Privacy at the Dawn of the Totalitarian Digital State

What we witness today in Xinjiang, with the mass surveillance, incarceration and re-education of the Uighur population, is not just a violation of the fundamental rights of those people but a testing ground for the total surveillance society. 2020 will see the completion of China’s compulsory enrolment of every one of its citizens in a social credit system, under which the citizen will be assigned a ‘score’ taking account of every measurable aspect of their life, including online activity. This score will then equate to the disbursement or withdrawal of benefits, including allowed occupation and even the ability to travel on public transport.

China is already exporting the technology used there to other countries interested in suppressing dissent. The democratic societies of the West are not immune either to the temptation of the digital state. The UK is already one of the most surveilled countries in the world and several police forces are now experimenting with facial recognition technology. Like the architects of Beijing’s policy, advocates for surveillance in democracies maintain that people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear. This is to misunderstand the function of privacy in the lives of individuals and society, the abrogation of which smooths the way to a totalitarian future, which is, above all, one of ideological conformity.

At this moment in time, in the severe restrictions of movement, and even free speech, imposed in many countries in response to the coronavirus pandemic, there are concerns that the state has made a power grab which, as happened in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in 2001, will remain permanently in place. The respect for privacy, which is one of the hallmarks of a free society, is in retreat as digital technologies present a two-fold danger: that of diverting the people from the necessity of moral and social responsibility, and of enabling the state, through the new digital powers, to hold unprecedented levels of personal information and leverage over us. In such circumstances, taking guidance from the German concept of Dasein, literally ‘there-being’ or ‘presence’, may offer some hope of resistance to the digital state and the forging of a new relationship to privacy in the digital age.

The Transformation of Privacy in the Digital Age

Privacy rests on the idea of the sanctity of the individual person, whose roots lie in a transcendent concept of human nature, one shared by both religious persons and humanists. However, privacy in the age of the locally-situated individual, determined by historic place and blood relations, takes on a different complexion in a globalised digital age. The concept of privacy is necessarily complex; however, it can be usefully thought of as comprising three distinct but interrelated functions: the protection of sanctity, the concealment of transgression, and the nurturing of identity. These all have implications in the dialectic of the individual self and the collective and the boundary between them, where the notion of privacy is located and finds its meaning.

As explored in the first part of this essay (2018/04/30), the nature of privacy in organic society, is in forms of society that are traditional, largely local and where interrelationships are unmediated or at least mediated by low technology, which sets a necessary benchmark to explore its evolution into the digital age. In organic society a view of human nature in which the interiority of the imagination is fed with mythic images embedded in sacred and secular literature leads to a strongly symbolized view of privacy as the sacred, intimate and even transgressive space protected by the persona, by the clan and the walls of property and by the extended local community.

In the digital society, a society in which forms of digital technology have become prevalent and in which human interaction is now largely mediated by such technology, which was considered in the second part of this essay (2018/10/08), the nature of privacy is essentially inverted. All aspects of life are now or on the point of becoming digitised, including identities and money, which means that all types of information are exchangeable. Privacy from this perspective is just another commodity, in which all information pertaining to ourselves is commoditised and a potential source of individual prosperity. This is the supposed promise of the digital age, a world of convenience and liberation from ennui; but it is a false promise, a Mephistophelian bargain. First, because to be reborn as homo digitalis, the digital citizen, requires the hollowing out of interiority and an inversion of privacy, so that all that is most sacred is exposed to the glare of public scrutiny, while we become increasingly isolated from each other; second because we have entered into a debtor’s prison in which we have mortgaged our personal information in exchange for whatever services and entertainments the digital providers allow. The avatars of the new digital age have, by comparison, created a life largely insulated from the effects of the technology they have created.

