Opportunity and risks of the surveillance culture

Progressive Politics of a Responsible Community - Surveillance and Our Society

The worldwide political containment attempts of the COVID 19 virus make global mass surveillance and digital movement restrictions socially acceptable also in the West. There is considerable doubt as to whether this surveillance culture is useful in terms of informed and democratic pandemic control.

The worldwide attempts to contain the COVID 19 virus are making global mass surveillance and digital movement restrictions socially acceptable in the West as well. While China and Russia are expanding authoritarian social control, the decentralized contact tracing apps used here are largely privacy-friendly. But whether they are useful in terms of informed and democratic pandemic control is certainly in serious doubt.

Automated decision-making systems are only as good as the people behind them. The Covid 19 crisis shows that mass surveillance cannot disguise a poorly positioned healthcare system, social disadvantages or discrimination against certain classes, the lack of societal emergency plans, or inadequate visions for the future. A broad societal debate is needed to prevent the exploitation of these and similar crisis situations to enforce questionable surveillance infrastructures.

Increasing demonstrations against COVID 19 measures reveal the trust gap between saturated, sluggish political elites and a dissatisfied, agile population, which has intensified at least since the Snowden revelations. How can surveillance culture in the 21st century advance democratization and social pluralism without creating a closed Big Brother technocracy?

Global surveillance capitalism supports power shifts

Whereas in communist China the introduction of the Social Credit System was well received by the population from the outset as a proven means of fighting corruption, the highly developed civil societies in the West view the surveillance culture primarily critically as a threat to privacy and self-determination. The Corona crisis shows that data protection lobbies are increasingly successful in bringing this issue to the center of political debate and forcing reactions from policymakers. However, it is also becoming clear that quite different systemic problems are resonating beneath the surface: in the West, the Corona crisis is accelerating above all the alienation between the elites and the working population through the widening of the gap between rich and poor and the increase in inequality in society that can be expected in the medium term.

The Internet has supported power shifts since its arrival in the post-industrial world. It has facilitated revolutions such as the Arab Spring: the rapid viral spread of protest videos and images facilitated the formation of a common movement and ultimately helped topple several North African dictators. It has spawned new business models that improve agriculture and factory production, cheapen logistics, distribution and marketing, and accelerate financial flows. Consumers benefit from recommendation and comparison portals on price and quality, convenient online ordering at home, fast shipping, and a huge range of goods from around the world. The Internet of Things, wearables and physical objects with digital memories will make things a lot easier for us in the future.

Huge potential for science

The technological collection of mass data and Big Data analysis can promote enormous advances in science and medicine if they are shared across countries and institutions. Silicon Valley’s visions of smart cities promise solutions for intelligent transportation, environmental protection, affordable housing, and open access to health and knowledge thanks to total digital connectivity. But when sensitive data is solely in the hands of large corporations, can it be managed democratically, fairly and in the best interests of citizens? Reality shows that there are significant concerns about ethical practices not only from the public, but also within the tech industry itself. For example, the most famous smart city project in Toronto, the “Quayside” faced harsh criticism and gradually lost its key stakeholders. The accusation was that the project of a central identity management system to access public services was a clandestine colonization experiment for total surveillance without opt-out.

Complex international cooperation of multipolar power centers

The increasing cooperation and rapid redistribution of money from the West to emerging states thanks to technology means a lower likelihood of classic frontal warfare in the 21st century, but it makes it far from unproblematic. International cooperation, formerly hegemonized by the United States, is being challenged by new power centers in Asia – most notably China – the South Pacific and Africa. Since the 1990s, the ability of international organizations to act has been severely tested by the USA’s unilateral military actions in the Middle East.

However, this is not accompanied by the dissolution of international agreements. On the contrary, since the collapse of the Eastern bloc, many new international alliances have been formed in emerging parts of the world, and the trend is upward. For example, the Eurasian Union, an economic policy grouping formed in 2014 on the model of the European Union, unites the interests of post-Soviet countries within Russia’s sphere of influence. The European Union was also the model for the African Union, formed in 2000, and the Union of South American States, formed in 2008. Numerous free trade agreements and customs unions, which have increasingly determined the world’s ever closer economic integration since the second half of the 20th century, open up new fields of action for state and private-sector investment.

Politics of the 21st century is intelligent community mediation

For political representatives, from municipal officials to members of the Bundestag, being in close proximity to citizens offers opportunities for interaction that can foster important insights and a rapprochement that is in both parties’ best interests.

Politics no longer takes place in dusty backrooms, but in the full light of day. The interconnectedness of the world favors the influence of heterogeneous actors on diplomatic relations at the national and international levels, something that used to be the preserve of the state. The state’s role is transforming from providing directional guidance to coordinating mediation, as the Internet combines and balances conflicting interests of the national community and establishes “the State Department as the central node in a network of diverse relationships with state and non-state actors,” as Kim B. Olen puts it in “Fallacies: Structuralism and Geoeconomic Diplomacy.”

