Academic journal article New Formations

Hack or Be Hacked: The Quasi-Totalitarianism of Global Trusted Networks

Academic journal article New Formations

Hack or Be Hacked: The Quasi-Totalitarianism of Global Trusted Networks

Article excerpt


Who has the info on you? It's the commercial companies, not us, who know everything--a massive sharing of data (1)

Sir Iain Lobban, Former Director of GCHQ, UK

Public reaction to recent revelations about state and corporate surveillance and control has ranged from general bemusement to marginal outrage, both in the US and Europe. (2) But though the public has been slow to react, the political fallout has had to be addressed. Governments and tech elites have thus each accused the other of being responsible for the public loss of trust, and of compromising privacy and the integrity of networks.

A key area of concern following the Snowden revelations have been the programmes of the National Security Agency (NSA)--which is an intelligence agency that is part of the Department of Defence. These had in fact been already running for seven years without public oversight or debate at the time of the revelations. The Obama administration justified its actions by claiming that they had been crucial in successfully thwarting terrorist attacks (such claims have been contested). But all this has made little difference to the continued deployment of these programmes. In the trade-off between privacy and security, governments have argued the need for exceptions from the legal framework, in order to protect the public. Meanwhile, tech elites expressed exasperation at what has happened, while remaining fairly opaque about their practices in relation to privacy and security. In order to guarantee their own income flows, as well as their reputation as socially responsibly corporate actors, technocapitalists have struck a pose that has not been entirely consistent with their practices. The third group that has come to take a prominent role in the debate--civil society organisations (some of dubious ancestry)--has advocated transparency and open access-enabled deliberation, as well oversight of the processes involved, claiming for themselves a role as the voice of the public. Their involvement has issued all manners of crusades in defence of putative democratic principles and constitutional guarantees.

This menage a trois of 'trusted' global networks--governments, corporations and NGOs--are holding a de facto mandate, and effective planning power, in the digital field. They clothe themselves in a bastardised version of publicness, and in this guise usurp the political agency of individual members of society. In fact, these three supposedly trusted networks constitute an oligopoly that dominates the space in which governance is negotiated. They relegate the individual to a place of marginality, from where they are only able to address the threat of surveilling agents to their privacy from a position of acute precariousness. It is the individual has to pay for digital equipment, access, and their own necessary digital literacy, thereby funding the processes of purchase, connectivity and training; and it is also the individual who has to acquire the necessary skills and software to protect their privacy in the digital homes that are built by tech elites and surveilled by governments (in the name of security) and corporations (for the sake of profit). The individual citizen is put in a rather impossible situation, in which they must simultaneously procure the tools for the enforcement of the legal guarantees presumably held by the state to protect their rights, and at the same time develop tools to enforce them. In this environment--in which the state undermines privacy in the name of security, commercial interests collude with the state while offering false shelter, and civil society groups hijack the very voice of political engagement--the individual has only one choice: 'hack or be hacked'. It is the precarious state of rights in the face of these developments that is the inspiration and rationale for this article.

This article seeks to chart this political space as a sphere of action emerging against the backdrop of what we call the 'quasi-totalitarian' mechanisms that are fostered by the alignment, collusion and imbrication of the three networks. …

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