The State as ‘Leviathan Unchained’1

As is becoming increasingly clear in our age, there are few absolutes in the political life of a society, mostly a series of trade-offs. But, barely perceived, ticking away quietly in the background, has been the emergence of a mutual parasitism: the gradual erosion of the inner life of individuals and the continual ratcheting up of a ubiquitous and intrusive state. Though the role of technology in both these developments has been well reported, its augmenting function at the heart of their relationship has been less so.

Over the past century the state, which once barely impinged on most people’s lives, has come to occupy an increasingly important role in all aspects of our social existence. This has been inevitable to some degree as society has grown and complexified and has brought undeniable benefits, from universal education, healthcare, pensions and protection from absolute poverty in the case of unemployment. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a strong state. The tradition of ordoliberalism in early twentieth century Germany, which interpreted the ideas of Adam Smith through the lens of German Idealism (Bonefeld, 2017), saw the necessity of a strong orderly state to create the conditions for a free market. Recent work on the emergence of religious freedom – as one of the oldest freedoms and one which is well-documented – provides strong evidence that only a strong national state can create the conditions for a liberal society, one that balances order and freedom sufficiently to allow the emergence of toleration (Koyama and Johnson, 2019). However, the strong state needs to be balanced by strong institutions that hold it in check, the ‘chained Leviathan’ (ibid.); otherwise, we end up with Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany or present-day China.

It is the strong institutions, particularly those of civil society, that have witnessed a marked decline in the decades following the Second World War. An obvious example of this is organised religion, which has seen a precipitous fall in church attendance. The reasons for this are undoubtedly complex and multifactored; however, the advance and insinuation of technology in our lives is of critical significance. The increasing prevalence of technology in all aspects of our lives – the telephone, radio, television, the video, leading up to the digital technologies of the computer and smart phone – means that we have been, by degrees, able to abrogate our familial, communal and civic responsibilities to visit, guide and protect and entertain each other through our physical presence, social conventions, moral guidance, story and song, the culture of which is gradually dying out.

Two related trends are growing out of this. One is the slow extinction of proximate authority: that of parent and child, teacher and pupil, master and apprentice to a skill, for example. In each case, the intrusion of the authority of the state is more apparent in the rules and regulations that govern every aspect of life. The other is the death of the idea that the young and the newcomer are apprentices to a culture. Again, the state has come to assert a monopoly on the acceptable modes by which the uninitiated are socialised and enculturated, which is essentially as part of the workforce or as dependents on the state’s largesse. The assertion of fundamental rights to individual freedom from the intrusion and oppression of the state, which were the hallmark of a liberal society, have been overshadowed by the orthodoxy of group identity rights enforced by the writ of government.

In part this is the consequence of the choices that the people have made. Technology has been willingly allowed to become the fount of knowledge and the great entertainer. The role of authority figure has been and is increasingly being farmed out to technology. The neglect of basic civic responsibilities thus engendered means that society is on an arc that risks moving further towards the brink of social breakdown. Such a situation is intolerable for the state which must maintain order as the basis of its own legitimacy.

At the same time the state, rather than undertake the difficult task of addressing the underlying moral principles that sustain individual freedom and responsibility, has been quick to intervene directly where authority is being abrogated. In the UK there has been a creeping and pernicious focus on children in the last few decades, as the state has affected more concern with the well-being of children, something that it cannot entrust to parents alone.2 It began with a reasonable ban on corporal punishment in state schools, extended it to private schools, then to families. Based on the thesis of children’s rights, working on the hypothesis of the prevalence of abuse and extrapolating from worst cases, the state has arrived at the conclusion that it is the ultimate protector of children. Sometimes this has been explicitly stated, as it was by Margaret Hodge, the Minister for Children in the Blair Labour government of the early 2000s: “I am convinced we can achieve an approach to children’s services that provides the best support they need for a happy and secure childhood and the foundations for a successful adult life” (DfES, 2003). More recently, the Scottish Parliament attempted to assign a state-sanctioned ‘named person’ for every child, responsible for the child’s well-being, a move that was only abandoned in the face of strong opposition (Brooks, 2016).

