HE, SHE, I.T. – Who are we without Privacy?

Reading time: 13 minutes
Reading an e-book
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E-Books: A threat to our privacy?

“We read to know that we are not alone,” wrote William Nicholson, a British author. Reading has long been one of the most private and solitary activities. You do it on your own and yet through it you are connected to the world. Nicholson was no doubt referring to the extraordinary power of books, above all fiction, to take us out of and far beyond ourselves while at the same time illuminating our innermost thoughts and emotions. I guess he didn’t consider that e-books would pop along and make clear that we’re not alone in a rather different way.

“172 other people also highlighted this”, my Kindle informed me the first time I electronically underlined a sentence. I immediately opted out of the device’s ‘Popular Highlights’ tool. So my favorite quotes are no longer included in the public tally of “passages that are meaningful to the greatest number of people” as Amazon puts it, but they are still logged somewhere in the vast annals of the company’s data collection servers. Just as they record the time whenever I turn the Kindle on or off, whatever I read, whichever point in a book I stop reading. Before Snowden’s revelations, I was aware of this and disliked it, but it didn’t especially perturb me. Now, knowing the extent to which our data is being collected and stored, I’m more reluctant to use an e-book because to do so is to accept an intrusion on the precious intimacy of reading.

The moment you purchase a book on Amazon you’re given the option to tell everyone what you just bought through social media. As you highlight sentences you’re reminded that these too can be shared with the wider world. And when you finish, on Kindle at least, you’re prompted once again to declare the fact publicly through Facebook or Twitter. All this means that the space in which you’re allowed to have your own quiet train of thought shrinks. Remember Rousseau’s famous words? “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”. We are surely in chains when we cannot even read without being advertised to and being encouraged to advertise ourselves.

For me reading is an essential part of writing. I don’t think I could write if I didn’t read. Reading feeds my imagination, my sensibility, my language – and all this has thus far happened in a mysterious and untraceable way. Sure, I’ve jotted quotes into notebooks, sometimes even typed up whole passages that I’ve loved. But the process of inspiration and understanding was mine alone. Now traces of all the reading and researching I do electronically can be vacuumed up into some huge database. I’m complicit in this because I’m seduced by the convenience of apps like Evernote which allow me to catalogue notes and therefore find things much more easily than when they were spread out between dozens of different physical notebooks. In fact, I’m so tempted by the Internet, I – like many writers – have paid to download a program called Freedom – which can block me from using the Net so I can actually concentrate for long enough to write!

We are no longer just SHE or HE, we are also I.T.

Our digital existences are altering who we are and how we behave. We are no longer just SHE or HE, we are also I.T. – which fittingly contains both a reference to the self – I – and stands for Internet Technology. The letters I and T also denote “it” – what we define as a non-human entity, and what we become when our data is indiscriminately collected, used and stored by states and corporations as though it were public property and not very personal information. “It” in this context also echoes Freud’s “id”. In German the connection is even more striking because the word for both ‘it’ and the ‘id’ is exactly the same – ‘Es’. According to Freud, the id, ego and super-ego are the three parts of our psychic apparatus. The id, he suggested, is the part without judgement and morality, driven only by the wish for pleasure. Our virtual selves seem to be almost entirely governed by the IT pleasure principle. 

We’re very active online, yet very passive about the ethical implications of what we do there. You’d hesitate – hopefully - to steal in a physical shop, yet you’re probably quite relaxed about illegally downloading books, films and music without payment. If a stranger on a bus grabbed your mobile phone and started scrolling through the contacts list noting down names and numbers you’d challenge the person immediately. If it turned out that a neighbour had been opening your post you’d call the police. You wouldn’t tolerate a random person coming into your house to look at the family photos. Yet when we’re told worse things are happening with our information on the Internet, we shrug and continue playing with our apps as if there’s no alternative. It seems almost schizophrenic to be able to live by such double standards. Perhaps we evade the truth of the situation because we’re afraid to confront its implications. But just because we avoid seeing something doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and it definitely won’t go away because we ignore it.

Data collection

What will disappear if mass surveillance persists are our hard won democratic rights and civil liberties. These may be guaranteed by law and upheld by institutions, but to have true meaning they must reside first and foremost within our own person. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”, John Stuart Mill elegantly put it. Yet, this sovereignty is being encroached in significant, though almost imperceptible, increments. I’ve talked in some detail about the trespass on reading, but we can now be followed and observed during so many private activities; shopping, holidaying, driving, dating – even sleeping. Apps like Sleep Cycle track your sleep patterns, record anything you say and can even measure the level of your snoring. It’s not just you who gets an insight into your nocturnal subconscious activities, all that data is churned into a marketing strategy to sell you sleep aids or something else that will, of course, hugely improve the quality of your sleep and your life. And, who knows? Perhaps, in the future, information about your insomnia could be put to more sinister ends that affect your job prospects or medical insurance. Because the data doesn’t go away: the Internet and its servers never forget. To a great extent, we choose to engage with all these online offers, and do so with the impression of asserting our own free will. But the maze of surveillance and profiling is now so vast there’s no way to avoid it, and if things are constantly tailored to sway us in a certain direction most of us incline that way almost in spite of ourselves. We don't quite become automata, but we’re inevitably influenced, even if just subconsciously, by the marketing targeted at us through the constant surveillance that has become part and parcel of doing things electronically. Snowden’s revelations highlighted the extent to which the state can now spy on its citizens, but corporations have been at it for a while. The unholy alliance between the two threatens the very foundations of democratic society.

