threat, but it hasn’t yet taken the literally totalitarian form that mass surveillance has taken in say, the People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, or the Palestinian Territories. These facts give us reason to defend the lines we’ve managed so far to draw, and to push back against the worst prospects we face in the future.

Focus for a moment on the American case, and start with the corporate side of things. Yes, Big Data controls a good deal of our discourse via its control of online platforms, as well as our Internet-driven devices and apps, but discourse remains formally free, and censorship remains unconstitutional. Yes, we are in many ways captive to the prying eyes and unwarranted scrutiny of our employers, but then, labor is nowadays making a modest comeback, and could make a stronger one if it had the support of the middle class and the Democratic Party. Yes, we need and lack comprehensive federalized legislation for the protection of our privacy, but we currently have a system of legal rights for our personal health information, HIPAA, that can serve as a model for such legislation.

Something similar is true of the narrowly governmental side of things. Yes, governments consistently hack us, deliberately leaving us vulnerable to hacking by bad actors, and demanding “backdoors” to our software and devices, but the fact remains that we still have access to encryption technologies that are very difficult to penetrate or break, even by the FBI. And yes, our Fifth Amendment rights are being eroded in troubling ways, but we still have a robust system of constitutional rights that goes unused for lack of exercise.*

Above all, living as we do in the post-Snowden (and –Assange, and –Manning, and –Reality Winner) era, the problem of Big Data has at last become accessible to an educated laypublic: we know what it is and know what the trends are; we have the luxury of regrouping, organizing, and fighting back that’s denied to people in worse circumstances. If I’m right that our privacy was taken from us rather than given away, we can credit the possibility that if people see what was taken from them, they can be induced to guard what they have, and push back harder against further attempts to take it. Pace DeBrabander, the relevant obstacle is ignorance, not culpable indifference. And pace DeBrabander, the situation is difficult, not hopeless. 

Out of Ammo? 
Now take DeBrabander’s second counsel of despair: Activism today is, like just about everything else, connected to and controlled by the Internet. But Big Data controls the Internet. It seems a fool’s errand to try to engage Big Data on turf it controls, but its control of that turf is precisely what demands engagement in the first place. So we seem to face a dilemma: either we resign ourselves to quixoticism in fighting Big Data on its own turf, or we resign ourselves to irrelevance by not doing so. Either way, activism seems doomed to failure. 

There is, once again, a grain of truth to this. Big Data’s control of the Internet is ominous and growing, and DeBrabander is right that there’s no way to blog or tweet our way to victory over it. But DeBrabander’s counsel of despair is premature. Big Data is not, in First World countries, a totalitarian monolith, every part of which is internally in alignment, or uniformly arrayed against us. There are institutional tensions between business and government, between the different parts of government, and between various players in the market. We have the freedom to exploit these tensions, and we should use it. Government can be induced on some fronts to regulate business; business can be induced on other fronts to push back on government; and consumers and voters can learn to organize in ways that push back in different ways against both. It’s a difficult project with a lot of moving parts, but not an impossibility.

Drawing heavily on Zeynep Tufekci’s  Twitter and Teargas, DeBrabander suggests that contemporary activism has been hobbled by its over-reliance on social media, in other words, by the thought that social media activism can replace on-ground activism. As a result, he suggests, contemporary activists have lost their capacity for the bread-and-butter organizational and political skills required to get concrete things done. Since online activism has become the model for privacy-oriented activism as such, the whole thing seems a lost cause.  

DeBrabander is right to think that there are defects in an online-only model of political activism, but wrong to think that that observation yields his intended conclusion. For one thing, an online-only model of activism is a bit of a strawman. Some of the best activism today involves a judicious mix of online and on-ground activities: think, for instance, of the work of Hope Not Hate in Britain, the Southern Poverty Law Center in the US, B’Tselem in Israel/Palestine, and the many, many activist organizations that have arisen in the wake of Ferguson, devoted to “policing the police.”  Many of these organizations have made spectacularly valuable contributions to human rights by innovative use of social media. But they haven’t left things there; they’ve integrated online activism with ordinary activism on the ground, and where appropriate, with lobbying before legislatures or regulatory agencies, or litigation in the public interest. In this light, DeBrabander’s criticisms of contemporary activism paint with far too broad a brush.  

