Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
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Old Frameworks for New Issues: Postcolonialism and Digital Surveillance

-- By HibahHussain - 19 Mar 2012


Last week, during a panel on “Location Tracking and Fourth Amendment Concerns,” lawyer Jeffrey Rosen recalled a conversation with Andrew McLaughlin, who was Google’s Public Policy Director at the time. Describing the possibility of linking the world’s live surveillance cameras to sites like Google and Facebook, McLaughlin noted that “it would be theoretically possible to click on a picture of anyone in the world — say me — back click on me to find out where I came from, forward click on me to see where I'm going, and basically have 24/7 ubiquitous surveillance of everyone on the planet at all times." (1)

This sort of “ubiquitous surveillance” forces us to rethink how we understand issues of privacy and surveillance: privacy, in this world, has little to do with having “something to hide.” Rather, as Dan Solove and others have pointed out, it’s about power imbalances, social structures, and the sense of agency that people feel with respect to social and political institutions. (2) As O’Harrow puts it: "Surveillance comes with a price. It dulls the edge of public debate, imposes a sense of conformity and introduces the uneasy feeling of being watched. It chills culture and stifles dissent.” (3)

Before making policy recommendations on this issue, it’s crucial to understand the cultural, social, and political implications of data collection and digital surveillance. It may seem unexpected, but I argue that postcolonial theory provides us with a useful framework for understanding the links between surveillance, data collection, knowledge, and power. More specifically, there is a large body of work on how colonial data collection (in the form of maps and charts) directly facilitated colonialism’s economic, social, and cultural domination. Before you roll your eyes, I’m not saying that Facebook and Google are new East India company and that our data are comparable to tea leaves and silk. Rather, I’m using the literature on colonial cartography to help us understand the mechanisms of social life that allow a small group of powerful people to leverage data and information to subordinate large swaths of society.

Cartography and Imperialism

Over a hundred years ago, the President of the Paris Geographical Society insisted that “the earth...will belong to whoever knows it best. It is not possible to use the wealth that a country contains, nor to govern its inhabitants…without a profound knowledge of the people and the land.”# (4) In many ways, this connection between mapping (a form of data collection) and domination is obvious: you have to know where the tea plantations are before you can pick it, you have to know the mountain passes and ship routes before you can use them for trade.

Just as companies heavily invest in business intelligence software and analyics, the East India Company poured resources into cartography. As early as 1767, the Company relied heavily on its Surveyor General, who led a team of mapmakers and explorers. Even after the British government took over operations in 1858, imperial officials continued making maps with gusto, launching initiatives like The Great Trigonometrical Survey, which “promised to furnish a ‘perfect geographical panopticon’ in which the Indian landscape would become totally visible, laid bare to the infinitesimally accurate gaze of British power.”# (5)

You don’t have to work in the digital ad industry (although I did) to understand the intimate connections between data collection and economic domination. The idea that knowing everything about everyone (whether via analyzing click patterns, mapping their tastes, etc.) is key to building a business empire is commonplace.

So What? Let Them Watch

On a very basic level, it’s tempting to say that it’s all fine, that privacy-centric arguments create a false dichotomy between passive consumers and active citizens, and that we can simultaneously be surveilled and participate in a thriving democratic culture. I wish this were true, but as postcolonial theorists have pointed out, it’s not that simple. Rather, the ability to watch without being watched is directly connected to the ability to dominate and control. Frankly, I’m not bothered by the fact that cookie-based ads tell Google that I’m a 25 year old girl who spends a lot of time looking at shoes, music blogs, craft beer sites, and dessert recipes. What bothers me is how little control I have over how this data is collected, what it looks like, how it’s used, and the fact that the mechanisms that facilitate it are implicated in larger problems of anonymity, activism, and innovation.

In a recent talk at the RSA Security Conference, tech guru Bruce Scheier illuminated succinctly highlighted the ways in which “big data” firms stymie innovation. Pointing to ChoicePoint, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and other "companies that collect, aggregate, and use personal data," Scheier argued that "the entire marketing ecosystem that surrounds the Internet" is siphoning control away from users by making it harder for users to control their online identities or to modify the technologies and platforms they use. (6)


Noting that "it's a simple fact that private companies can collect information about people in ways the government can't”, O’Harrow warns us that “their capabilities have raced far ahead of the nation's understanding and laws” and that “the legacy of these efforts will be with us for many years." (7) #Drawing upon postcolonial theory, I’ve attempted to show that this “legacy” goes far beyond bits of information that individuals may or may not want to hide. Rather, it affects how much social and political agency we have and how comfortable we feel exercising our democratic rights. Just as imperial cartographers designed their maps to reflect their worldviews and transform knowledge into power, big data structures are creating a social life in which users are passive, uninformed, and powerless over their own identities. Instead of striving to create social structures that are flat, open, and transparent, we’re creating imbalanced and opaque structures that make Foucault’s panopticon seem positively adorable. Given that democracy and innovation require empowered individuals who have a modicum of control over their own information and identities, this is especially problematic.

Word Count: 999

(1) Event details:; Quote originally published here:

(2) Solove, Daniel J. Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff between Privacy and Security. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011. Print.

(3) O'Harrow, Robert. No Place to Hide. New York: Free, 2005. Print.

(4) Quot. in Ashcroft, Bill. On Post-colonial Futures: Transformations of Colonial Culture. London: Continuum, 2001. Print.

(5) Carens, Timothy. "Mapping India." Victorian Literature and Culture Vol. 31, No. 2 (2003), pp. 613-623. Cambridge University Press.

(6) Fulton III, Scott M. "RSA 2012: Bruce Schneier on the Threat of "Big Data, Inc."" ReadWriteWeb. 28 Feb. 2012. Web. 2 Mar. 2012. <>.

(7) O'Harrow, Robert. No Place to Hide. New York: Free, 2005. Print.

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r2 - 11 Jan 2013 - 21:48:50 - IanSullivan
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