While it is true that political parties of the left are more ideologically committed to strong government, influenced – consciously or not – by the Leninist doctrine of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, much of the strengthening of the state and its encroachment into individual liberties has happened under ostensibly conservative governments. In America after 9/11, and latterly among most of the developed world, anti-terror legislation was put in place, which has not been repealed almost 20 years later, despite the low incidence of terror-related incidents (it is true that the police regularly claim that numerous terror plots have been foiled because of the powers granted). The problem with anti-terror laws in many countries is that they are so broad in definition that many activities, such as legitimate protest, even violent protest, that are not terrorism, are covered by them (Article 19, 2006). They, therefore, have a chilling effect even on legitimate protest, and invite further intrusions of the state into the privacy of individuals. This is not even to mention the rise of the new nationalism in many countries including Russia, Poland, Hungary and India, in which the norms of democratic accountability and the rule of law are being eroded.

In order to grasp the suffocating reach of the state, we can conduct a thought experiment. In any interaction between two people as individuals each has the right to exaggerate, withhold information or to lie to the other for perfectly legitimate reasons, such as to protect themselves, their reputation, their family or a third party, or simply to ease social interaction. As a society we would not necessarily advocate this, but neither would we prohibit it, such is the mundane nature of much of this dissembling. Our mutual privacy is the guarantor of our essential equality in a power hierarchy. Once someone has acquired knowledge of our private lives, either from ourselves in an unguarded moment or from another source, we have lost our advantage in the balance of power. Now, we might have decided, as we often do, to have given up this advantage in an act of faith in order, for example, to create greater trust and affection between us, in the hope that this is reciprocated; but this is an act determined by ourselves, the surrender of a degree of our moral autonomy for something that we value more highly.

The contrast with our relationship to the state could not be starker. To lie to any of the organs of state is already a crime, even if we do it for legitimate reasons connected with our privacy or of those we cherish. Of course, a strong argument can and is made that the state represents the common interest and common good of the citizenry of the nation and, as such, should be accorded as much power as possible to control society for everyone’s benefit, for example to combat crime. There are two responses to this. The first is that in taking up the monopoly for the common good and in the process disenfranchising the citizen of the right to privacy, in terms of the right and, through enhanced surveillance, the possibility of concealment, the state is also depriving the citizen of moral responsibility for the common good. The second is that having established this monopoly, there is nothing to stop the state continuously expanding its powers in this area. This is what is happening as the interpenetration of governance, digital devices and computer technology proceeds. Since the state holds all the cards, the best we can hope for is a benevolent state. We, however, have no control over this; ultimately the state rules through fear of the consequences of disobedience to its dictats.

The Rise of the Digital State

The digital state is something that has emerged in the last twenty years through the acquisition by government and its bureaucracies of modern digital technology and the convergence of interests and interpenetration to a lesser or greater degree of tech conglomerates and the state. In traditional bureaucracies there existed walls between departments and the information they held which was jealously guarded. This may have resulted in inefficiency, but it also protected the citizen from the collection of vast amounts of detailed personal information. Over the past twenty years those walls have been crumbling and it is now possible for the State and its various arms and agents to know almost all the information about any individual in which it has an interest. Given that information is power, this gives the state an enormous power to control individuals. We have a right to question the legitimacy of this power.

The apotheosis of the digital state is now to be found in China, in what we might call the totalitarian digital state. This is the combination of total dictatorship of the communist Party, near total surveillance of the population and the synthesis of all personal and public information. If this project is not yet complete, it is nearly so, and any advances in surveillance technology will only augment its power still further. This allows the government to achieve two things: the control of the population and the virtual elimination of opposition and unorthodox ideas. This is an almost perfectly realised model of the state as envisioned in Orwell’s 1984, even if the material circumstances are better. This year, 2020, is supposed to see the completion of the social credit system whereby each citizen and each enterprise is allotted a score, a single number, rather like a credit rating, but based on the individual’s social profile, combining information about their health, background, education, friendship circle, activities, profession and, importantly, their social media activity. By means of this the state can control what profession you are allowed to enter, what services you can access, whether you are eligible for a passport and even whether you can travel internally. In what could have lifted from a script of ‘Black Mirror’, it influences who you can mix with and even marry. It is the perfect instrument of social control and perpetuation of the ruling party, its effectiveness largely achieved through self-policing and the model is being eyed enviously by governments around the world.

