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Autonomy, Surveillance and Democracy: A Few Ideas for the Twenty-First Century

Text derived from my presentation

to the Citizen Forum on surveillance of communications

organized by the Quebec caucus of the New Democratic Party

Montreal, Notman House, Thursday, November 3, 2011

Regardless of the fate of the bill named “Lawful Access”, the information society will continue to develop. Then again, an information society is necessarily a surveillance society. Hence the question: what role the parliaments, governments and civil society should play to not only preserve freedoms and democracy, but to enhance them?

Here I propose – in quick rough strokes due to the short time available – some ideas for reference in regard to challenges the twenty-first century presents to us.

Social Life and Surveillance

Idea # 1: Surveillance is an integral component of all social life.

This is true of all human societies, likewise of many animal societies, and even vegetal ones.

Idea # 2: Surveillance takes many forms with very different, even opposite consequences.

I am a grandfather. Obviously I watched my children and grandchild. However, the forms that such surveillance takes can lead children to more and more autonomy, or, conversely, to dependence and submission.

That is why, idea # 3: The concepts proposed by author Ivan Illich of autonomy versus heteronomy, conviviality and counterproductivity are useful to this discussion.

These concepts can be applied, for example, to a convivial urban neighborhood that combines the functions of housing, labor, commerce and recreation. Such an area appears safe because its residents, workers, passersby and idle bystanders spontaneously and freely offer themselves mutual, continuous, autonomous surveillance.

Conversely, an unconvivial single function neighborhood that is deserted during the night or day appears to generate insecurity. No expensive police, guards or electronic surveillance will succeed to produce real security. And such surveillance is likely to increase heteronomous forms of power over individuals and community.

Hence, idea # 4: It is important to consider the complex interrelationships between environmental, physical, social and technical structures and conditions, on the one hand, and the forms of surveillance that these structures permit or not as well as their effects, on the other hand.

Assessment Criteria

And therefore, idea # 5: Respect for freedom is a necessary, but totally insufficient assessment criteria (thus ineffective alone).

In addition, idea # 6 (stated earlier): The information society is necessarily a society where surveillance is becoming widespread, increasing in power and scope, and is being democratized.

Let us illustrate this with a surveillance activity which, unlike the “Lawful Access” bill on the State’s power over private communications, is conducted by private actors on public communications, namely: the high-frequency stock transactions which constitute some 60% of the volume of North American exchanges. This surveillance involves the use of computers that, each microsecond, monitor and analyze all transactions around the planet. This surveillance allows the same computer to purchase securities at one instant and resale them a few seconds later at a profit. The speeds of surveillance, analysis and decision making are so great that human operators can only control possible failure occurrences. Such as those that caused the Flash Crash of May 6, 2010 when these automatic systems suddenly made the Dow Jones Index to plunge several hundred points within a few minutes.

Such capabilities are becoming more democratic. Let’s remember that today a lower end smartphone is already more powerful than these big central computer that, in the sixties, most thought only States could afford. That the customers of data mining software, indispensable to produce results from digital surveillance, are roughly divided into four areas: academic (teaching and research), business (marketing, R & D), police and military intelligence, and we call civil society (various organizations and individuals). That information items on the behavior of individuals and organizations have never been produced in such large numbers or have never been more accessible (just take all the wealth of personal information items disseminated via social media).

Some surveillance activities can easily be described as harmful, such as surveillance of the private communications of citizens or of their legitimate political activities. Other surveillance activities can easily be described as beneficial, such as those about who funds political parties and about who does what lobbying with which decision makers.

However, idea # 7: The majority of the surveillance activities that will emerge will not be so easily assessed: understanding their nature and their effects will require deliberations.

So idea # 8: Drawing on a proposition from economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, we could state that: all surveillance should be subjected to the application of the principles of freedom, but that any surveillance involving some exercise of social power should also be subjected to the principles of democracy.

These principles are to be applied, no matter the public or private nature of the actions being monitored; or the state, commercial or civilian identity of those conducting the surveillance.

Logically, the same principles should also apply to the decision making on environmental, physical, social and technical structures and conditions that determine the forms surveillance may or may not take. Indeed, various social movements express the same demand, whether about shale gas extraction or high finance business: one’s obligation to subject to the action of another called for one’s right to know and right to have one’s say.

As a Preliminary Conclusion

Idea # 9: Such radical democratization calls for deep legal, parliamentary and political transformations from the local to the international levels.

Such changes could indeed be facilitated by possible information societies’ developments.

However, idea # 10: The exact forms that these changes should take remains yet to be defined.

Here, our situation is similar to those of different protests movements (such as Occupy Wall Street) that clearly identifies how current practices are unacceptable without being able to define what should be the alternatives. However, it is as equally urgent to conceive concrete solutions. Let us illustrate with two cases.

Electronic payment

The first case is about privatization of a decision of a public nature. It is the introduction in North America of smart banking cards that raise issues of individual and societal surveillance. Electronic payment is a “radical monopoly” to use another concept from Ivan Illich: if citizens retain the choice of the financial institution that will provide the banking card, there is only one electronic payment system that is imposed on all financial institutions and to all their customers on a given territory.

However, the choice of a new microprocessor based payment system is not trivial. This is because there are dozens of concepts for implementing this technology that are quite different in terms of individual surveillance. Some concepts can make electronic payments as anonymous as the use of paper money. For example, the financial institution knows by the end of the day that it should debit the account of such customer to such total amount, but remains unable to connect this with the various suppliers where the customer has spent money. At the other end of the spectrum, there are concepts that provide the financial institution with a wealth of information about who has purchased what from whom precisely at what time and how much. The choice between one type of concept and another has little to do with technical or budgetary constraints. It is in practice a political decision on the level of surveillance that financial institutions may or may not carry on the activities of their clients. But it is not elected parliaments that decide. Rather, parliaments have left the decision to private clubs of financial institutions (in Canada, to the Canadian Payments Association).

But it’s not just the surveillance of individual clients that is at issue. The generalization of electronic payments offers financial institutions a breathtaking real-time view of economic activities and situations of entire societies. This truly represents a strategic advantage in times of economic turmoil. Especially when compared to the situation of governments, media and civil society who discuss measures that will have some impact only several months into the future on the basis of statistics reflecting situations often four months old in the past. Why only financial institutions could have as up to date data?

In one individual surveillance as in societal surveillance, the democratic principle should apply – in addition to that of freedom – with respect to decisions about social powers of such magnitude. Should parliaments recover the power to legislate publically on these matters? Or should we try to democratize the work of clubs such as the Canadian Association of payment? Or follow a different model of democratic decision making?

Passports

The second case is about internationalization of a public decision. This is about passports used to monitor border crossings of citizens, and often their movements within these boundaries. Design standards of electronic and biometric components of passports are taken in international forums, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), by senior public servants of the Member States surrounded by lobbyists of the airline and surveillance technologies industries. National parliaments often only have the choice to endorse or not the standards already established elsewhere.

Again, we must find a way to preserve the principle of democracy against such technocratic fait accompli through international bodies. Should parliaments or governments publicly pre-debate options to be offered in international forums? Should we engage a democratization of discussions in international forums to allow a real voice to citizens to be affected by decisions? Or a combination of both? Or another model?

These are the types of changes, needing to be outlined, that I propose to explore with you during the following discussion.

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