Tag Archives: surveillance

Regimes of Full-Spectrum Surveillance and Whistleblowers

How should we understand the phenomenon of leaking? Can we call it a new form of legitimate resistance against all-powerful regimes of authority?

By: Giulio Caperchi

Wikileaks Logo

Wikileaks Logo

Since the NSA scandal blowout, I’ve been on the fence regarding the support of whistleblowers such as Manning, Assange and Snowden. On one hand, I praise them for finally putting the spotlight on the abuses that our institutions of authority perpetrate on a daily basis. I admire them sacrificing comfortable lives for prison sentences or lives in exile. On the other hand I’ve always wondered: who are these whistleblowers ? What set of assumptions motivate their decisions? More importantly, how do their actions influence society? (And was the leaking of diplomatic cables really necessary?)

What helped me get a grip on the debate was a comparison between two opinion pieces by two writers on the opposite ends of the political spectrum: conservative NYTimes columnist David Brooks and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Brooks’ piece The Solitary Leaker bluntly states that Snowden has betrayed the trust of social and political institutions which support the common good and keep together a political community. Conversely, in Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange: our new heroes, Zizek argues that whistleblowers have become necessary figures in our new digital era and that every authoritarian regime should have one.

Mulling over these two contrasting opinions brought me to the conclusion that yes, whistleblowers are necessary, but also that leaking -understood as a form of resistance against unaccountable regimes of authority- is a fundamentally undemocratic form of resistance. Let me illustrate my point by briefly going back to Brooks and Zizek.

Brooks’ critique of Snowden’s moral character is based on pretty flimsy, and frankly ridiculous, evidence. Allegedly, Snowden hasn’t visited his mother in a while and he isn’t a very amicable neighbor. Harrowing evidence folks. (If you haven’t already, please take a look at Snowden’s video interview on the Guardian too see what Snowden is really like.)

For Brooks, Snowden has betrayed the cause of “open government” (as if the CIA and NSA are transparent public institutions); he has betrayed the Constitution because he “short-circuited the democratic structures of accountability, putting his own preferences above everything else” (as if the CIA and NSA would indeed be held accountable); and that by revealing the secrets he was entrusted with, he has betrayed “honesty and integrity, the foundation of all cooperative activity” (as if working for a defense contractor is a “cooperative” endeavor). His acts of betrayal, concludes Brooks, ultimately create a climate of distrust which damages the already frail bonds holding together our political society.

But Brooks isn’t an idiot, and he highlights a provocative dimension of the act of leaking. Brooks positions Snowden firmly within a growing libertarian narrative emerging across the American political spectrum. He paints Snowden as a “solitary leaker,” a victim of an atomized society which ultimately pits the naturally free individual against the leviathan nation-state in an epic David and Goliath-like scenario. More importantly, Brooks points out that Snowden acted unilaterally: his act of resistance was unmediated by political institutions and based thoroughly on his personal moral prerogative.

Zizek, on the other hand, states that the world is in dire need of more leakers. Leakers are crucial because not only do they shed light on the abuses that characterise this digital era, but because they remind us that the digital age may be informed by Immanuel Kant’s idea of the public use of reason: “the transnational universality of the exercise of one’s reason.” They keep alive the (somewhat utopian) idea of the internet understood as a free and radically transparent frontier where all kinds of debate may flourish.

Zizek suggests that not only the US, but also China, Russia and other authoritarian regimes need more leakers. The world therefore requires an organization which can protect leakers and help them spread word of the abuses they have denounced. He believes that “whistleblowers are our heroes because they prove that if those in power can do it, we can also do it.” (I make a very similar point in a previous post The Reverse Panopticon)

Between the two commentators, I side with Zizek. Albeit partially, and here’s why. If we consider the act of digital leaking as a new form of resistance against various regimes of surveillance and control (be them articulated through governmental or private institutions, -or both), we must first ask: how democratic is this form of resistance? Can I partake in its decision making? Can I decide (democratically) what and when gets leaked? I understand these are somewhat banal questions, after all the whole point of leaking is to catch institutions of authority by surprise and to then leverage public opinion. But they serve the rhetorical purpose of shedding light on the fact that what and when gets leaked is totally up to the moral prerogative of the individual whistleblower . Like Brooks states, the leaker acts unilaterally.

And here is where I agree with Brooks, the figure of the “solitary leaker” lends itself to a dangerous libertarian and manichaean narrative in which public authority (except that protecting private property) is bad, and where individual decision making (insofar as it is rational) is good. It is no surprise that Rand and Ron Paul support the leakers. It fits neatly within a political vocabulary predicated on the denial of collective decision making.

Leaking is therefore a form of resistance starkly different from that, say, of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, in which the democratic element in consensus-seeking assemblies dominated all aspects of decision making (perhaps to a debilitating point).

In conclusion, let me shed my naive democratic yearnings and talk a bit of realpolitik. Perhaps leaking is the best form of resistance to Empire we’ve got today. Assange, Manning and Snowden have indeed scared the living lights out of some of the most powerful institutions on earth. And maybe Zizek is right: at least now this awesome architecture of full-spectrum surveillance knows that if it can infiltrate every crevice of our private lives, we can do the same to it.

But let us remember that tidbits of leaked information, although painful, merely embarrass such powerful institutions. As Brooks points out, they will learn from their mistakes and tighten their grip. Let us not be naive and think that because abuses were revealed they will submit their actions to public scrutiny and accountability. After all only half of the American population disapproves of government surveillance programs.  In all probability they will act with ever more secrecy, and farther away from law.

