Sunday, 15 September 2013

Openness and Enclosure

The longtime privacy-sceptic Jeff Jarvis has an upbeat take on the NSA/GCHQ revelations: "It has been said that privacy is dead. Not so. It's secrecy that is dying. Openness will kill it." Jarvis draws a distinction between privacy and secrecy: "Think of it this way: privacy is what we keep to ourselves; secrecy is what is kept from us. Privacy is a right claimed by citizens. Secrecy is a privilege claimed by government". He then seeks to downplay the chief threat to the former: "It's often said that the internet is a threat to privacy, but on the whole, I argue it is not much more of a threat than a gossipy friend or a nosy neighbor, a slip of the tongue or of the email 'send' button". The imagery harks back to the parochial, but Jarvis appears to be oblivious to the irony of this, despite the ample recent evidence that the Internet facilitates on a global scale the "tyranny of common opinion" that once marked village life (trolls are just narrow-minded oafs with broadband).

For good measure, he claims that the Internet itself is a force for good: "The agglomeration of data that makes us fear for our privacy is also what makes it possible for one doubting soul – one Manning or Snowden – to learn secrets. The speed of data that makes us fret over the devaluation of facts is also what makes it possible for journalists' facts to spread before government can stop them. The essence of the Snowden story, then, isn't government's threat to privacy, so much as it is government's loss of secrecy". The suggestion that the state struggles to keep secrets any more is not merely wrong, it exemplifies Jarvis's working method, which is to omit all mention of the essential actor in this drama, namely the Internet companies. As such, this is a fairly obvious pitch that we should trust the likes of Google and Yahoo and back them in their noble struggle with government: "the agents of openness will continue to wage their war on secrecy".

The separation of privacy and secrecy is a false dichotomy, central to liberal philosophy and neoliberal practice. This views privacy as the property of individual citizens, and secrecy as the restricted property of legitimate government. In reality, there is no clear boundary as both are species of privatisation, the enclosure of the commons, in the sense that rights of access are limited to privileged minorities. The true dichotomy is between private and public. Jarvis avoids the latter word in his Guardian piece with one exception, when he quotes Gabriel GarcĂ­­a Marquez to the effect that "All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret". The purpose of this quote is to focus attention on the last two. In place of the public realm, Jarvis offers openness.

In doing so, he attempts to link it with opensource (while simultaneously name-dropping and flattering his hosts) "When I worried on Twitter that we could not trust encryption now, technologist Lauren Weinstein responded with assurances that it would be difficult to hide 'backdoors' in commonly used PGP encryption – because it is open-source. Openness is the more powerful weapon. Openness is the principle that guides, for example, Guardian journalism. Openness is all that can restore trust in government and technology companies. And openness – in standards, governance, and ethics – must be the basis of technologists' efforts to take back the net."

As Tom Slee notes, the NSA and other government agencies are extensive users of opensource and have been involved in (and have thus potentially compromised) many opensource developments and industry standards: "to trumpet free and open source software as an alternative to the surveillance systems it has helped to build is nothing but wishful thinking". This is not to say that all opensource software is compromised, and you can certainly find reliable encryption tools if you want, but even the most basic communication device has scores of different programs and utilities running, any one of which may have been "backdoored", not to mention whatever might be running on the systems of an interlocutor. In practice, privacy is partial and contingent, which obviously doesn't fit well with the ideological premise of a citizen's inalienable "property right".

The concept of opennness in ICT, from the early days of OSI, has always been highly contested. What it means and the way you implement it, which is not the binary open/closed choice the name implies, is a political decision. The blithe acceptance of openness as a universal good defined by technology companies (the nebulous "cloud" has inherited much of this style of utopian thinking) has marginalised these political and economic considerations. Media-friendly Internet commentators like Jarvis are a large part of the problem. As Henry Farrell notes: "There are few real left-wingers among technology intellectuals. There are even fewer conservatives. The result is both blandness and blindness. Most technology intellectuals agree on most things. They rarely debate, for example, how private spaces governed by large corporations such as Google and Facebook can generate real inequalities of power".

It's likely that once the German federal election is over later this month, the NSA/GCHQ scandal will run out of steam. There will still be official investigations and some calling-to-account, and regulatory safeguards will no doubt be enhanced (if only to minimise commercial damage), but the general principle, that the state can unilaterally access our digital data, will have been established. This will represent not the triumph of the post-9/11 neoconservative worldview - the "war on terror" is history and "liberal intervention" out of fashion - but the triumph of the neoliberal economic order, specifically the symbiotic relationship between the state and monopoly businesses. We have traded our rights to privacy for the utility of Google, Facebook and Twitter. Contra Jeff Jarvis, openness (as defined by him and his ilk) is killing privacy, not secrecy.

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