Self-censorship in the digital age : We won’t be able to recognize ourselves

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One of nearly three billion street lamps, that will be capable to do anything soon, most of all: registering every movement Bild: dpa

More than a century ago, Sigmund Freud showed how we censor ourselves. In the age of digital mass surveillance we are facing self-censorship of a different dimension. We are more cautious, warier. Our behavior is changing drastically .

          On February 24, 1998, back when Edward Snowden was but fifteen, the National Security Agency finished one of the most remarkable documents in the history and theory of communications media. The Internet itself had just recently shifted into a commercial mode and was hosting an ever-growing fraction of all two-way communication.  Electronic intelligence officers took notice, in concert with its “partners.”

          (Deutsche Übersetzung: „Wir werden uns nicht mehr wiedererkennen“ von Peter Galison)

          The document said: „In the past, NSA operated in a mostly analog world of point-to-point communications carried along discrete, dedicated voice channels.  [M]ost of these communications were in the air and could be accessed using conventional means….Now, communications are mostly digital, carry billions of bits of data, and contain voice, data and multimedia.  They are dynamically routed, globally networked and pass over traditional communications means such as microwave or satellite less and less. … To perform both its offensive and defensive missions, NSA must live on the network.“

          Lurking in the shadows of the shadows

          The NSA and its allies have indeed, learned to “live on the network,” hovering over tweets and texts, emails and videocalls, social networks, games, images, searches, and phones.   They are not the only ones with eyes on the digital prize.   The British GCHQ has been fiercely aggressive in pursuing electronic intelligence, the French DGSE have happily joined in with their own version of massive electronic surveillance, and the Germans, alongside the Americans and British, grown very familiar with the NSA “crown jewels,” like the digital vacuum cleaner XKeyscore (capable of searching emails, chats, and browsing histories), using the program to capture hundreds of millions of German data sets.   In one NSA document reported on by Der Spiegel, the NSA applauded „the German government [for] modif[ying] its interpretation of the G-10 privacy law … to afford the BND more flexibility in sharing protected information with foreign partners.“  

          Of course, prying eyes on the Internet come too from countries beyond Europe and North America.  If anyone doesn’t know that the Chinese and Russians have invested heavily in cyber-espionage they reside in some other solar system.  Multi-national corporations plead “shock” and “outrage” that their servers and data pipes were so well hoovered-- they doth protest too much.  Meanwhile, those same companies are themselves cross-correlating data on all of us at a staggering rate.  Lurking in the shadows of shadows are the cybercriminals, profitably snatching government and corporate data.

          Reshaping the self

          In fact, the most shocking thing I’ve read over the last year has not been that electronic espionage agencies spy electronically.  Instead, it was a small salmon-colored text balloon lodged on the lower right of an NSA PowerPoint PRISM slide: “PRISM cost: ~ $20M per year.” 

          Twenty million dollars per year?  An absolutely insignificant drop in the NSA’s budget. Of course that low price depended on getting the data but by pressure, law or stealth from the corporate data world.   The very ease of this kind of monitoring suggested by this low seven-figure bill means that this debate is effectively over.  Sure this or that program will be curtailed.  But no one, no institution, no treaty, law, or country is going to stop this world-wide harvesting of data.

          In 1897, Sigmund Freud compared the extinguished paragraphs in newspapers to the self-censorship of our dreams

          While many journalistic electrons have been spilled over the prudence, legality, and politics of e-surveillance, I’d like to ask a different set of questions, leaving to others to declaim the horror that they find in knowing that apps and agencies have stolen the “right to privacy” that surrounds or should surround an eternal human self.   What if we stepped back from the current imbroglio and asked a longer-term question, as if we were beginning to sketch a history of the present seen from outside these turbulent days. What if we ask how the surveillance and harvesting of communications has and continues to reshape the self.

          The scar of white blocks

          What better place to begin our question of self and censorship than with Sigmund Freud?  By 1897, Freud began to talk about censorship in the mind (a dynamic he saw as one of his most important insights) as something to be understood in terms of all-too real print censorship he saw around him.   He was not the only one to notice that the border blockers took out religiously, sexually, or politically offensive references to the illegitimacy of czars with “caviar” (black ink) or a paper-mâché overlay of glued on paper.   Censors might re-write a text to obscure their intervention. But at a certain point, the “Russian censors,” out of haste or arrogance “no longer take the trouble to conceal [the censorship] operation,” Freud maintained.  At that point, the censored texts became incomprehensible, but only because of the gaps torn from them by deletion.

          So it is with apparently delirious dreams. “This censorship,” he repeated in his 1900 Interpretation of Dreams, “acts exactly like the censorship of newspapers at the Russian frontier, which allows foreign journals to fall into the hands of the readers whom it is its business to protect only after a quantity of passages have been blacked out.”

          If Freud began to articulate his idea of psychic censorship in terms of the “Russian” interventions, censorship hit closer in World War I.  In his “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” of March-April 1915, Freud vented: “The State exacts the utmost degree of obedience and sacrifice from its citizens, but …  treats them like children by an excess of secrecy and a censorship upon news and expressions of opinion which leaves the spirits of those whose intellects it thus suppresses defenceless against every unfavorable turn of events and every sinister rumour.”   

