Mass Surveillance and the Citizen Image

by Daniel Tippens

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In discussions of mass surveillance, it is often taken as a given that the right to privacy protects something intrinsically valuable, viz, one’s privacy. But that privacy is inherently important is something that many people don’t take seriously. “Why should I care?” they say, “so long as I have done nothing wrong? If we assume that the government is operating benevolently — and not in a biased or overreaching fashion, how could mass surveillance be a problem?”

It is difficult to argue against this in practice. Why should you care if strangers who work for the government know what you do in your day to day life, so long as they are operating benevolently? It’s not as if you know each other personally. Their knowledge wouldn’t affect your  livelihood, barring some extraordinary event where you step out of line.

Or so the train of thought goes.

The right to privacy, I  hold, operates as a check on power. Mass surveillance, I contend, erodes the citizenry’s ability to maintain what I’ll call a citizen image with respect to the State, and this is problematic even if the State is operating benevolently. When there is an asymmetry between how much the State knows about the citizenry and the citizenry about the State — such that the asymmetry is in the State’s favor — the citizenry loses the capacity to bluff the government. This allows for easier State-intervention in the citizen’s life, which everyone ought to be concerned about.

I.

The blowfish is a well-known creature given its ability to ward off predators simply by inducing fear from its size. This phenomenon of bluffing is one that we all engage in. Sometimes, as children, we do so in tussles on the playground, where we use strong language in lieu of muscular strength. As adults, we may bluff in competitive jobs by trying to make ourselves stand out with an incredible resume, even if it doesn’t track our actual level of competence. We all project an image of ourselves to various parties at some point in our lives.

Suppose that you purchase a muscle suit and wear it beneath your clothing each day. You spent a lot of money on the suit and so people take you to be well-built. In such a case, people will be less likely to attempt mugging you. When your public image is one of strength, you will be safer from predators that roam the streets. But if thugs know about your little secret, then the image no longer works. Indeed, your image may be worse — people will know that you’re a bluffer. The blowfish effect is certainly dead. Secret-keeping, then, is important for an individual’s ability to bluff.

Now consider Ted Kacyzinski — the Unabomber — who wreaked havoc upon universities and airlines with homemade explosives. Before he was caught, two things were true: nobody knew exactly how he was pulling off these attacks — he maintained that secret — but also he was anonymGeous; he could be anyone. The public, then, formed an image of him as terrifying, persistent, highly intelligent, and among us.

But when he was caught, his public image faded — he was just an ordinary man (indeed, he seemed a bit nerdy too), and the secrets behind his attacks were discovered. The fear that had come from his image dissolved, for we knew who he was — he couldn’t be among us — and his tactics were known and so now preventable. When he lost his anonymity and the secrets behind his attacks were revealed, he could no longer bluff. The ability to keep secrets and remain anonymous, then, are two primary components of human bluffing. Two ways to induce fear in another party, perhaps to wreak havoc as in the case of Kacyzinski, but perhaps also to simply ward off intrusions.

Mass surveillance erodes the ability of the public to maintain a citizen image with respect to the state. The state — those individuals acting as state agents — has some impression of what the public is like, and how they operate. They have some impression of the power behind the citizenry — how coordinated are they? How much dedication do they have toward a cause? Who is doing what?

Mass surveillance gives the state the capacity to erode the image a citizenry is giving off — it has the capacity to discover secrets and dissolve anonymity. The right to privacy, then, protects the ability of the governed to maintain a citizen image with respect the state. In this way, the governed can induce fear in the governing, and ward off intrusions by the state. Since the state has de facto power over the citizenry (it has military forces), this operates as a check on power.

II.

To illustrate, consider the recent case of the May 30th protests in Seattle, over the death of George Floyd. The protests, according to the police, started out peacefully, but eventually turned violent, leading to damaged police property and injured individuals. All parties involved — both police and demonstrators — were wearing masks.

The Associated Press reported on July 3, 2020, that police were issuing subpoenas for photos and video of the protests in order to identify who had set police vehicles and stolen some of their firearms. The police were seeking to unmask anonymous individuals. This is problematic, for which of these two images is more frightening for state agents?

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When the individuals could be anyone, the answer is clear. But when the unmasking happens and ordinary individuals are shown, then like Kacyzinski, the jig is up, and state-agent fear will go down. If state-agents had perfect mass surveillance technology, then no citizen image could ever be in control of the people. It is worth noting that a public image can be damaging if it is not under the control of the people who have it. If, for example, the police were able to paint unmasked protesters as violent, then the citizenry might actually fear one another. The citizen image would be damaging.

It is also worth noting that a citizen image can be used as a provocation. Suppose that you are Bruce Lee — incredibly strong and adept at martial arts — and are looking for a fight. So, you wear loose clothing so that your public image is one of weakness; you look like an individual with a small stature. Suppose also that, in looking for a fight, you shout insults at passersby in a rough neighborhood. Clearly, you’d be more likely to encounter someone who wouldn’t take your insults kindly, and would move to defend their honor, given your small stature. You can provoke an attack.

