Category: Surveillance

Academic Surveillance Complex

A corporate-driven society overseen by a complicit state, the United States is being steadily saturated by surveillance tools and practices; indeed, surveillance studies is today a substantial field of academic inquiry, with research published regularly in Surveillance and Society, as well as in a growing number of books.[1] After Edward Snowden’s exposures of the National Security Agency (NSA)’s mass surveillance in 2013, thousands of academics rightly signed a letter condemning the US government’s spying program.[2] However, surveillance-sensitive academics have turned a blind eye toward academe itself.

Surveillance technologies have encroached far into the work-lives of students and faculty, to the point that we may speak of an Academic Surveillance Complex (ASC). To “improve” student performance and to “scientifically” smooth and speed student progress, “data driven education” programs are capturing, tracking, collating, and analyzing data on student learning and social behavior; on students’ interactions with teachers; and on the labor of teachers themselves.

The pretense is that this is all positive – an enhancement of the educational process. The emergence of an ASC, however, is better understood as an offshoot of a multifaceted structural transformation of higher education, which has been underway for half a century.[3] This metamorphosis is both technological and institutional. By enabling the social relations of learning and teaching to be revamped, networking technologies are driving forward a sweeping trend to commodification: they are helping to turn education into a profit-making business. Today’s emerging ASC is a part of this encompassing shift.

Wiring Education 

At its outset during the early postwar decades, robust US economic growth and robust state and federal support for public universities both stimulated and restrained the process of wiring education for profit. (A convenient historical marker is provided by an organization called Educom, which has tried since the 1960s to insinuate networking technologies.) In today’s context of chronic stagnation, by contrast, “disrupting” education in order to render it a site of capital accumulation has become a determining trend. As we write, for example, Purdue University has signed an agreement to acquire Kaplan Higher Education – a for-profit chain – and to re-establish it as a free-standing subsidiary of the Indiana-based university system.[4] All told, global education is estimated to be a $5+ trillion market, eight times the size of the commercial software market and three times that of the entertainment market.[5] Already prominent in South America and East Asia, for-profit educational institutions are today making additional inroads in Africa.[6]

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Apple’s Public Battle

Apple is in the spotlight for having kicked off a battle against the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), after the FBI demanded that Apple unlock the encrypted iPhone belonging to San Bernardino, California shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. An encrypted iPhone means that nobody is supposed to be able to have access to the data on the device – including contacts, photos, emails etc. – unless the passcode is entered. The FBI is using a 227-year-old law, the All Writs Act of 1789, as legal justification for its request. By refusing the FBI’s demand that it make available a backdoor to get around its encryption, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook picked up the torch for privacy rights. Tech industry executives and privacy advocates rallied behind him; and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, declared that Apple should be supported for acting as a beacon for privacy and freedom of expression.[1] The case then escalated further as the FBI’s parent agency, the US Justice Department, considered whether to bring a court case against the encryption used by Facebook’s WhatsApp – the world’s largest mobile messaging service.[2]

Is the tech industry’s stand a crusade based on political principle – a relinquishment of commercial self-interest by companies that are fired with public purpose?  How may we untangle the economic and political elements that are being expressed in this legal drama?[3]

Market-Driven Privacy Right

“At Apple, your trust means everything to us,”[4] proclaims the company in its privacy statement.  By showcasing that its products are secure from government’s hands, Apple has all but stolen the motto of one of its foremost rivals: “Don’t Be Evil.”  And in fact, through the FBI case, Tim Cook is attempting to differentiate Apple’s business model from that of Google and other competitors. On several occasions, Cook has reiterated that “our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products. We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers.”[5] While he didn’t name-check Google, his statement was unmistakably aimed at the king of search, whose business is to sell ads predicated on user data.

