Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

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Resisting and Resetting Privacy and Surveillance Expectations

-- By CorinneShim - 26 Sep 2017


Our society’s conception of privacy has undergone a disturbing transformation, in which we now exchange our private behavior in return for consumer products that surveil us. Shoshana Zuboff, a scholar who studies the transition to the information society, uses the term surveillance capitalism to describe this phenomenon. Under surveillance capitalism, acquisition of behavioral information “aims to predict and modify human behavior as a means to produce revenue and market control.” Humans are exploited as data sources, to be mined and quantified as products for governments and advertisers. Whether it be social media networks like Facebook, search engines like Google, or retail companies like Target, we are told that the collection of our behavior will improve the company’s ability to meet our needs. We are not told that the behavioral data collected by a company to improve consumer experience is commonly sold to third parties. We are not told that as of February 2013, “Tens of thousands of accounts associated with customers of Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Yahoo have their data turned over to US government authorities every six months as the result of secret court orders.” We freely give up information about ourselves and are vulnerable to individuals who wish to misuse that information. For the rest of this paper, I would like to explain why we need to resist surveillance, and then promote both passive and confrontational forms of resistance.

Why Resistance is Necessary

In Simon Chesterman’s book One Nation Under Surveillance, Chesterman describes the increasing surveillance in our society as individuals creating “a new social contract, in which individuals give the state (and, frequently, many other actors) power over information in exchange for security and the conveniences of living in the modern world.” This viewpoint rationalizes the exploitation of the majority of human beings through surveillance for the benefit of a small subset of human beings as a necessary part of an information society. However, Chesterman is wrong. We are not creating a new social contract; collecting information to exploit other humans for the sake of profit and power has been around for at least the last century.

In the 1930s, banks in Germany helped compile lists of Jewish customers and assisted the government in transferring ownership of companies from “Jewish to Aryan ownership.” As one historian writes, “in assisting in the process, the bank not only profited through the collection of sizable fees, but also helped the government reach its political, racially motivated goals.” Information about individuals was used to exploit certain freedoms. We do not live in pre-WWII Germany. However, modern scholars like David Lyon argue that our modern surveillance also engages in “social sorting,” which “[categorizes] personal data such that people thus classified may be treated differently.” This happens in situations ranging from marketing to international security, and could very well lead to nightmare situations comparable to those in 1930s Germany if just taken one step too far. Surveillance has helped people exploit other people for a very long time; the difference now is that the surveillance is more efficient at capturing everybody’s information and requires less intermediary participation for abuses of power.

It is possible to resist our modern surveillance. Modern surveillance entities socialize us to believe that increasing surveillance will benefit society in some way, but that is wrong; surveillance entities only seek further surveillance, and the information can be used as much to harm society as to help society. We need to reset our society’s acceptance of surveillance and privacy, and we can start by participating in two general forms of resistance.

Passive Resistance

Passive resistance involves activities such as avoiding optional forms of surveillance (Facebook, cell phone GPS tracking, etc) to the best of one’s abilities, and masking identity and location when online. Passive resistance helps people reset boundaries regarding surveillance. “Surveillance feeds on the related notions of fear and delusion in the interests of producing particular subjects…that accept intrusion as an overarching power.” The goal of passive resistance is to remove the self from the perception of surveillance as an overarching power and to create a hint of privacy. Much like how substance addictions are easier to overcome when there is an extended period of time away from the substance and its triggers, surveillance participation is easier to avoid once there has been an extended period of time away from surveillance entities and triggers. Passive resistance is important for helping those who feel resigned to surveillance to imagine a world with less surveillance and to start exploring other ways of neutralizing surveillance.

Confrontational Resistance

Confrontational resistance is when actual norms are being confronted within a society. As passive resistance strengthens, individuals will notice that actions they themselves have become used to are noticed as “deviations” by peers, which can lead to confrontation. The more passive resistance that is internalized (i.e. avoidance of social networks, using false identities online, etc), the more likely this will manifest in a confrontation with other people who accept the surveillance will notice. This confrontation can lead to a conversation about surveillance that does not start with the premise that surveillance is a normal part of life. This conversation, if an individual so chooses, can then be brought up in other ways, such as through legislation, court proceedings, and corporate social responsibility meetings.


There are limitations to resistance. In “A Tack in the Shoe and Taking off the Shoe,” Gary Marx admits, “the existence of resistance does not imply it will be successful…. The silent and often non-consensual spread of technological control and personal data collection to so many areas of life means that neutralization is often not an option (or available only at very disproportionate costs).” I acknowledge this may be true, but we should still try for resistance, if only because the opportunity to resist still exists.


Shoshana Zuboff, Big Other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization, 75 JOURNAL OF INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY (2015)

Spencer Ackerman, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Yahoo release US surveillance requests, THE GUARDIAN, February 3, 2014.

SIMON CHESTERMAN, ONE NATION UNDER SURVEILLANCE 12 (Oxford University Press 2011) (2011).

Brandon Mitchener, Deutsche Bank Admits It Helped Hitler: Confronting a Dark Past, N.Y. TIMES, February 22,1995.

David Lyon. Surveillance, Security, and Social Sorting. INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE REVIEW, September 2007.


Stuart Wolpert, People can overcome their addictions, but not quickly, UCLA psychologist says, UCLA NEWSROOM SEPTEMBER 7, 2010.

Gary T. Marx, A Tack in the Shoe and Taking off the Shoe: Neutralization and Counter-neutralization Dynamics, SURVEILLANCE AND SOCIETY 6(3) 2009.

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Revision 1r1 - 26 Sep 2017 - 15:16:47 - CorinneShim
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