Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
Our class discussion about how accumulation of personal data can predict our behavior led me to think of Minority Report. Minority Report, of course, is famously about three mutated humans with precognitive abilities, whose visions of the future allow the police to prevent crimes before they occur. Reflecting on Minority Report from perspectives of this class, what I found notable was the thread of unbelievability running through it and similar films. Many technologies from futuristic dystopian movies, which depict totalitarian government surveillance, exist and are used today: optical recognition systems, individualized and targeted public advertising and messages, retinal scanners, facial recognition software, small robot drones, and, transformed into human “precogs” in Minority Report, crime prediction software.

Hollywood displaces dystopias involving government surveillance in the future (never too far away, but never too close, either), or emphasizes that actions that government actors take are those of a rogue agency or agent. See, for an example, Total Recall, Eagle Eye, Enemy of the State, and even The Hunger Games. The ensuing drama, such as in Minority Report (a murderous plot, an innocent man being framed, the system grossly abused by the director of the program) leading to the inevitable Hollywood feel-good ending (the precogs being unhooked from the system to live in peace), like explosions and romance, are necessary for Hollywood thrillers; however, all of the action also serves to displace the anxieties of such “dystopian” actions occurring right now. If the setting and the storyline seem larger and more histrionic than life, it may be easier for the viewing public to engage in the thrill of conspiracy without fearing it spilling over into their own lives.

In contrast to displacement, media portrayals can also normalize things for us, whether it is body image, effusive romantic gestures, or government surveillance and intrusions into our privacy. For an example, the TV show 24 has come under fire for normalizing torture in the public consciousness by depicting it so frequently and by making it appear that effective, productive, and justified. If torture can be internalized, surely so can, and so has, government surveillance. While, of course, people can differentiate between what they see on TV and reality, through sheer confirmation bias, if enough normal-seeming, helpful examples of invasions of privacy are displayed on TV, we may collectively give way to accept it as a norm.

Crime procedural shows fall on a spectrum of invasion of privacy. The Law and Order franchise is largely tame – detectives cooperate with cell companies to turn on cell phones remotely, triangulate locations, and subpoena personal records from websites. CSI, famously pseudo-science and enhance-photograph heavy, starts to analyze DNA from skin cells left behind, hormone levels from sweat, and begins to hack into websites. NCIS shows government agents freely and blithely hacking corporations and websites to obtain private information at will. NCIS: Los Angeles, possibly the most egregious of the crime procedurals I’ve seen, is closest to Big Brother – the government can accumulate all information from all cameras, Internet chatter, etc, whether private or public, at will. These shows normalize the act of government intrusion such that the viewer barely notices it as such. It is merely another step in the government’s righteous investigation to smite the wrongdoer. Of course, we can accept it part and parcel as crime procedurals’ also-blithe breezing past of the 4th Amendment in a physical capacity as well, cheerfully breaking into homes all for the sake of the “greater good.” Because the viewer is positioned naturally in the point of view of the police, we cheer on these violations because they are necessary to solve the case.

An even more “ends-justify-the-means” strain are Homeland and 24, shows in which the viewers and the characters are less comfortable with government power and surveillance – however, in such shows it becomes an act of patriotism to intrude on individual rights. The highly intrusive surveillance inside the alleged terrorist Brody’s home, that Carrie Mathison monitors 24/7, even in the bathroom and even while he’s having sex, is rightfully uncomfortable. Despite her lack of firm evidence before initiating the surveillance, her violations of his rights are vindicated because ultimately she was right. This simultaneously elevates her position and disparages all those “stuffy” bureaucrats who sought to stick to due process and procedure in protecting Brody’s rights – instead it is patriotic to make the “hard” choice and violate a citizen’s rights. This reinforces the general public’s Hollywood-influenced idea that the government is acting for the best.

It is cognitively dissonant for the latter views and the first, of the dystopian future where Big Brother Is Watching You, to co-exist. However, it is easy to not recognize our reality disguised in the overblown drama of dystopias – we have neither ominous soundtracks nor futuristic hovercars – and to distinguish factors to argue that the dystopia is not the world we live in today.

The relative comfort with which we watch special agents hack into social networks on criminal procedurals translates into how we gleefully consume the private lives of celebrities. In cases in which we’ve invaded a public official’s email, or seen scandals involving phone-hackings or email-hackings of celebrities, the public hasn’t been necessarily as scandalized by the invasion-of-privacy aspect as they should. Perhaps because these individuals are public figures, we focus more on the naked pictures and less on their right to privacy. Invasions into their privacy have become normalized to a large extent by paparazzi, and by our own interest in their lives. (Note, however, that similar invasions of privacy are also occurring to private citizens who are NOT in the public eye. To return to my original Hollywood theme, both Rear Window and Disturbia mark movies in which individuals unaffiliated with the government voyeuristically invade their neighbors’ privacy in the name of the greater good, and later deliver the n’er-do-well-ers to the police.

Increasingly, the key to invasions of privacy by the government is not necessarily the government itself, but ourselves – it has become normalized for individuals to be our own best stalkers, not only by signing up for websites and leaving a digital footprint, but by uploading ourselves online: private information, Facebook, “checking in” everywhere you go, putting up pictures, participating in reality shows. All of these things, but especially Facebook, allow us to be celebrities in our own right, with “interesting” lives that others should be paying attention to. This means, however, that it’s not just one’s peers, but the government that could be paying attention.

Consider this advertisement, which pitches this constant uploading as a positive thing. The commercial frames “shar[ing] every second in data” as empowering: “I have the right to be unlimited,” it crows in the end. The glowing vision of the present is “a billion roaming photojournalists uploading the human experience,” and “I need to upload all of it” from “every angle.” The fact that Sprint would believe that people would respond positively to this ability to report obsessively about everything in their lives indicates how normal we perceive this system of reporting to the Internet to be.

As Professor Moglen has repeatedly stated, if at any other point in the past century we asked people to carry devices that reported their geographical locations at all time, or to voluntarily disclose all sorts of personal information at all times, people would have revolted. This paradigm shift cannot, of course, be attributed solely to media; the media and people’s norms are on a feedback loop, each responding to the other. However, it is undeniable that almost every criminal procedural shows government accumulation and use of private information in a normal, positively nonchalant way. Normalization of this through TV is a wedge in the door, which reflects our societal greater acceptance of invasions into our privacy.

It seems to me that the greatest value in this essay draft lies in what you have thought, about "normalization" of surveillance, and what you might yet think on the subject. The least value is in the summaries of TV plots.

So the right path of revision, it seems to me, is to boil that down. In a paragraph, you can state your thesis, that popular culture, particularly TV action serials, are teaching the population to expect and accept massive surveillance. You rightly see this not as a propaganda campaign launched by a conspiracy to impose surveillance, but as the cultural outcome of the social process of surveillance being adopted, by a society that believes itself to be full of "thinking people" rationally "choosing" profound social changes in order to be safe from terrorism. But, again, you need to spend a carefully-formed paragraph developing that idea for the reader.

This is as far as the current draft can reach, but the next draft should be able to go substantially further. What forms of cultural dissent from the ongoing "eyes wide shut" culture can you locate, or imagine? How will the tension among social perspectives on this process be represented elsewhere than in the large-scale pop storytelling under oligarchic control, the medium of Murdochworld and Mouseland?

-- NicoleKim - 30 Apr 2013

 

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r3 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:44:50 - IanSullivan
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