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Edward Snowden: the last Big Brother?

Following last year's revelations, Edward Snowden seems to be trapped in a role ironically reminiscent of another famous character – George Orwell's Big Brother. From our 'Joining the dots on state surveillance in Europe' series.

openclipart/user unknown. Public domain. openclipart/user unknown. Public domain.

You are being watched. This classical surveillance slogan hides a subtler, and more insidious message: you must believe you are always being watched, and you probably are, but you will never be certain of that, or get the full picture of how. That is the logic behind the motto. And on this logic relies the functioning of surveillance’s ghostly dynamics: a logic of uncertainty and fear.

One of the most well known images of surveillance brilliantly mirrors this functioning. It comes from George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. He is the leader of the ruling totalitarian Party, and his name is Big Brother. More importantly, he is the floating face pervasively reproduced on street posters, staring at passers by and reiterating the catchphrase ‘Big Brother is watching you’. Big Brother’s bodiless portrait also pops up repeatedly on electronic screens. The visual relation he embodies is spectacularly asymmetrical: under his rule, all screens, including private televisions, have cameras, so that Big Brother can indeed (maybe) watch everybody. But nobody can look back at him, at least never beyond the reproductions of his peering face.

Since Edward Snowden leaked strictly confidential documents on global secret mass-surveillance in May 2013, people have been repeatedly told they are being watched. As well as read, listened to, and geo-localized. On the basis of the information contained in the leaked files, journalists have been revealing to the world precious information on what used to be covert surveillances practices. They have not, however, divulged it all. Media have been dis-covering Snowden’s leaks following their own pace, sometimes more frantically, sometimes less, but always in the understanding that revelations will go on. Almost a year later, many documents appear to be still to be deciphered, and much information is yet to be published. The underlying message is, in any case, always the same: you are being watched (and read, listened to, and geo-localized), certainly more than you ever imagined, and definitely more than you (will ever) know.

Staging surveillance

Like an ever-ending striptease, Snowden’s revelations are not over, and ‘some of the most important reporting to be done is yet to come’. This is what Snowden recently stated during a talk at the Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference in Vancouver, to which he participated virtually, from a secret shelter in Russia.

The TED talk did not provide any new data about secret mass surveillance programs. Nonetheless, its stage was the site of a new revelation: Edward Snowden is a screen. Better: a tele-robot – a face on a monitor with microphone, speakers and camera, mounted on a wheeled support that he remotely operates. Unable to travel freely since the United States revoked his passport in June 2013, the former National Security Agency contractor is now seemingly condemned to attend this type of social events using more or less inventive technological staging solutions.

At the event, the visual similarity between robot-Snowden and Big Brother’s famous floating face did not go unnoticed. On the contrary, it was openly acknowledged and jokingly embraced, with that special kind of humour that helps to dissipate in public any deeply troubling realisations. What if, after all, the link between Edward Snowden and the ghostly dynamics of surveillance was more complex than imagined?

Glimpses of light

Unquestionably, the former NSA agent has been instrumental in throwing light on existing mass surveillance practices, which does not, in itself, play surveillance’s game. Information about the existence of covert surveillance programs, and especially about their scale and the way they function, is crucial to foster a much-needed debate on their political implications.

But the new light has generated as many shadows as newly illuminated areas. The world now knows it is being watched, read, listened to, and tracked; but it also knows it ignores exactly how and when, as well as when to expect conclusive data on the issue. Against this background, every further announcement of future pending revelations, especially when uttered by a detached face emerging from a screen, sounds (and looks) like a sign repeatedly shouting ‘You are being watched’. With slightly different words, the message delivered by robot-Snowden runs the risk of unwillingly reproducing the same surveillance impact the messenger wished to denounce in the first place.

Obviously, Edward Snowden is not watching you (or not anymore). Yet, he may have become the improbable new Big Brother. A very fine line separates being the poster-boy of counter-surveillance and being surveillance’s symbol, and the line becomes finer and finer each time he becomes (partially) visible. While his aesthetic choices may even be a conscious strategy to further denounce mass-surveillance practices, they do reveal a deadlock in the possibility to question and address surveillance politically.

The last Big Brother

Snowden is, in this sense, probably the last Big Brother, or at least one of the very few around. While fear and uncertainty have always been important elements at play in power relations, the slogan of modern surveillance has tended to play a different key. The intended message is nowadays typically not a threatening ‘we are watching you’, but rather a reassuring ‘you have nothing to worry about’.

This does not mean that contemporary surveillance practices are not highly intrusive and challenging for democracies. It merely means that they are inclined to operate in a slightly different manner. There is no leader of a totalitarian Party able to (even pretend to) watch everything, but a multiplicity of watchers, interested in diverse aspects of behaviour and differently nested in market economies. And these manifold forms of surveillance are often far more complicate to grasp and challenge.

From this perspective, the motto ‘you have nothing to worry about’ is as sinister as the menacing Big Brother’s slogan. By way of reassurance or threat, they aim to pre-empt forms of radical critique on the current state of affairs, or the formulation of alternatives to mass and targeted surveillance. Through different strategies, they pursue the foreclosure of the possibility of politics.

Moving towards politics

The philosopher Jacques Rancière noted that politics starts when the common perception of the sensible is scattered. It is not just a matter of denouncing a status quo, but rather an effort to show the intricacies of the socio(-technical) fabric, and to modify it so that other, previously marginalised elements, can count. Most probably, Edward Snowden’s performance as Big Brother is an attempt to play one surveillance slogan against the other. However, robot-Snowden might be of limited use to move towards a more radical discussion about the role of surveillance in democratic societies, unless the opportunity is taken to see through him the very complexities of this discussion.

Snowden’s revelations prove that revealing covert surveillance is enlightening, but that it will never dissipate darkness. Snowden himself, interrogated by Members of the European Parliament on any important information yet to be disclosed, has insisted that he puts any decisions regarding what the world needs to know in the hands of journalists. There are limits to transparency, even in the eyes of the lone, heroic, whistle-blower, who additionally claims not to be in a position to perceive them clearly enough. Whatever future revelations bring, they might still leave the world waiting for the ultimate revelation.

Perhaps, the coming into being of robot-Snowden is this ultimate revelation. Edward Snowden turned Big Brother invites us to face the current deadlock, accept the uselessness of the wait, and simply address the need to move towards politics. To advance in this direction does not require any new disclosures, whether they were expected to be delivered on a wheeled monitor, on the front pages of newspapers, or by suddenly translucent private companies or governments. It just requires insisting on democratic institutions and political representatives to engage with surveillance beyond scandals. We have to start considering the framing of surveillance as a constitutive operation in the making of contemporary political communities. This involves a permanent challenge of the range, scope, and aim of surveillance, as well as its role in the wider political economy, and to start thinking (and acting) beyond old or new slogans.

This intervention is indebted to the authors’ participation to the EU research projects Privacy and Security Mirrors (PRISMS) and Increasing Resilience in Surveillance Societies (IRISS).

About the authors

Dr. Gloria González Fuster is a researcher at the Law, Science, Technology and Society (LSTS) Research Group of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB).

Dr. Rocco Bellanova is a researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and at the Université Saint-Louis – Brussels.


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