Zygmunt Bauman on The Surveillance Society

Zygmunt Bauman highlights two trends in the surveillance society:

“One item, authored by Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker, informed of the spectacular rise in the number of drones reduced to the size of a dragonfly, or of a hummingbird comfortably perching on windowsills; both designed, in the juicy expression of Greg Parker, an aerospace engineer, “to hide in plain sight”. The second, penned down by Brian Stelter, proclaimed the internet to be “the place where anonymity dies”. The two messages spoke in unison, they both augured/portended the end of invisibility and autonomy, the two defining attributes of privacy – even if each of the two items was composed independently of the other and without awareness of the other’s existence.”

This reflects something I have already blogged about already: the surveillance society is not just ‘Big Brother is Watching You”, although there is that aspect and the “little drones are watching you” is the 21st century equivalent, much cheaper, probably, than having a lot of informants.

The surveillance society is also of the capillary nature, discussed by Foucault, as in “all your clicks belong to us” Every aspect of our Internet activities is information to companies. Every bit of content we put on Facebook is sold as valuable to advertisers. We are the products that companies sell to each other.

But there is a difference that Bauman notes between the small drones and Internet privacy (or lack thereof):

“Everything private is now done, potentially, in public – and is potentially available to public consumption; and remains available for the duration, till the end of time, as the internet “can’t be made to forget” anything once recorded on any of its innumerable servers. “This erosion of anonymity is a product of pervasive social media services, cheap cell phone cameras, free photo and video web-hosts, and perhaps most important of all, a change in people’s views about what ought to be public and what ought to be private”. And let me add: the choice between the public and the private is slipping out of people’s hands, with the people’s enthusiastic co-operation and deafening applause. A present-day Etienne de la Boétie would be probably tempted to speak not of voluntary, but a DIY servitude.”

Except, of course, the choice is only between Mac/PC, IOS or Android, Chrome or Firefox because being online is now mandatory for everything, education, e-government, work, etc. But an online presence is quasi-automatic and getting off-line and off-the-grid is practically impossible. And turning one’s computer into an fortress is only a stopgap measure.

And let us not forget that this is the global era and national privacy-protecting legislation is relatively irrelevant:

“The question put forward:

“Can Microsoft guarantee that EU-stored data, held in EU based datacenters, will not leave the European Economic Area under any circumstances — even under a request by the Patriot Act?”

Frazer explained that, as Microsoft is a U.S.-headquartered company, it has to comply with local laws (the United States, as well as any other location where one of its subsidiary companies is based).

Though he said that “customers would be informed wherever possible”, he could not provide a guarantee that they would be informed — if a gagging order, injunction or U.S. National Security Letter permits it.

He said: “Microsoft cannot provide those guarantees. Neither can any other company“.

While it has been suspected for some time, this is the first time Microsoft, or any other company, has given this answer.

Any data which is housed, stored or processed by a company, which is a U.S. based company or is wholly owned by a U.S. parent company, is vulnerable to interception and inspection by U.S. authorities.”

And so, if the government does not need your data (for now), you’re still not home free, obviously.

2 thoughts on “Zygmunt Bauman on The Surveillance Society

  1. Perhaps we should start making a difference between forced surveillance and self-induced sharing of information.
    The word sur-veillance has “sur” (over, on top of) in it – and should only be used if there is someone watching to make sure everything is running according to some pre-defined criteria. (One would have to explain the words “watching” and “make sure” further)

    • I don’t remember if it’s Gary Marx or Barry Wellman who coined the term ‘data-veillance’ to cover that phenomenon. But there does seem to be straight-up surveillance when it comes to email. The fact that there is not more surveillance (in your narrowed-down definition) has more to do with data overload.

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