Data collection relating to my creative process doesn’t trouble me because I’m worried about being accused of plagiarism or because I want to keep my sources and influences secret. It bothers me because an awareness of my own mental and imaginative workings has crept into my consciousness. It’s not a good sort of watchfulness, rather a slightly inhibiting one, since it occupies a portion of my thinking that’s consequently taken away from being creative. Moreover, fear is part of this new resident in my mind.

After David Cameron suggested that the Guardian should be investigated for reporting on Snowden’s leaks, I was enraged. I channeled this into an open letter to the Prime Minister, but once it was written I felt anxious about posting it online. In the piece, I took umbrage at Cameron’s remark that the Guardian’s reporting “is dangerous for national security”. 

“On the contrary,” I wrote, “your unwillingness to engage in an honest debate about mass surveillance is far more dangerous for the country than anything else. Security is not just about being safe from terrorists. Security is most fundamentally freedom from fear – and nothing is more frightening than a state that can spy indiscriminately on its people.”

“The truth,” I went on, “is that you risk abetting terrorism by not addressing the urgent and vital concerns about the way GCHQ operates. Mass surveillance undermines the democratic foundations of our society – which is exactly what terrorists want to do. Moreover, by ignoring the demands of the public for more online regulation and transparency you foster dissent and unrest: revolutions are born from disregard of the public will and the common good.”

It’s provocative, certainly, but not really that controversial – at least it shouldn’t be in a country where freedom of speech really exists. Still, I had to force myself to publish it, knowing that the act of doing so was more important for my own integrity than anything else. I’m not the only one experiencing such ambivalence. A recent PEN survey of writers in the US found that, in the wake of Snowden's revelations 1 author in 6 avoided writing about certain topics which they thought might subject them to surveillance, and a further 1 in 6 considered it. One writer admitted, “I have felt that even to flag the Snowden case in an email would flag my email as being worthy of being looked at.” While another said “even taking this survey makes me feel somewhat nervous”.

The knowledge of being observed alters how we are

I recently changed my search engine from Google to Startpage and, initially, I was mildly irritated that it didn’t anticipate what I wanted to find – the way Google does – as I typed in the first letters. I had to enter the full description of what I wanted before I could do the search. What a hassle pressing those extra keys! It took a few attempts to become accustomed to Startpage and appreciate the knowledge that it doesn’t predict what I might be looking for because it doesn’t record what I, or others, looked for previously. Many people, like me, relish some of the highly tailored services offered by online companies, even as we despise the fact that it is achieved through mass surveillance of our activity by the companies whose online services we use.

The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman puts a disturbing spin on our resignation in the face of such surveillance, suggesting that we actually crave it. “The condition of being watched and seen has…been reclassified from a menace into a temptation.” He suggests we are seduced by “the promise of enhanced visibility…[the] proof of social recognition”. And goes so far as to rephrase Descartes’ famous Cogito Ergo Sum to read, “I am seen (watched, noted, recorded) therefore I am”.

As I said before, the knowledge of being observed alters how we are. In some sense, we are most ourselves, most free, when we are alone and unobservable. The boundless scope of the Internet suggests complete freedom, but in fact it’s more a free for all, encouraging a reckless show and tell culture at the expense of the individual. If the product is free, you are the product – in the words of Nicolaus Fargo, head of the Belgian Centre for Data Protection. To be truly free we need to have boundaries, privacy and secrets. “It's what no one knows about you that allows you to know yourself,” as Don Dillo intriguingly puts it.

Awareness of surveillance is already making some writers change the way they work. In the novel I’m currently writing, I have a bit about FITs (Forward Intelligence Teams) in the UK. They’re basically a special police force that shows up at protests and rallies to keep tabs on activists. They take photos of activists, collecting and storing all kinds of information about them – even where these people have no criminal record and do nothing wrong. In the past, I have researched about FITs online without a thought. Now I do it, but with some anxiety in the back of my mind that simply entering these terms into a public search engine might make me a target to be watched. The PEN US survey indicates other writers are also now wary of researching online for sensitive subjects like drug wars, mass incarceration, child abuse or pornography. When self-consciousness turns into self-censorship something is very wrong.

Such wariness is more typical in Totalitarian regimes. It’s shocking to find it in democracies where our civil liberties are still, supposedly, intact. In Totalitarian states citizens used to have three choices: inner migration, resistance or exile. The inward migration was a retreat into the self, an attempt to live without challenging the status quo in the hope that one would remain unnoticed and left alone. Resistance involved challenging the prevailing order, taking risks – even with one’s life. And exile, of course, was emigration, leaving for somewhere more free.

Today, exile is no longer an option. The new INTERNETIONAL order means that we can be followed or observed wherever we go. Even being off-line can no longer protect us. Indeed, a retreat from technology would be more an inner migration than a form of exile. Right now we really have only two choices: to shut up or speak up. And if you keep schtum you’re agreeing to become a commodity, a slavish data mine which states and companies can excavate for their own profit. So, actually, there’s really only one choice: to speak up and demand that our democratic rights apply equally in virtual as in real space. And, in the meantime, to take any action, however small – even if it’s just switching search engine – that limits the intrusions on our privacy and freedom.

In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud stated “most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.” Not to take responsibility now, knowing the extent and consequences of mass surveillance, is to resign the copyright and sovereignty over your own identity. If you’re ready to do this, then the question only rings out, more loud and shrill than ever: who are you – HE, SHE or I.T.?