A bright front-end, a dark back-end: the new realities of privacy and surveillance under netarchical capitalism

In informational capitalism, the same technologies that appear to be fun and a vehicle for self-realisation at the front-end have an entirely different dimension at the back-end. At the front-end, the aesthetics of the commodity4 makes seductive promises about the use-value of goods through advertisement, shopping windows, beautifully arranged department stores. At the back-end workers are under fairly strict and direct forms of control. The relationship between front-end and back-end is technically expressed as the one between server and client. It is in the nature of capitalist societies to emphasise the user interface while hiding the back-end function. The basic analogy that binds together the virtual and the real world is that of a ‘society of the interface’. The interface can be a web-page for e-commerce, or a web-platform with some social participatory function such as Facebook; but the ‘interface’ can also be a cashier’s desk in a bank or a retail store.

From an extensive discussion on the new logic of privacy and surveillance, by Armin Medosch:


“On the web, for instance, the ’empowerment’ of the user on Web 2.0 platforms has been emphasised by many authors. Those platforms, however, are based on centralised server infrastructures, entirely under the control of the company hosting those social interactions. Although digital networks have highly distributed network topologies in principle, the commercialisation of the net has led to increased centralisation so that, when it comes to accumulation of knowledge, the server back-end is the privileged site. techniques developed during the first decades of the 20th century summarised under ‘mass feedback’ have become greatly enhanced through digitalisation and the ready availability of user data in server log-files, data-bases, information exchanges. The automated analysis of data flows passing through networked information structures creates the new knowlegde of power. At the front-end this promises greater use-value, as Facebook automatically proposes new friends, or Amazon proposes new books (and sometimes with astonishing accuracy). At the server side ever more precise knowledge allows the targeting of individuals and their social networks based on data mining and ‘profiling’. The user profiles and their networked relationships become commodities which can be traded between companies, and this is probably the biggest ‘asset’ of social network sites.

With the increased pervasiveness of ICTs ever more areas in society have a dual existence as both virtual and real, as an analog space with face-to-face communications and a connected electronic space which is registering real-time information about interactions at the front-end and relaying that to the back-end. As many of those businesses are globally acting corporations, tighter data protection in one country can be conveniently circumvented by locating the server back-end in a low regulation country. The intersection of virtual networked and real space enables a key component of globalisation, so called logistics or supply chain management (SCM) which is necessary for Just-in-time (JIT) production. JIT has increased the need for tight control of logistics stretching over continents and involving sophisticated technologies such as RFID tags, raw materials, manufactured parts, end products and retail outlets. Those many components are linked in such a way, that “it can be argued that JIT production is responsible for the change in capitalist production from a push economy to a pull economy”41 Mute magazine (no pagination).That means that when a customer takes a can of baked beans from a shelf at Tesco’s the information is transmitted to all those along the supply chain and the process is put in motion where the item starts getting replaced. Brian Ashton argues that workers in the logistics industries are bearing the brunt of the competitive pressures in those global supply chains. Road transport turns into a ‘sweatshop on wheels’, ‘seafarers work in horrendous conditions under the flags of convenience system and dockers are subjected to work speeds that are set by automated guided vehicles (AGV’s), automated stackers and semi automated cranes’. The ’emergence of the giant logistical companies has gone hand in hand with the withdrawal of the state from the transport infrastructure industries,’ argues Ashton. After 9/11 the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code was upgraded which led to the building of visible and invisible security walls around ports. The police and security services have been given new rights to carry out checks on dock workers and to share information with foreign intelligence agencies. “If a worker refuses to undergo security clearance he or she will be sacked,” writes Ashton. The new security regulations make it more difficult for representatives of transport unions to make inspections on the actual working conditions in ports. As Saskia Sassen has noted, recent decades have seen a ‘reconstruction of the divide’ between the public and the private sphere ‘partly through the policies of deregulation, privatization and marketization’42 As ports and other communication and transportation infrastructures get privatised, the workers are subsumed under the private sphere of the giants of the logistics industry. The accumulation of intelligence at the back-end of this infrastructure serves both the controlling interest of the state and of very large corporations.

