Has a generation of activists given in to surveillance?

Reflections after months poring over interviews with activists about surveillance.

Gilbert Ramsay
24 May 2016

G20 crowd, Kashfi Halford

For three years now, I have taught a class under the broad title of ‘International Relations and the Internet’. Often, I get the feeling that I am learning as much from the students I teach as they are getting from me.

At thirty-five years old, I’m flattered to learn that I qualify (just) as a digital native. But it becomes more and more obvious that the students I teach and I belong to different generations.

There is a tradition that has emerged in the course whereby, in our last session, I take the class out onto the lawn in front of the university library, we sit cross-legged, and we talk: a bit about the class, a bit about the exam, but quite a lot just about how my students use the Internet themselves, how they have grown up with it, and how they see the future panning out.

Every year, the thing that always surprises me most – though it shouldn’t any more – is the students’ attitude to privacy. During the course, I outline to them some of the more alarming ways in which governments – especially the British and American governments have been found to gather data on their own citizens. Sometimes I do it, if I’m honest, as much to jolt them into conversation as to inform. But for this purpose it rarely works.

When I tell them about, say, GCHQ’s ‘Optic Nerve’ programme, which involved turning millions of hijacked webcams into spy cameras which collected mountains of sometimes highly intimate data, they take it with equanimity. They aren’t shocked or angry. It doesn’t seem to particularly disturb them to think of some faceless, distant agency having access to this kind of information.

Some of this, it seems to me, is a kind of apathetic trust in authority. Some of it is fatalism. The semi-sacred notion of privacy which libertarian campaigners rarely seem to unpick just isn’t something they are familiar with. This year, one student told me that she thinks of herself as manager of her own personal brand; that there are even now parties and social events that she avoids attending for fear of the digital trail they would leave. This is the world my students seem to be comfortable living in. But what other world could there be?

As for me, I’m caught between. I remember the watching the television as the Berlin Wall came down. As a nerdy, but not particularly techy kid in my early teens, I read about the Internet with detached interest in New Scientist Magazine years before I ever actually experienced the thing. Perhaps like the proverbial boiling frog, I’ve grown into adulthood with the world being a particular way.

But I hazily remember it being apparently otherwise. In reality, of course, we have always lived in a surveillance state to some degree. In recent years, here in the UK, we have been confronted with this uncomfortable reality in the deluge of discoveries made by investigative journalists, activists and campaigning victims about the often unconscionable methods of infiltration used by police against dissidents and protestors stretching back over decades.

But the history of radical protest is still in the end history written by the victors. The numerous exposes that have been written about, for example, the COINTELPRO programme of spying and dirty tricks against the American Civil Rights Movement, or the Anti-War Movement are written in the knowledge that ultimately these repressive actions failed. With the safety of hindsight, they take on a certain slapstick quality for this reason. When one reads, for instance, the letter the FBI wrote in an attempt to blackmail Martin Luther King, it is difficult not to smile at the crudeness with which it is drafted.

When my students put me on the spot about my concerns over the surveillance powers of agencies like the NSA or GCHQ, or large companies like Google or Facebook, when they ask me to really explain what kind of a world I am fearful of moving into, and what kind of alternative I can hold up to it, the truth is I often feel at a loss. Things I think are self-explanatorily bad aren’t necessarily so to them.

For the last few months, I have been poring over the transcripts of interviews collected as part of an exploratory research project on activism and surveillance, funded by the Carnegie Foundation and the Russell Trust, and carried out jointly by openDemocracy and the University of St Andrews. The report on the study is available in full. You can read it here.

Understanding what these activists have to say is, for me at least, an important part of an answer to this question. In some ways, the people who contributed to our study sound a little like my students. They often sound fatalistic about the possibility of achieving privacy, and relaxed about doing without it. In other ways, they have a totally different world view: they are part of a tradition which has learned the hard way not to believe in a promised land of civil liberties and constitutional checks and balances. They have learned over time what the state will do when it feels challenged. And yet, faced with the inherently transparent properties of platforms which now seem indispensible to mobilisation, it is not entirely clear that they have figured out what to do next.

It is naïve to expect to live in a perfectly liberal and democratic society in which civil rights function like Newtonian laws. The possibility of dissent and protest remains open not just because those in power say they are committed to it, but also because people actually do keep on finding ways to protest and hold power to account. Those who hold power – formally or otherwise – have always found new ways, soft or hard, legal or extra-legal, to stymie meaningful challenges.

That’s how power works. But those challenging them have, up to now, always found ways to adapt and survive. What concerns me in these conversations with my students is not the passing of a utopia of privacy and individual liberty which never existed. It is the possible coming of a world in which the cycle of innovative repression and innovative contention appears to be flying off its hub. The conversations with activists which form the backbone of this report do not, I think, make for easy reading on this score.

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