Law in the Internet Society

A new “Thought Police” shaping our behavior

-- By SofiaJaramillo - 04 Nov 2016

While there might be benefits derived from surveillance (crime prevention for example), the possibility of us being molded/shaped according to someone else’s ideas or desires, unsettles me. This system of power which is omnipresent, going with everybody while listening and tracking everyone’s speech, feelings and thought, “is inconsistent with freedom.” We are shaped by all the interactions and the exchange of ideas we have with one and other. In our "new" digital ecosystem our subjectivity is being constantly reconfigured, and not necessarily by our own will. In this short essay I will try to show the ways in which States and private corporations surveil and monitor individuals in order highlight the potential of these techniques to control and shape individuals.

The relations with one another and with our political community have changed. Bernard Harcourt explained this idea in his book, Exposed, claiming “a new virtual transparence that is dramatically reconfiguring relations of power throughout society, that is redrawing our social landscape and political possibilities, that is producing dramatically new circulation of power in society. A new expository power constantly tracks and pieces together our digital selves. It renders us legible to others, open accessible, subject to everyone’s idiosyncratic projects -whether governmental, commercial, personal or intimate” [p.15].

The traditional perception of surveillance has been associated with positive and necessary activities such as law enforcement and crime prevention, and has been targeted in scope. However, as Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson state, a lot has changed. According to the authors, the Orwellian and the Foucauldian panoptical models were replaced by all the contemporary surveillance mechanisms available. The model of a centralized undertaking (one/few surveilling the many) has been replaced with multiple actor including ourselves, pursuing diverse objectives. The authors call this the “surveillant assemblage” where people who were not initially the focus surveillance are now being monitored.

It is reasonable to consider that States should use the available tools to guarantee our safety. For example, in January 2016, the Obama administration announced the creation of the Center for Global Engagement. The Center will enable and empower different groups (government and non-government organizations) to speak up against “violent extremist groups, including ISIL and al-Qaeda” and offer foreign audiences “positive alternatives”. In order to do this, “the center will offer services ranging from planning thematic social media campaigns to providing factual information that counters-disinformation to building capacity for third parties to effectively utilize social media to research and evaluation.” According to Harcourt, this is an effort to de-radicalize identified groups, by adopting the tactics learned by Google, Amazon and Netflix. They will follow these steps: using Google’s approaches, they will identify who is at risk of radicalization; then they will enhance the content of moderate intermediaries by adopting Facebook strategies (incorporate images so they get reposted for example); then take that enhanced content and feed it to the targeted individuals; and finally, they will find out whether the targets opened the content or not by using the model learned from advertisers(1).

The overall purpose of the Center for Global Engagement is to counter terrorism and therefore guarantee our safety. Most of us could think it is fine for the government to do this if it ends up actually preventing crime. It is fine if the government is only doing this to meet a compelling objective. I indeed believe that there should be more information, an open and vigorous debate, a free flow of ideas. However, the ideas behind this Center sound more like brain washing undertaken by the “Thought Police” to shape human behavior.

This “Thought Police” is not comprised of state actors only. Private actors have been using all the information they willingly receive from us, or that they buy from others, to observe our behavior, predict our needs and target us with what they need from us. Indeed, at an exponential rate, more aspects of our everyday lives are being recorded, we are leaving electronic traces of our behavior constantly because of the expansion of the “internet of things” and because we choose to conduct more aspects of our lives online. For example, online purchases, computer preferences, geographical location and movements, sleeping patterns, heart beats or even the speed in which we eat by having a fork that can trace how fast we put it to our mouths. Also, our reading habits can be recorded –remember those little icons by Facebook, Twitter and Google+ that appear on online media outlets, blogs and other websites you visit? Those icons allow these companies to track your browsing even if you don’t click on them (As long as you have an account with them and have not actively logged out, not just turned off your computer.)

All these online activities allow the production of big data. The different mechanisms used by companies continue to produce separate flows of information; the increasing amount of information that we share or that is being sold, and the different actors collecting and sharing this data, lead to a comprehensiveness of the surveillance coverage. So all of this information about ourselves produces what some call our data doubles. Each person’s digital imprint that is potentially visible to a number of unknown parties, comprises data that even our closest friends, family and loved ones might not even know (2). Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson (2000) mentioned in the article “The Surveillant assemblage” that these doubles “rather than being accurate or inaccurate portrayals of real individuals, they are a form of pragmatics: differentiated according to how useful they are in allowing institutions to make discriminations among populations. Hence, while the surveillant assemblage is directed toward a particular cyborgesh/technology amalgamation, it is productive of a new type of individual, one comprised of pure information.” [p.614]

The line dividing our offline life and our data double’s life is not so clear anymore and the possibility of being controlled is disturbing. The possibility of homogenized societies according to a point of view is alarming.

Why cite this way in a short essay for the web? It doesn't help the reader make better use of your text or your sources. Make links, so that the reader can immediately follow the statement to its source, and so she can do more reading that interests her more efficiently.

I changed the way I cite (I made the corresponding links). Thank you for the suggestion.

I think this is a good summary of a great deal of material. But the idea of your own that emerges from the reading and the thinking doesn't make a very vigorous appearance here, unless it is the metaphor of the "thought police," which helps us stick to Orwell's conceptions, but isn't much good outside his intended area of exploration, which is the behavior of 20th century totalitarian "reeducation," which is quite different from net-assisted despotism, let alone the coercions of market capitalism.

I think the best route to improvement is to isolate your own idea, express it succinctly but with force, and make that the first sentence of the next draft. Then you can use the following paragraphs to show how you got that idea out of your well-chosen sources, and conclude with a possible extension of your idea that the reader can take forward for herself. Then you will have the very much more effective essay that your investment in gathering sources should make possible.


1 : Bernard E. Harcourt presentation “Rethinking Docility in the Digital Age: A Postmortem” in the conference Docile Individuals? Privacy, Community, & State (Oct. 2016)*

2 : Luise Papcke presentation “Individuality in the Age of Marketed Surveillance” in the conference Docile Individuals? Privacy, Community, & State (Oct. 2016)*I used my personal notes taken while at the Conference. I do not have access to any video or hard copy of their papers. Once the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia upload the videos I can cite properly and quote were needed


Webs Webs

r6 - 29 Dec 2016 - 01:07:40 - SofiaJaramillo
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM