As the Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden episodes draw to a close with Manning receiving an outrageous 35-year jail sentence and Snowden being granted temporary asylum in Russia, Julian Assange continues to campaign from within the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. These people are responsible for leaking secret government documents which demonstrate the extent to which the US government is interfering in the national affairs of other countries and the private communications of millions of people. The role of private corporations is ambiguous but it is clear that they have actively assisted governments around the world to spy on their citizens.
These people view government surveillance as a panopticon and have highlighted the ways in which corporations and government operate in concert to produce regimes of surveillance and social control. The media has happily created controversy over government surveillance by publishing the information which the three activists supplied. Newspapers and television have framed these events as David and Goliath struggles between these individuals and shadowy government forces.
Snowden has revealed the cooperation between governments and corporations in gathering and analyzing private communications. Although the exact level of cooperation is disputed, governments have been accessing the information collected by major internet corporations. The controversy has focused on government surveillance rather than the vast, detailed, and ongoing scrutiny of individual information conducted by corporations as part of their daily activities.
In the panopticon each human is rendered visible due to the central locus of surveillance. Safety for the majority of individuals in the electronic panopticon involves remaining an anonymous piece of data in the electronic stream. If one becomes visible in the stream through associations or activities which raise a red flag to the authorities, such a searching for certain words or communicating with particular groups or individuals, then one becomes suspect, a potential problem whether for criminal activity, political subversion or for terrorism.
However the actions of Assange, Manning, and Snowden turn this visibility on its head. Assange and Snowden released secret government information to the mass media. Assange had been releasing secret information privately provided to him by various individuals on the WikiLeaks website. However the website remained relatively unknown. Assange chose to promote his own and WikiLeaks visibility by releasing the information to the mass media.
When Manning was arrested in 2010, Assange became concerned about his own safety. He then approached the mass media as a personality in his own right stating that such visibility would protect him from lurking government forces seeking to incarcerate him.
In the same year, under political pressure, Amazon refused to continue hosting the WikiLeaks website. As a result, the WikiLeaks main site and a sub-site were inaccessible from the US and Europe.
Snowden followed a similar course to Assange–using the media and flight to protect himself from prosecution. The media of course could not resist the draw of such potent human drama. News organizations promoted the visibility of these individuals as well as the clandestine information.
How do these actions disrupt the new panopticon? They make the secret actions of government visible and its connections with corporations. Nevertheless, corporations continue to collect personal information and monitor human behavior with seeming impunity. Resistance comes in the form of reflecting the system back to itself.
The panopticon operates by requiring every individual to internalize the assumption that the authorities are watching everything they do and to act in a manner which does not draw the attention of the authorities. However within our society remain certain values which encourage individuals to monitor government behavior to ensure that it does not abuse its power and to reveal it when abuses are detected. These values are embedded in our system of law, education, and politics. As a democracy we believe overtly that the citizens are responsible for surveillance of the government. The boundaries of these values are constantly debated.
Releasing secret government information to the public assumes that effective political opposition exists which will end executive excesses. Relying on government institutions to rein in their own abuses is misguided. Congress refused to pass legislation to limit the NSA activities. Such exposition also assumes that there is an active civil society, independent of government, which has the power to do something about this. This no longer seems to be the case.
Through turning to the mass media for protection in visibility, Assange and Snowden appeal to the mythological ‘People’ who supposedly hold the power in a democracy. The People form an audience to be appealed to and entertained until one can obtain a safe legal and physical space. Both Assange (ongoing) and Snowden (temporarily) inhabited what Zygmunt Bauman called the ‘non-spaces of postmodern society’:
Snowden in an airport and Assange in an Embassy. Assange is now effectively imprisoned in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. For most people these places represent a passing through on their way to somewhere else. The fact that both Snowden and Assange were able to create a safe space free from the authorities within these places shows the ambiguity of these locations in terms of the power structures. It is possible to slip through the gaps these spaces represent.
Bauman’s concept of the ‘space of flows’ is useful here. Power in the electronic panopticon operates through such flows; a constant movement of information through the electronic stream. Such information is temporarily collected in NSA databanks where it is sifted and sorted for information related to illegal, dissident, or terrorist activity. The storage space required to store such volumes of data is only available temporarily and then it is deleted, only the most relevant information is kept.
Different types of information have value to different institutions. For the secret services, purportedly, it is the value of information that will lead to an apprehension or prevent a terrorist attack. For the media it is information which will create news, a sensation, a scandal. Outrageous behavior by government is great news, criminal behavior as well. For corporations it is information which signals a marketing opportunity. The sifting and sorting of this information forms a system of surveillance. However there are moments when information becomes visible which creates conflict between institutions. Usually the rift soon closes over and business as usual resumes but these are the times most fertile for significant social change.
Joanne Knight investigates the overreaching influence of corporations on our political processes and daily lives. She has contributed to The Age newspaper and Australian political magazines Arena and Dissent. She has a Masters of International Relations.