The real solution to such abuses of power is to address the structural problems at the heart of our democratic societies, namely secrecy, inequality and discrimination. And the solution to these problems can only be more democracy: leaks and leakers alone won’t do the trick.

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The Reverse Panopticon

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Is the advent of easily available recording technology coupled with mass-distribution of content through social media platforms allowing for the democratization of the state’s surveillance apparatus?

Most of us fear the totalitarian dystopia imagined in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which citizens are controlled and stripped of private rights through the use of technologies enforcing total surveillance. It is easy to draw parallels with our world today, where the proliferation of CCTV devices and the use of surveillance drones by law enforcement eerily appear to emulate Big Brother’s tactics.

In fact, police forces worldwide are increasingly relying on overt and covert surveillance technologies. In the UK, police plan on deploying unmanned aerial vehicles to aid them in day to day surveillance operations in the light of the 2012 Olympics[1]. Similarly, on the ground, police are increasingly using Forward Intelligence Teams – officers armed with camcorders and other recording equipment used to document anti-social behavior[2]. Still, local governments continue to spend large sums of money on CCTV surveillance, despite evidence questioning its effectiveness as a deterrent[3].

However, in the past years we have witnessed the mass-consumption of relatively cheap products such as cell-phones equipped with camcorders. By now, any footage recorded by these devices is easily disseminated on the web thanks to social media platforms such as twitter and facebook. For example, the worldwide protests of 2011 have captured hours of footage in which civilians documented and “surveilled” law enforcement operations from Tahrir Square to Wall Street. We are all familiar with the grotesque images of a police officer pepper-spraying a row of seated and peaceful students at UC Davis.

Today we live in a world in which technology allows virtually anyone to easily document the actions of the same individuals whom operate the state’s surveillance apparatus. What occurs to the logics underlining mass surveillance when the “watched” are finally able to “watch the watchers”? And what implications does this have on the dynamics informing popular protest?

The French philosopher Michel Foucault studied the effects that mass surveillance has on society very carefully. For him, modern law enforcement could not possibly sustain the economic cost of maintaining social order through the threat of physical coercion alone. Modern mass democracies would enforce compliance to law through less intrusive and more subtle techniques: techniques which would push individuals to “self-police” themselves. Foucault refers to one of these techniques as “panopticism”. In his studies regarding carceral institutions he analyses the architectural plans of a new type of prison built during the 19th century. The Panopticon was the first prison constructed in such a way so that inmates were always visible to the wardens, but where the inmates could not see the wardens. Its effect was that of forcing inmates to behave as if actually being observed, even though no-one was observing them. Modern surveillance devices such as CCTVs function along the same logic, as “eyes that must see without being seen”[4].

For Foucault, this type of constant and total surveillance produced disciplined subjects; individuals whom would spontaneously conform to socially acceptable behavior thereby conspiring in their own self-regulation. Its effects were those of discouraging abnormal behavior –such as political protest- while fostering acquiescence and the internalization of the status quo. Panopticism, said Foucault, “was the most direct way…of making it possible to substitute for force or other violent constraints the gentle efficiency of total surveillance”[5].

Yet, alas, Foucault died just before the mass availability of today’s recording devices and before facebook and twitter accompanied the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements. However his ideas might still prove useful in determining the effects that these new technological innovations have on society.

On one hand, the fact that we are increasingly watched not just by law enforcement but also by the public at large might reinforce and possibly magnify the discipline-inducing effects that Foucault highlighted. Individuals might feel observed to an even greater extent and behave in an ever more docile manner -with serious implications on their willingness to publicly vent political contention. Moreover, it might render individuals fearful of their neighbors, thereby tearing at the social fabric of our communities. Finally, it would negatively impinge on one’s sacrosanct privacy.

On the other hand, the ability of any individual to surveil public officers might induce law enforcement institutions to “self-police” themselves. The footage of Iraq veteran Scott Olsen, an ex Marine, being shot in the head with a tear-gas canister at an Occupy Oakland protest created public outrage in the US and caused a serious investigation of the Oakland Police Department’s tactics[6]. Last December at an Occupy Wall Street protest the Guardian reported the use of the “occucopter”: a remote controlled helicopter equipped with a camcorder, broadcasting live on the web and documenting police repression[7]. Such devices are often the only instruments that a non-violent protest movement such as Occupy may employ against violent crackdowns.

These technological innovations have the potential to enforce accountability and to increase transparency, particularly within the murky dynamics of street protests. Being able to record and effortlessly disseminate evidence now allows any citizen to report “abnormal” behavior (as Foucault would put it) exhibited by law enforcement officials such as with the pepper-spray incident. However, this new-found ability possesses actual potential only if used to enforce compliance to law, to civil/human rights and to the norms of dignity. Moreover, it is effective solely when those caught breaking the law are held responsible for their actions or when the footage captured manages to influence public opinion.

Perhaps the apparent “democratization” of the surveillance apparatus is not a game-changer for social movements and will not tilt the game of political contention in favor of protesters. But it does serve to remind us that in any healthy democracy everyone should be held accountable for their actions, and if the evidence garnered by and spread through new technologies serves this purpose then this new phenomenon should be welcomed.

This article was originally published by The Heptagon Post on February 9th 2012


  • Foucault, M. 1991. The Foucault Reader. Ed. Rabinow, P. Penguin: London


Filed under Human Rights, Indignados, Michel Foucault, Occupy Wall Street, security, social movements, surveillance