A New Business Model
The U.S. Justice Department kept the partnership secret, but news reports, court documents, and eventually the Snowden leaks reveals a picture of interdependence and collaboration. As former director of the NSA Mike McConnell put it, “ Recent reports of possible partnership between Google and the government point to the kind of joint efforts -- and shared challenges -- that we are likely to see in the future...Cyberspace knows no borders, and our defensive efforts must be similarly seamless.” The NSA developed its own software to mimic the Google infrastructure, uses Google “cookies” to identify targets for hacking, and widely accesses emails and other data through the PRISM program, the costs of which it covered for Google and other Internet firms.
Google and Facebook had led the way in colonizing the new zone with a commercial logic based on surveillance. Now the Google-NSA alliance added new layers and capabilities, as well as a complex public-private dimension that remains poorly understood. Whatever the details might be, the new logic spread to other companies and applications, driving the growth and success of operations in the new zone.
Despite this growth, it’s been difficult to grasp the changing social relations that are produced in the new zone. associated withi Google’s new commercial logic. There are two reasons for this. First, the companies move faster than individuals or democratic public institutions can follow. Second, its operations are designed to be undetectable. It’s this later point that I want to focus on for a moment.
Google’s Radical Politics
We often hear that our privacy rights have been eroded and secrecy has grown. But that way of framing things obscures what’s really at stake. Privacy hasn’t been eroded. It’s been expropriated. The difference in framing provides new ways to define the problem and consider solutions.
In the conventional telling, privacy and secrecy are treated as opposites. In fact, one is a cause and the other is an effect. Exercising our right to privacy leads to choice. We can choose to keep something secret or to share it, but we only have that choice when we first have privacy. Privacy rights confer decision rights. Privacy lets us decide where we want to be on the spectrum between secrecy and transparency in each situation. Secrecy is the effect; privacy is the cause.
I suggest that privacy rights have not been eroded, if anything they’ve multiplied. The difference now is how these rights are distributed. Instead of many people having some privacy rights, nearly all the rights have been concentrated in the hands of a few. On the one hand, we have lost the ability to choose what we keep secret, and what we share. On the other, Google, the NSA, and others in the new zone have accumulated privacy rights. How? Most of their rights have come from taking ours without asking. But they also manufactured new rights for themselves, the way a forger might print currency. They assert a right to privacy with respect to their surveillance tactics and then exercise their choice to keep those tactics secret.
A pre-modern absolutism
Finally - and this is key - the new concentration of privacy rights is institutionalized in the automatic undetectable functions of a global infrastructure that most of the world’s people also happen to think is essential for basic social participation. This turns ordinary life into the daily renewal of a 21st century Faustian pact.