          Day after day, censors trashed Viennese newspapers, stripping away paragraphs, leaving only the scar of a white block where news had been. For its part, the postal service blackened offending lines in letters. Freud used the post to communicate, reason, and advance psychoanalytic thought, so the censor’s hand weighed on him, cutting him off from his profession while severing him from his sons at the front.

          Mumble, mumble

          In Freud’s psychic topography of 1915, the real, political, wartime notions of censorship figured as more-than-metaphor – we can see his own correspondence stamped twice by censors, once in Vienna and once at the border of (for example) a city in Germany.   Freud, 1915: The “psychical act” carried within the “system” of the unconscious approaches the frontier – the way a person carrying a dangerous text comes up to a frontier – with similar results:  the unconscious can be turned back on the frontier with the preconscious, and the preconscious can be blocked at the entry to the conscious.  

          During the war, Freud lectured on “The Censorship of Dreams” in early December 1915. Around that time, he inserted a new body of text into The Interpretation of Dreams, mapping wartime dream censorship directly onto wartime postal censorship:

          Frau Dr. H. von Hug-Hellmuth (1915) has recorded a dream which is perhaps better fitted than any to justify my choice of nomenclature [for censorship].  In this example the dream-distortion adopted the same methods as the postal censorship for expunging passages which were objectionable to it.  The postal censorship makes such passages unreadable by blacking them out; the dream censorship replaced them by an incomprehensible mumble.”

          A fragment here:  A 50-year-old “cultivated and highly esteemed lady” had (in her dream) gone to Garrison Hospital No. 1 saying that she wanted to volunteer for “service” meaning (as was evident to everyone in earshot): “love service” (Liebesdienste). To the sentry she announced, “I and many other women and girls in Vienna are ready to [mumble, mumble].”  Yet everyone in the dream understood her.  One of the officers:  “Suppose, madam, it actually came to…(mumble).”   Or later, the dreamer:  “It must never happen that an elderly woman…(mumble)…a mere boy.  That would be terrible.”   As she walked up the staircase she heard an officer comment: “That’s a tremendous decision to make – no matter whether a woman’s young or old!  Splendid of her!”

          From blackouts to the holy data grail

          These dream mumbles became for Freud the precise analogs of postal blackouts and newsprint whiteouts. In short, his experience of third-party intervention into the media/message is not just a bit of interference, it provided the affect and articulation of a central feature of our innermost self – and the experience of a generation that lived through the war. It provokes the thought:  What might the monitoring, mining, and archiving of our exchanges over all our digital media be doing to us?   

          Freud hated censorship – but it was not a private torment. Vienna alone had 3,000 censors, and their ilk sprouted in the major belligerent cities. Indeed, the whole history of American journalism needs to be understood as a response to their labors under wartime censorship.   Our awareness of intercepts is similarly changing our sense of communication – at a deeper level, and I suspect it is only the beginning.  What has changed?  In Freud’s age, the back strips of deletion affected only post and newspapers. We joke about the snatching of our intimate texts, our voices and images over internet, our geolocation, social network posts, metadata, even our online gaming. 

          But the holy data grail isn’t any particular channel of interception –forget the saccharine romance of “Lives of Others” – the all-too-human snoop, earphones on, pencil on paper, tears in eyes. The key for governments and corporations is the integrated archive, the joining of channels that can put (for example) your actions in a store together with your click-through behavior online. Or “content-derived metadata” (telephone numbers scooped from the content of your texts) together with your position and browsing history.

          Facial recognition is only the beginning

          We are all data now. Take video surveillance. Pioneered in its extensive form by the British, video, digitized, is far more than watching.  Our now digitized faces have become part of what the authorities call  “leaked,” data streams that pour, for example, from the world’s half billion iPhones. How quickly this all has changed. There’s a fascinating 2008 document in the Wikileaks archive – sensitive but unclassified. In it, an American summarized a conversation he had with the Duesseldorf Police Chief about video surveillance – it tells us a great deal. 

          Police Chief Herbert Schenkelberg noted that German law restricts police control of the surveillance, but allows private cameras everywhere they are not explicitly forbidden, which offered a solution.   According to the Chief, the Authorities had been able to crack the July 31, 2006 suitcase bomb case (planted on German regional trains) using video recordings – provided by the “private” Deutsche Bahn.

          In 2013, 30.000 new CCTV cameras have been installed in Venezuela

          „The Duesseldorf police chief observed that a majority of citizens do not seem to have a problem with video surveillance in public locations, while they strongly oppose telephone tapping and internet surveillance.  [M]ost people do not feel „watched,“ but rather safer, as public perceptions tend to focus on social groups such as drug dealers, alcoholics or groups of disruptive youth. The public tends not to know the difference between police and non-police surveillance, he stated.“

          The American summed up: If Schenkelberg is correct that the German public tends to object less to video than to other forms of surveillance by law enforcement, German popular sentiment against „big brother“ type  activity was “nuanced.”