The same is true of protesters who may want to show that the state-violence is extreme. If you shout insults at police and wear clothing that makes you appear easily-defeated, they may be more likely to move in on a crowd and display that they will engage in overreaches of power, when given the opportunity. Such a move can be beneficial to a cause, damaging the state image.

If the governed lose control over their citizen image, they lose the capacity to bluff. If they cannot bluff, there is less reason for the state to refrain from intruding on the citizenry. The right to privacy, then, is an important one even in theory. It allows the governed the capacity to keep secrets and remain anonymous, facilitating their ability to project a powerful citizen image, “blow-fishing” the state. Even if the government were benevolent, the citizen image keeps that government at bay. Like the norm of citizen solidarity, then, the citizen image maintains a healthy space between the governed and the governing.

III.

It is also important to remember that the state can bluff as well. If the citizenry can know nothing about how the state works, or who is doing what, but the state knows everything about the citizenry, then the state can bluff the people, adding to their stock of power.

Consider how the Snowden leaks didn’t just reveal that the government was spying on millions of Americans domestically and millions of people abroad, it also revealed the extent to which top secret classification was ubiquitous. Indeed, even mundane emails which asked things like what was for lunch that day were considered top secret. The citizenry can’t even know how the government eats lunch, much less their identities behind masks (the police force, for example, wears anonymizing uniforms and masks at a number of protests). I contend, then, that the laws surrounding when a top-secret classification can be given ought to be revised and the bar for classification raised. Otherwise, the state may bluff the citizenry, creating a greater asymmetry in power between the governed and the governing.

The right to a citizen image through the right to privacy, and the deflation of the state’s image through fewer top-secret classifications, then, imply that mass surveillance ought to be the other way around. It is the people who ought to be spying on the state, for this ensures that power remains in the hands of the governed.

Daniel Tippens is a PhD student at the University of Miami working in Moral and Political Philosophy. He currently blogs at The Related Public.

9 comments

  1. All arguments that I construe – and my construal can be mistaken – as being against all hierarchies per se, and in your argument, there is an implicit case against state opacity (and for its transparency), seem to be partly mistaken (I say partly because i take it that a certain amount of egalitarianism is desirable and therefore egalitarian arguments can’t be fully mistaken). There is a similarity between this post and your post about resenting upwards as a solution to the indignity suffered by social inferiors. But where it is mistaken is, just as sometimes people at the top of a social hierarchy might need to be or should be in that position, (for example, for reasons of competence which is a cliched but not unjustified reason) is its rejection go Hobbes’ insight into the need for the state, ad and some of the traditional things that go along with having states. I take it that part of being a state is not only a monopoly on violence to keep the general peace, but also a need to operate with some opacity. It gets even more complicated when you consider all the functions having to do with public peace and safety that depend on having both privacy AND publicity, transparency and opacity. I always enjoy your posts.

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  2. To me this post presents a very good argument that privacy is good and necessary….in order to check the power of the state. That strikes me (not trained in philosophy) as an instrumental, and not intrinsic, reason for a right to privacy.

    For this: “…the laws surrounding when a top-secret classification can be given ought to be revised and the bar for classification raised”: I agree, but any effort to do so will have to address the “risk management” incentives behind assigning top-secret classification. I suspect that one very important reason so much is classified that oughtn’t be is that the classifier doesn’t want to be wrong and therefore finds it safer to classify even innocuous information. The email asking about what to have for lunch has no importance for national security. But maybe it’s part of a batch of 1,000 + emails from someone high up and there’s a chance that one of those emails might have something top-secret worthy, so we might as well classify the whole batch. Whether that’s done for risk management or to increase the power of the state, the effect is the same, as your post does a good job at demonstrating.

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  3. Nice essay. Privacy is a subject that needs to be explored more by philosophers. I liked your examples and the concept of the ‘citizen image’. Bluffing is a good way of describing the gap between what is socially and physically possible, and the actual following through of a threat. Reading your essay, I was immediately reminded of Bentham’s panopticon, wherein mass surveillance is pervasive, yet functionally speaking, not completely pervasive. The idea is to foster the feeling in inmates that they are always being watched, without being able to tell whether they actually are being watched or not. The prison thus projects the bluff, while maintaining some of its own privacy and opacity which hides the truth that the prison cannot practically watch everyone at all times.

    I would argue we are very close to living in a panopticon already, However, there are still certain limitations to government omniscience and control. Modern governments still cannot watch and surveil absolutely everyone. To help mitigate this, governments rely on and reward snitching from fellow citizens. This is actually how Ted Kaczynski was ultimately caught. Ted’s brother David was married to Linda Patrick, who recognized Ted’s writing and ideas in the Unabomber manifesto published in the New York Times. Linda urged a reluctant David to inform the FBI and turn his brother in. It’s somewhat ironic that in Ted’s drive to get his manifesto published and made public, it also became his undoing. The mask of anonymity kept him both safe and seemingly powerful. As you pointed out, nobody knew who the Unabomber was, and in fact, for the first few years the authorities thought the attacks were being carried out by a group of people ( i.e. FC or ‘Freedom Club’).