Google, for its part, requires full encryption for Android phones and promotes end-to-end encryption in Gmail, ads platforms and other products; and Google also retains access to copious quantities of user data to exploit for its profit making.[6] Vint Cerf, Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist, confessed that:

We couldn’t run our system if everything in it were encrypted because then we wouldn’t know which ads to show you. So this is a system that was designed around a particular business model.[7]

Yet Google, like Microsoft and several other big tech companies, had little choice after Apple took on the FBI but to join Apple’s side.[8]  Though they are exposed, because the rely so heavily on user data, the risk of appearing to be a stooge of the US government was too great.

Cook tries to emphasize that, because Apple generates a majority of its profits by selling devices, not selling ads like Google, its economic interests align the company with privacy rights. This is, however, a convenient fiction. Apple not only collects lots of personal data through its App Store, but also has acquired Twitter’s fire hose of tweets to gain commercial access to particular types of behavior- and language data. Apple also has experimented with building its own ad-based businesses, attempting to figure out ways to tap into the gigantic and lucrative ads market. It was only after a five-year effort to monetize apps and challenge Google on the mobile ads front that Apple abandoned this business.

This said, it is in Apple’s commercial self-interest to proclaim its support for privacy rights. In 2014, Apple generated more than $130 billion from the sale of its iPhones and iPads, compared to $11.8 billion for Google’s mobile search revenue during the same year. In light of this, Apple’s strategy was refocused. For both offensive and defensive purposes, it began to promote ads-blocking apps on its devices.[9] Well before the current face-off, in other words, Apple began to sell privacy as a marketing feature – exactly as the US Government has recently charged.[10] Privacy is a business strategy rather than a political principle.

That Apple is not in fact acceding to principle is evident from developments touching a different corner of its global business. At the same time that it is loudly challenging the US government, Apple is willing to dance around to please the Chinese state by agreeing to comply with government security checks on all Apple products sold in China.[11] In 2014, after being criticized for iPhone’s national security risk by the Chinese media, likewise, Apple moved its Chinese consumer data to a Chinese facility operated by state-run China Telecom.[12] But the Apple-FBI drama possesses ramifications that go beyond all of this.

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Behind “Big Data”

Over the last few years, the idea has taken hold that “big data” is driving far-reaching, and typically positive, change. “How Big Data Changes the Banking Industry,” “Big Data Is Transforming Medicine,” and “How Big Data Can Improve Manufacturing,” are characteristic headlines. “Big data” has become ubiquitous, powering everything from models of climate change to the advertisements sent to Web searchers.

Even in a society in which acronyms and sound-bites pass for knowledge, this familiar formulation stands out as vacuous. It offers us a reified name rather than an explanation of what the name means. What is the phenomenon denoted by “big data”? Why and when did it emerge? How is “it” changing things? Which things, in particular, are being changed – as opposed to merely being hyped? And last, but hardly least, are these changes desirable and, if so, for whom?

Big data is usually defined as data sets that are so large and complex – both structured and unstructured – that they challenge existing forms of statistical analysis. For instance, Google alone processes more than 40 thousand search queries every second, which equates to 3.5 billion in a day and 1.2 trillion searches per year;[1] every minute, Facebook users post 31.25 million message and views 2.77 milion video, 347,222 tweets are generated; by the year 2020, 1.8 megabytes of new information is expected to be created every second for every person on the planet.[2]

The compounding production of data – “datafication,” in one account [3] – is tied to proliferating arrays of digital sensors and probes, embedded in diverse arcs of practice. New means of storing, processing, and analyzing these data are the needed complement.

A quick etymological search finds that the term “big data” began to circulate during the years just before and after 2000.[4] Its deployments than quickened; but this seemingly sharp-edged transition into what Andrejevic and Burdon call a “sensor society”[5] actually possesses a deeper-rooted history.

The uses of statistics in prediction and control have long been entrenched, and have increased rapidly throughout the last century[6] – as is pointed out by a working group on “Historicizing Big Data” established at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. The group emphasizes that big data must not be stripped out of “a Cold War political economy,” in that “many of the precursors to 21st century data sciences began as national security or military projects in the Big Science era of the 1950s and 1960s.”[7]

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