Beyond this, DeBrabander’s selective use of Tufekci’s criticisms of online activism essentially bypasses the overarching thesis of her book. Tufekci is at pains to deny what DeBrabander asserts, namely that the new brand of online activism is a wholesale failure, or even mostly one. I read her as saying instead that online activism is a mitigated success whose promise lies before it. Anyway, as Tufekci argues, it’s too early to give a clear verdict on online activism, and certainly too early to declare it a failure. It’s also (Tufekci correctly argues) inappropriate to judge contemporary online activism by the standards of old school pre-Internet activism. The old strategies and tactics no longer apply. We can’t somehow return to them and use them as a template to forge the successes of the future.** 

Unfortunately, DeBrabander does precisely what Tufekci warns against, invoking the American civil rights and labor movements of the twentieth century as paradigms of political success, success that he pointedly adds, had little or nothing to do with privacy as a value. The values that animated these earlier movements were, on his reading, collectivist, not individualistic, and focused on solidarity, freedom, and justice rather than privacy. Presumably, we should follow suit, emulating the strategies and tactics of these indisputably successful movements, and following their privacy-indifferent normative lead as well. 

It sounds appealing, but I find it misleading. For one thing, it’s not clear how we’re to re-play earlier moments of history while moving into the future, or even what it would mean to do so. History is not the kind of thing that gives repeat performances.  In any case, DeBrabander fails to consider that one reason why the civil rights movement ignored privacy is that its leaders had no idea of the extent to which they were under government surveillance. Had they known more about the constitution-shredding activities of Hoover’s FBI, they might have made privacy more central to their cause (see trailer above, for “MLK/FBI”). At any rate, activists did make effective use of the right to privacy in arguing for the right to contraceptives, to abortion, and to same-sex marriage, and did so with undeniable success. So privacy-based activism can’t be as ineffective as DeBrabander seems to suggest.

In my next installment in this series, I want to discuss a few activist success stories: the passage and extension of HIPAA, mathematicians’ (and others’) rebellion against predictive policing, and Snowden-type revelations, to name just three. I also want to make some lo-fi recommendations for ordinary activism that I regard as morally obligatory regardless of their net yield.   


*What I have in mind here is jurisprudence over the last twenty years or so that undercuts the protections of the Fifth Amendment’s right to remain silent. See in particular Mitchell vs. United States (1999), Dickerson vs. United States (2000), and Salinas vs. Texas (2013). 

**Two passages from Twitter and Teargas nicely capture the nuanced view that Tufecki takes: 

Like the printing press and the industrial revolution, this historical transformation in digital connectivity and computing is a complex, dialectical process with no clear teleology, no predetermined outcome or pre-set group of winners and losers. The same undermining of gatekeepers that has permitted social movements to bring the facts to the public despite active repression by authoritarian regimes or casual indifference also enable[s] the effective suppression of the facts through the proliferation of fake news (Tufekci, Twitter and Teargas, p. 267).

It is wrong to label movements that struggle as failures, just as it is wrong to conclude that a large protest, measured by the number of people in the street, is a sure sign of success. The past offers limited guidance because similar looking movements in 2017 and 1965 or in China and the United States do not necessarily correspond to the same moment in the movement’s trajectory or signal the same capacity to influence governments or enact change (Tufekci, Twitter and Teargas, p. 274).

One thought on ““Life After Privacy”: Thoughts on Big Data (3)

  1. Pingback: “Life After Privacy”: Thoughts on Big Data (4) | Policy of Truth

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