The developments in JIT support David Lyon’s observation, that ICTs enable a convergence of surveillance methods across the public and private sector43. The use of automated software with certain ‘decision making support functions’ at the front-end or the ‘user interface’ of businesses – such as banks, retail stores, fast food outlets, delivery services and the now ubiquitous call centre – subjects both workers and consumers under the same surveillance logic. In jubilant stories in trade journals the benefits of new intrusive technologies called ‘workforce management software’ are being praised. For instance, a software called ‘click2staff’ is used to log the activities of bank tellers and combines those electronic logs with customer statistics. The process is presented, of course, as entirely neutral, offering benefits both to customers and branch directors44. What it means for the affected members of staff is that their hours are either cut down or expanded depending on automated recommendations made by the software according to ‘overtime adherence’ and ‘salary adherence’ policies45. One step further go products such as the Verint Witness Actionable Solutions, a package that promises to deliver ‘actionable intelligence’. The product, promises Verint’s website, can ‘capture customer interactions in their entirety, selectively, on demand, or randomly’, ‘establish realistic forecasts and performance goals’ and, of course, will ‘schedule and deploy the right number of staff with the appropriate skills’ whereby the latter is a neat summary of the Babbage principle. Verint offers also services to ‘law enforcement, national security, intelligence, and government agencies’. The catalogue of surveillance horrors comprises ‘communications interception’, ‘mobile location tracking’, ‘fusion and data management’ and ‘integrated video monitoring’, not to forget ‘tactical communications intelligence’. Verint’s ‘intelligence’ product is very similar to the Siemens Intelligence Platform, which can ‘integrate data from many sources’ such as ‘data retention systems’, ‘internet adresses merged with geographical information systems’, ‘traffic control points’, ‘credit card transactions’ and ‘DNA analysis database’, to give just a few examples of a much longer list.

And Armin concludes:

“The automated detection of ‘abnormal behaviour’ now reaches deep into the data flows on the net, its major hubs and switches, but also into physical, spatial reality. ICTs delivering ‘actionable intelligence’ are key technologies of power, monopolising knowledge and control in the hands of management and the executive branch of government. Saskia Sassen argues that globalisation strengthens the power of the executive branches of the state while it weakens the power of the legislative and therefore of democratic control.As the state, in the process called privatisation or deregulation devolves tasks and repsonsibilities to private companies, this creates a move towards ‘a privatized executive vis-avis the people and the other parts of government along with an erosion of citizens privacy’49. The other side of the coin of that process is that the executive grants itself ever more secrecy regarding the way it makes its decisions. Four consecutive public inquiries have so far not been able to get to the bottom of those decision making processes in Tony Blair’s kitchen cabinet which led to the ‘dodgy dossier’ which justified invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. While in the wake of the ‘war on terror’ much attention has been given to measures of surveillance carried out in the name of security, much less attention has been given to that overall dynamic that undermines democracy and weakens the public sphere.

Data surveillance fosters positive discrimination of social groups based on automated decision making. It creates inhumane working conditions for large groups of people which resemble the early panoptical factory on a global scale; and it merges surveillance at the workplace with surveillance of consumers. David Lyon concludes that more is at stake than the ‘tired notion of privacy’. He demands a ‘politics of information’, but when it comes to defining those ‘politics of information’ Lyon appeals primarily to authorities to take on a bigger responsibility for the data which they have under their control. The politics of information and intelligence cannot rely on a better corporate data protection ethics or improved management of data held by public institutions. An information politics needs to address the topologies of power that linger in the systemic split between front-end and back-end, between client-side and server-side, consumer and producer. It also needs to address inequalities created by the privatisation of the state and of public infrastructures which results in the shielding off from public view of huge industries where democratic rights of workers have been suspended indefinitely. The grey zone where private and governmental dataveillance techniques secretely and quietly converge needs to be put under public scrutiny.

If those tendencies toward ever greater surveillance and the resulting losses in freedom and autonomy are to be reverted, more needs to be done than to re-balance the privat-public divide. The only alternative which offers itself is the rise of the digital commons. The development of the digital commons is specific to the information society and has the potential to open a different path of economic and technological development. Having originated from the Free Software movement in the 1980s, the digital commons has meanwhile found widespread support in arts, culture, scientific publishing and research. It will neither bring ‘cyber-communism’ nor is it an alternative version of the public sphere. As a new layer in societies that is growing from inside the most advanced sectors of cognitive capitalism, the digital commons allows new alliances to be forged between digital commoners, knowledge workers, garage experimentalists, organic farmers, environmental activists and social movements. The digital commons is built on the recognition that freedom is not something that can be attained individually but through the collective forming of political subjectivities. It has the potential to positively transcend the private-public divide by offering new mechanisms for cooperation, publishing, free associations. But there are also serious obstacles. If the digital commons should become sustainable, information technology needs to become much more environmentally friendly; it also needs a massive decentralisation of the communication infrastructure. Recent trends such as ‘cloud computing’ go in the opposite direction. Moreover, the digital commons is, just like the natural commons of air, water, soil, subject to exploitation if not regulated by strong rules and social conventions. The foundational myths of the information age which are based on the separation of manual and mental labour and which ascribe ‘intelligence’ to machines rather than the people who build and program them need to be unveiled so that the impetus for technically mediated control of people ceases.”

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