    Interesting that you mention Bruce Lee. I am somewhat of a Bruce Lee aficionado, and friends with Matthew Polly (author of the definitive biography, Bruce Lee: A Life, published two years ago by Simon & Schuster). When Bruce was a teenager in Hong Kong getting into a lot of fights to test out his Wing Chun style, one of his tactics was to dress up like an effeminate nerd and lure potential bullies to him. When a bully took the bait (Bruce would let the bully get in the first few licks), he would spring into action and beat the bully up. Bruce would say that the bully would then have to contend with the humiliating repercussions of not only being beaten up, but being beaten up by a nerd.

    Looking forward to your next piece for Electric Agora.

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  4. Hey 1970’s,

    “I take it that part of being a state is not only a monopoly on violence to keep the general peace, but also a need to operate with some opacity.”

    This is an interesting thought, thanks. It seems true to me, too, that states need to operate without full transparency.

    “…there is an implicit case against state opacity”

    I don’t make a case against all state opacity. I just think that when our top secret classifications have become so ubiquitous that it strains the meaning of “top secret,” one ought to revise just how much opacity the state should operate in.

    Hey Gabriel,

    “To me this post presents a very good argument that privacy is good and necessary….in order to check the power of the state. That strikes me (not trained in philosophy) as an instrumental, and not intrinsic, reason for a right to privacy.”

    Thanks! And yeah, you’re right, if I rework the essay I’ll correct, privacy is important as a tool for protecting the citizen image, which would bestow it with instrumental value. If I were to rewrite the piece I would say, actually, that mass surveillance is bad for *freedom of expression.* A citizen image is an expression of a people, and to take away the capacity to manifest it would be an infringement on expression.

    After reading your (Gabriel) and 1970’s posts I’m starting to realize that for whatever reason, academic philosophy really hasn’t said much about the ethics of state opacity.

    Hey Joe,
    “The prison thus projects the bluff, while maintaining some of its own privacy and opacity which hides the truth that the prison cannot practically watch everyone at all times.”

    I like this way of outlining what a state-bluff might look like.

    “When Bruce was a teenager in Hong Kong getting into a lot of fights to test out his Wing Chun style, one of his tactics was to dress up like an effeminate nerd and lure potential bullies to him. When a bully took the bait (Bruce would let the bully get in the first few licks), he would spring into action and beat the bully up. Bruce would say that the bully would then have to contend with the humiliating repercussions of not only being beaten up, but being beaten up by a nerd.”

    I had no idea. The coincidence is awesome, and hilarious

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Obviously anonymity, privacy and secrecy aren’t quite identical. Some of what you are talking about is for the individual, but the ability to organize group action secretly is different from what most people think of as their right to keep their affairs private. One only needs brief individual privacy to slip into your Klansman outfit – after that your acts can be quite public as long as you have enough colleagues around you. Ditto the Masons.

    As to blowfish, they are usually toxic and spiky, and inflation is not to bluff, but to make you hard to eat, There is a big literature on how truthful animals are with each other re fighting and mating. Generally, bluffing is not very helpful (Trivers’ book was a mixed bag)..

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      1. When I said mating and fighting I was referring to conspecifics, which I thought the most relevant to Dan T’s thesis. Deceptions like your caterpillar or a cuckoo’s egg work fine over millions of years!

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  6. DanT,
    Well argued, without tying all the loose ends together, which a good because thought-provoking.

    The notion of privacy, “the private self,” is of relatively recent origination, as I noted in my essay a couple years ago: https://theelectricagora.com/2018/01/04/in-sight-out-of-touch/ The legal “right to privacy” in the US is actually a judicial construct, the Supreme Court having repeatedly decided that without the presumption of such a right, certain rights made explicit in the Constitution and its Amendments would not make sense. Nonetheless, because it is such a construct, there are outlier legal theorists who argue that such a right is not implicit in the Constitution, and ought not be legally recognized. And the past few years have demonstrated how important such outliers can be: Keeping his head below radar for decades, William Barr now spouts his extremist legal theories as if they were matter-of-fact.

    ” It is the people who ought to be spying on the state, for this ensures that power remains in the hands of the governed.” I agree, but am concerned that the march of history seems to be in the other direction. Over-population, unresolved (and economically unresolvable) globalization, increasing dissatisfaction with large demographics – the future may require states to close around us like a glove in order to maintain peace and quiet. And the Covid crisis only adds to the dilemma – reasonable people should find testing and tracking acceptable, even helpful, and I do; but they are also forms of surveillance. And this will not be the last pandemic we will face in the near future.

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