          Since 2008, video surveillance has morphed.   Chief Schenkelberg worried about its poor resolution and the need for someone to monitor the video feed.  With facial recognition free on Facebook and many other sites, we know that the NSA and other agencies are using the billions of identified faces to improve their own recognition programs.  But recognition is only the beginning – infrared scans for health have become a commonplace at airports and facial micro-movements (looking for suicide bombers) are part of the Russian security scanning system at the Olympic games in Sochi.

          Blurring boundaries

          Bubbling with enthusiasm, the business world is full of new reports on the hot rising company Sensity that aims (like so many others) to widen surveillance.  The company’s CEO, Hugh Martin, points out that the previous revolutions in communication (telephones and telegraphs) exploited an existing infrastructure – railway tracks.  Now his company is eyeing the world’s three billion streetlamps – now being upgraded to include a direct current power source so they can use LED’s instead of the vastly more expensive traditional lights. But once you’ve put in a DC power supply, he says, why not add cheap Internet-connected sensors, so you can get online access to video, seismic, ambient light, audio, and anything else you care to network. Facial detection, suspicious activities like “loitering,” left-object registration, gun shot location?   Name your sensor.  El Salvador has signed up. Newark Airport is putting in the surveillant lighting, as the New York Times reported in February 2014. VentureBeat quotes Martin,

          “A global network collecting data like this is something we’ve never seen the like of before. And its capabilities are potentially vastly greater than anything the NSA has done in terms of Prism and XKeyScore. A network of smart lights that are capable of recording audio and video, where it can be shot up to the cloud and analyzed by apps, potentially, that have face-recognition capabilities, is at least slightly Orwellian.  My TV may not be watching me, but my streetlamp could.”

          In a world of venture capital security, private contractors and inter-government counter-terrorism, the distinction between government and company fades. “We are definitely going to help foster the discussion of discussion of privacy versus security,” VentureBeat relays, with what the business magazine labels “the understatement of the century.”

          Maybe we shouldn't

          When Freud considered the effect of (real political) censorship, he was quick to observe a certain radiative effect by which censorship expands. In advance of censorship, Freud said, we learn to self-censor, to say to ourselves, ‘maybe we shouldn’t write that’ so we add a safety margin of self-censorship around the forbidden utterance. So it is, he argued, in our psychic lives – we over-protect against our internal censor by blocking or distorting thoughts adjacent to forbidden ones.

          Our present condition has a censoring role vastly more penetrating than white and black blocks put on letters and newspapers in 1915.  We begin with perhaps just a hesitation. In October 2013, there was an ineffectual bombing at LA’s airport – a carbon dioxide bomb, the radio said.  It made no sense to me – carbon dioxide isn’t explosive, so I started to do what I always do and began thumbing up “carbon dioxide bomb” on my phone…and then thought ‘maybe not a good idea.’ In the end, of course, I did look it up and found, stupidly enough, it meant sticking some dry ice in a bottle. But the lesson was there: the knowledge that I might be walking into a security word search had been enough to make me to hesitate.  After enough trips, we don’t think about making jokes in the airport security line, or even near it. The radiative effect extends its reach.

          What does it mean that we know our physical movements are increasingly archived and searchable even long after the fact? Do we begin to hold back from joining a particular social network groups because it might be interpreted as dubious at some future date? Not browse a book online because, later, it could be a problem? Or might we worry that if we fail to do something most people do, we might stand as a more than curious anomaly? Will we worry that physically wandering certain ways in public places, or putting someone in our electronic address book, might trigger a program somewhere, sometime down the line? In any of these instances would a TrapWire program or some successor algorithm send a “Suspicious Activity Report” to Homeland Security?

          Find, fix, finish

          Even phrasing the problem as one of “privacy versus security” may be far too weak – because we may start to think about the very idea of an interior life of the self differently if so much is scooped up and inferred.   When Andrew Pole, the head analytics guy at Target (a $65 billion dollar/year corporation) lectured on “predictive analytics” in 2010, he began by saying, you may be thinking of big brother – we’ll be careful.  He told the assembled corporate representatives that the holy grail was to assemble a “Guest ID“ – an integration of patterns of customer responses to email, cookies, direct mail, store purchases, and texts.  The goal was to predict and then shape future behavior by customizing all these “channels.” It is a huge trove of personal behavioral data.In 2013, Target and a group of other companies had their credit card and other personal information stolen by Eastern European cybercriminals.  Their number? About one third of the American population. Data, as even the NSA has discovered, will not stay put.

          In the rush to build up an ever-widening cache of Digital Identities there is money and power. An expenditure or trip out of the ordinary?  Your bank wants to know. So might counter-terrorism officials.  So might a cyberthief.  Who controls Digital Identity can look for habits, anomalies, social embeddedness, states of mind, and vulnerabilities in order to sell, to persuade, or in extremis, as the NSA’s Geo Cell has it, “Find, Fix, Finish.”

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