But how well does the political elite know its community? The creeping erosion of the middle class as a result of digitalization is leading to new challenges in core areas such as security, health and social protection, which the established parties are not sufficiently incorporating into their agendas. The disappearance of entire sectors of the traditional workforce, which is already beginning as a result of automation, poses enormous challenges for social democratic forces in particular, which they do not seem to be able to cope with at the moment. This, in turn, is driving citizens into the arms of new parties and movements on the fringes of the left and right spectrums, which are forming primarily as protest parties against prevailing ideologies (neoliberalism, muticulturalism, gender mainstreaming) or powerful institutions (EU, NATO).

Particular clusters of issues determine the political agenda

Progressive politics today no longer takes place only at the national level, but increasingly at the transnational level. In Europe, civil society movements and NGOS on specific issues such as climate protection are gaining more and more influence and, like Greenpeace, are repeatedly causing a stir with global campaigns. Transnational movements for a common European reform policy are calling for fundamental changes in the European Union toward more citizen participation. In general, the tendency seems to be shifting toward particularistic, project-based cooperation: it is not value-based camp affiliation but the enforcement of issue clusters that increasingly determine the political agenda and, above all, the political participation of the population. Political movements are becoming more and more similar to companies in their organization and communication: they, too, rely on image advertising through branding and merchandising to gain followers.

Global Big Brother technocracy or transparent state?

New methods of geo-economic diplomacy have emerged that can effect foreign policy guidance through economic sanctions, energy policy, financial policy or cyber instruments and thus influence and damage the domestic situation of other countries to an extent that was not possible in the past. The negative consequences primarily affect consumers and employees, who suffer from inflation, falling wages, rising energy costs and rents. Resistance is therefore forming among the population against major economic projects such as further new free trade agreements, because citizens increasingly perceive themselves as the plaything of large, opaquely acting power elites.

The main points of criticism here are the entrenchment of non-transparent influence on legislation by large companies, the undermining of rule-of-law principles through arbitration courts (investor-state dispute settlement), the ignoring of national peculiarities in the harmonization of employee and consumer regulations, and the endangering of jobs. Indeed, practice shows that stimulated economic growth often comes at the price of job losses in other areas and displacement of resident companies. So it is a fair question to ask whether the aggressive expansion of free trade is not just boosting the economy in the short term, only to potentially cause far greater damage in the long term.

While economic growth in the so-called first world is stagnating, societies in the developing world are rapidly catching up thanks to technical know-how, often skipping the computer stage and going straight to the smartphone. In African nations like Nigeria, Ghana and Sudan, social media is the main medium for brand marketing and business networking, weather apps help with agriculture, pay apps speed up the flow of money, Google and Wikipedia give everyone access to a wealth of education that was previously so unavailable. But here, too, problems similar to those in post-industrial societies are apparent: abuse of power, censorship, political persecution, fake news, no copyright protection.

The digital agora: the empowered society of the future

The Internet offers enormous opportunities for direct democracy. Open discussions on socially relevant topics can be held with high reach and broad citizen participation, and a productive culture of debate can be specifically promoted in the process. Political communication for heterogeneous population groups is increasingly taking place in the marketplace, the agora. Not only populist parties have recognized this and are consciously using the Internet to increasingly seek proximity to citizens. Nation-state governments are also successfully experimenting with new options through technological platforms to empower citizens to participate in politics online.

For example, Sweden had a national project from 2011 to 2018 to strengthen open society, transparency and freedom of expression. The specially created account @sweden was given to a different citizen each week, who could tweet whatever they wanted under that account. The only rules were: do not violate Swedish law, do not promote commercial brands, and do not pose a security risk. The so-called “curators” were also supposed to watch their language, respect other people’s worldviews, and not relay racist, sexist, or homophobic sentiments.

This way of experimental citizen participation is in line with the real-time world of the Internet and can show people, by seeing for themselves, how their activities can influence the virtual space and ultimately the formation of opinion in society. This is a good example of how the possibilities of algorithmic technology do not necessarily have to be lost to media manipulators, but can be successfully used for democratic participation to form constructive and honest discourse. Ultimately, however, this works best in local, small networks, the so-called social fabric, which is composed of similar characteristics, be it ethnicity, wealth, education level, employment rate and regional values.

Simone Belko is a media scientist and European studies scholar with a strong focus on digital literacy. With experience in journalism, PR, marketing, IT and training she has excelled in Germany and abroad. As a manager for digital products in the online games and FinTech industry she gained deep insights into online platforms and communities. Simone is the author of "Digital Consciousness" ("Das digitale Bewusstsein") and currently works at Otto GmbH, leveraging her expertise in business transformation.

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