A development in the West that has come to the fore recently, in particular in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, is the part played by the tech platforms such as Google and Facebook in censoring opinion contrary to those of their founders, which closely aligns with the positions of totalitarian regimes such as China and of governments implementing draconian lockdown policies.

The convergence of interests of governments and the tech companies has been a long time in gestation, but follows a logic that demonstrates one of the dangers of globalisation. To quote from an insightful contribution to a recent online discussion (Societal Values, 06/05/20), the rise of the censoring power of the social media platforms, “was the inevitable result of our inability to comprehend early on the power of the internet and realise that far from being a perfectly democratic medium of free speech, it was a danger to democracy, by virtue of essentially being a lawless new territory. And the Internet territory offers anarchy, not freedom. The freedom of democracy comes with boundaries and responsibilities, as meticulously established by law.” The existence of the dark web, trading in drugs, child pornography, execution and torture videos, weapons and even contract killings, is evidence enough of this. But even the public internet, with its conspiracy theories, bullying and manipulation of vulnerable individuals provides examples of this anarchy. In starting to censor content, “The social media platforms are therefore acting as reasonably ordered autocracies in the anarchic internet world, where we can expect to at least have the darkest edges of porn, hate and obscene violence kept at bay. But that ‘safe space’ comes at a cost; it sanctions the media giants to be our censors, not (as it should be) according to our national, publishing laws of libel, defamation, obscenity and incitement to violence – but according to the tech companies (sic) autocratic whim” (ibid).

Given that the tech giants are effectively both publishing houses and utility companies they should have been regulated by law. However, the regulation of such multinationals with global reach – and of the multitudinous transactions that take place within them – has been beyond the wit of national governments, So, “having failed to control these companies on our behalf to serve our democratic laws, and in turn finding how incredibly compliant and accepting we are of their supra national autocracy, the authorities are colluding with the social media giants and allowing them to subdue the population and divert us from any troubling political ideas that gain too much destabilising popularity. The autocracies are therefore in charge and have corrupted our own governance” (ibid). While not as seamless as China’s creation of its own government-controlled internet and ‘The Great Firewall’ insulating it from the rest of the world, this collusion between governments and tech companies enhances the power of both, having access to virtually unlimited information about us, through which they can leverage compliance to ideological conformity.

Resistance to the Digital State

In the face of the digital state there can be no return to the privacy of organic society. Perhaps, though, there can be the reassertion of a form of privacy which finds its metier in resistance to the digital state. That resistance cannot be an outright challenge to the legitimacy of the digital state, for that way lies destruction: certainly, of one’s reputation and livelihood; perhaps of one’s liberty; and in the totalitarian digital state, quite possibly one’s life. The form of resistance must be a passive rebellion rooted in the fundamentals of that which privacy protects and nurtures: sanctity, transgression and identity.

In the coming world of ubiquitous surveillance there can be no hiding. The principal sanctuary from the invasive state is the mind that has freed itself to narrate its own meaning, free of state ideology, in which the virtual world, with all its capacities, is a servant and not a master. A second sanctuary is a realm of intimacy protected from digital oversight. The final pushback is the formation of extensive unmediated social bonds over which the digital powers are powerless.

