The Grand Bargain

The recent controversy at Harvard College about using secret cameras placed in classrooms to document student attendance has raised concerns about surveillance on campuses.  Questions are swirling about whether it was justified in pursuit of better teaching, who should have been told, whether consent was necessary, whether the type of data collected matters, and how it should have been collected, stored, and analyzed.  This controversy is merely indicative of a broader struggle between individuals and institutions over privacy.

Rebecca MacKinnon, in Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, argues that we implicitly give power to governments to collect our data in exchange for a service – security.  However, we expect that there are limits on the scope of that bargain. What we’re now facing is that our bargain’s boundaries are being tested in new ways due to the reach of technology, the erosion of governmental accountability, and the emergence of private companies as actors in the surveillance.

  • In “The Ecuadorian Library,” Bruce Sterling notes that surveillance and opposition to surveillance have existed for a long time. The difference today is that because we now live so much of our lives online, the activities that can be efficiently monitored by the state have increased dramatically.  In No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State, Glenn Greenwald uses the classified documents obtained by Edward Snowden to show that the scope of surveillance in the US is massive and growing, with the NSA operating under the mantra of “collect it all.”  There are fewer and fewer spaces where we can be outside the reach of monitoring.
  • MacKinnon writes that crucial to our implicit bargain is that the state is transparent and held accountable for how they use data.  But that accountability is eroding in the US, with new laws that grant immunity for companies participating in surveillance, that allow warrant-less monitoring, and with intelligence agencies feeling license to lie about their activities to the bodies that are supposed to be holding them accountable.
  • Emily Parker observes, in Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground, that companies like Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, have essentially become part of the public policy apparatus on issues of privacy.  These companies have choices about how to use the data they collect, and many are choosing to cooperate with the government.  Yet they are even less accountable than government is for their role in these policy decisions.

The grand bargain on surveillance, then, is up for renegotiation. But who is at the negotiating table? Most of us can’t be bothered. Instead, it’s Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, people that Jaron Lanier describes as “vigilantes,” people who decide to take matters into their own hands.  The problem is that these vigilantes are not impartial and can cause more harm than good. Raffi Khatchadourian’s portrait of Assange in The New Yorker shows that these vigilantes are inherently anti-institutional, believing that only by giving data to individuals can the natural corruption of institutions be stopped, and this is necessary regardless of the destruction caused.

So what’s the answer? Lanier and Khatchadourian call for more accountability for the vigilantes, MacKinnon and Parker call for more accountability for government and corporations and they place the responsibility for that accountability on all of us. But what these writers miss is that accountability is only necessary to the extent that you don’t trust institutions.  If you have complete trust, there is no need for accountability.  This is an issue of institutional trust, then, rather than one of accountability, and the question then changes from “How can we hold institutions accountable?” to “Why don’t we trust our institutions?”

And that brings us back to the situation at Harvard.  Harvard and other educational institutions have long had an implicit bargain with their students and faculty that data would be used to improve the service they are offering.  However, Harvard’s recent use of secret cameras and other initiatives to collect and use student data, such as inBloom in the K-12 setting, have put the bargain up for renegotiation.  What these debates boil down to is trust in school systems – do we trust them to use the data to do the right thing for students? It’s worth considering why, for many people, the answer to that question is no.

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