I’ve been writing about privacy and surveillance on this site since 2013 when I first read Janna Malamud Smith’s book Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life.
That spring and summer’s news was full of the name “Edward Snowden,” acronyms like “PRISM,” and code names like “XKeyscore.” While the mass media featured psychologists explaining how mass surveillance degraded mental health, Malamud Smith was teaching me about all the ways that modern people reach for moments of privacy and intimacy with others.
We’re in an era of unprecedented state and corporate monitoring: across platforms, in several places, and through many, many devices. At the same time, isolation is a perennial concern: a recent viral article focuses on the consequences of out-group marginalization and in-group isolation for gay American and Northern European men, for example.
But when you know what to look for or which sources to tap, you can find just about anybody or any piece of information. Exploring the Invisible is a digital security project that recently explained step-by-step how an ordinary person might navigate the internet pseudonymously. It’s an awkward, onerous option that a person might yet need to take to preserve their privacy: perhaps someone facing identity-based or political violence or retaliation.
For those who want to share information rather than withhold it, websites and apps like SecureDrop and Signal can make private (encrypted) communication possible. Journalists are now using both apps in their work.
Intimacy is that state in which, as Malamud Smith wrote, “people relax their public front either physically or emotionally or, occasionally, both… [One] comes as close as one is capable of, or as close as one feels permitted, to revealing oneself to another person.”
Intimacy has to be voluntary. It can’t be forced, presumed, or automated, and as such, it runs counter to the logic of conventional surveillance, which enrolls us before and regardless of whether we’re aware or consent.
Surveillance culture, therefore, is fundamentally inhumane: as Dr. Hortense Spillers recently said, losing the ability to choose connection is a paradigmatic sign that one is not free.