To transgress is to exist in a state of tension between two goods: the desire for acts of freedom to preserve our individuality and the laws and morality of the society that exist for the common benefit. It is more complex than that, though. To transgress is to will, paradoxically, the continuity of that which one defies, as transgression and the desire for punishment are existential needs, not simply historical contingencies. In the digital state nothing can be hidden as monitoring is ubiquitous and all information belongs to the state. Freedom is only that permitted by the state, freedom that entails the dissolution of all forms of loyalty of the person other than to their desires and the state. We become vassals of the state, insular beings whose mediation is only through the informatic ubiquity of the digital powers. This creates an existential crisis for homo digitalis. The only remaining avenue for transgression then becomes resistance to the Digital State.

How can one meaningfully transgress in a world in which moral decision has been abolished at the behest of the state and its digital allies and replaced by the ideology of rights; in which concealment is near impossible, and infractions of the law are – soon will be – immediately punished? The secret is the cultivation of private virtue. The state’s weakness is that it can only enforce the law, which is the minimal requirement of any social contract. Society, though, is more than the rule of law; it is created in the myriad interactions beyond that which can be monitored and monetised by the digital state, those which involve our unmediated senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste – in order of decreasing distance and increasing intimacy. The act of personal kindness, the sacrifice of one’s time for another person are rebellion against the enforced dogma of hedonistic pleasure promoted by the digital establishment.

Finally, to rebel is to find oneself, one’s identity, in the situatedness of natural and moral orders family and home, neighbourhood, community, region and nation, rather than in the mediated abstractions of humanity and the global village and the power structures of the state. It is to love what one is, one’s Dasein or existential being, and what one has, what Heidegger called one’s ‘thrown-ness’ (Geworfenheit) in the world. Indeed, Heidegger, for all the obscurities of his philosophy, speaking from before the age of the digital state, says much to inoculate us against its temptations. In one of my favourite passages in his monumental Being and Time, in disinterring the ancient Roman myth of the goddess ‘Care’ disputing with Jupiter and the earth over the ownership of humans, Heidegger reminds us of the conclusion that “‘care’ is…that to which human [being] belongs ‘for its lifetime’” (1962, p.243). Privacy is ultimately about protecting that about which and for which we care, the antithesis of the cult of obedience to the digital state.

Notes

  1. ‘Leviathan’, the term used by the seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes to denote the almighty state, taken from the biblical term for a sea monster (Job 41) and by inference the devil (Isiah 27:1). Hobbes view of the state was authoritarian by modern standards, but nuanced; he believed in the absolute authority of the monarchy, which was owed total obedience; however, this relationship was reciprocal in that the state had duties towards the people.
  2. The words of Adolf Hitler are most apposite: “The state must declare the child to be the most precious treasure of the people. As long as the government is perceived as working for the benefit of the children, the people will happily endure almost any curtailment of liberty and almost any deprivation.”

References

Article 19 (2006). The Impact of UK Anti-Terror Laws on Freedom of Expression. Article 19 Global Campaign for Free Expression. Submission to ICJ Panel of Eminent Jurists on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights – ARTICLE 19, London, 2006 – Index Number: LAW/2006/0424

DfES news centre, 13 June 2003. http://dfes.gov.uk/pns/DisplayPN.cgi?pn_id=2003_0110

Werner Bonefeld (2017). The Strong State and the Free Economy. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Libby Brooks (Thu 28 Jul 2016). Scottish plan for every child to have ‘named person’ breaches rights. The Guardian (online): https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jul/28/scotland-child-named-person-ruled-unlawful-supreme-court

Martin Heidegger (1962). Being and Time (Trans. by John McQuarrie and Edward Robinson from the 1926 German ‘Sein und Zeit’). New York: Harper & Row.

Mark Koyama and Noel Johnson (2019).  Persecution & Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Societal Values (2020, May 06). Comments from Clare Page on Jeff Bateman’s post (2nd May 2020, 15.46), https://www.facebook.com/groups/societal.values/ [retrieved 06/05/20]

About the Author

Don Trubshaw
Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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