Thoughts: Why do I focus on digital privacy issues?

Earlier this year, I was asked a very good question by my MA advisor. Omid asked, “Why do you study what you study?” At the time, I gave an incredibly disappointing answer – it was vague, disjointed, and really didn’t address the question in a forthright way. I think that there were a few reasons: first, I didn’t have time to prepare; second, I hadn’t reflected on this question in a deep manner that could be succinctly expressed; and third, I’m not very good at answering relatively complicated questions that link into my personal history on the spot. Since then, the question has been in the back of my mind, and I’ve come back to it on a frequent basis.

So, with that in mind I want to put forth a probationary answer to “Why do you study what you study?” It’s going to involve touching on what was a few key computing moments in my life, formative elements of my undergraduate and graduate degrees, and how my background working in IT fits into things. If you want to just skip to the final answer, hit the bottom of the post – the intermediary sections see me start linking together various facets of my life and education to form the structure to answer Omid’s question, and may be of little interest to you.

The Past

I’ve had a computer in my house almost since I can remember. My dad had an old Tandy computer that I played very early video games on. It was a beast to navigate, and the commands were arcane (especially to a 4 or 5 year old!). That said, it was amazing that you could play games on it. It wasn’t until we moved from the Maritimes that there was a ‘household’ computer. It cost a small fortune, and was meant for school work. I, of course, quickly learned how to install games on it. This was in the days of DOS and Windows 3.11. I learned how to navigate via a command line, as well as what not to do when trying to fix computer problems (an early lesson: deleting full directories when you don’t know what is in them is a really, really, really bad idea!).

Fast forward a few years, and I thought that I was reasonably computer savvy. I knew more than my parents, that was for sure. I could install programs, stash files away, and surf the ‘net (on a 2400 baud modem) without them having any idea of what, exactly, I was doing. It was great – there was a feeling of exhilaration in racing around places and doing things that were effectively magic to my parents (and that would have been disallowed, if they knew what I was doing). Then I met someone (my step-father) who knew a lot more than I did. He could track what I did, and did so for my parents – this was my first encounter with surveillance in a digital space. I had the typical responses that any teenager will have: I was infuriated that ‘my privacy’ was being invaded; what I did online and on a computer in my own time was my business, just like when I read a book or wrote something on paper, it was ‘mine’. This was my first real experience of parental invasion of privacy that had a resonating effect. What was most upsetting wasn’t just that my actions were being surveyed, but that automated programs were being used to identify where I went online, what I did, and so forth. There was no way (that I knew of) to evade this kind of electronic surveillance. It was infuriating, and led me to be very paranoid about what I did on the household computers, because I didn’t know what was surveyed, or how the surveillance was performed. What I was certain of was this: digital surveillance sucked.

The Education

Fast forward a few years, after I’ve gotten my own computer, my own broadband connection, and so forth. I’m in University, and studying philosophy. In my BA, I drifted between two core areas: phenomenology (the study of the nature of experience) and social and political philosophy (where I studied the natures of law, justice, citizenship, and political association). In my (limited!) studies of phenomenology I was interested in the intersubjective connections that people developed, why these connections developed, and the play that occurred in them. I was very interested in the role of ‘authenticity’, as it pertained to forming identity and making decisions. It was during this time that groundwork was unknowingly laid to prepare me for my encounter with Habermas some years later – without this background in phenomenology I doubt that I would have appreciated the notion of a ‘post-metaphysical’ political theory or the elemental role of discourse in constructing identity.

In my studies in social and political thought, I read a reasonable amount of feminist literature as it pertained to law, justice, and political inclusivity. I was struck by how groups were excluded on logically inconsistent bases, and the relative absurdity of the metaphysical arguments that were used to maintain this exclusion. Given that many of the thinkers that I was most enamored with were post-modern thinkers who were focused on issues of discourse, I was again being ‘prepped’ for a critical discourse theory perspective (i.e. that of Habermas). What really drew me into school was a course on Kant’s political philosophy that I took at the end of my third year. There, I saw just how beautiful a theoretical system could be…but I was left with questions at the end of the course that I just couldn’t answer. I spent the summer reading in and around modern political theory, as well as some post-modern political theory. I didn’t know, but at the time I was trying to answer this question: “How can a Kantian subject discursively realize themselves, given the monological character of realizing one’s freedom?”

When I ran into Habermas for the first time, I was attracted to him because he picked up some of Kant’s thoughts and managed to directly address the role of discourse in constructing subjectivity – discourse, as the primary ordering structure of one’s intersubjective relations, is central to any conception of what it is to Be. In Habermas’ examination of the subject, however, he was explicitly ‘post-metaphysical’, meaning that Being was immanently realized. This meant that his political system was inclusive, insofar as a political association wasn’t predicated on a particular metaphysic (e.g. Christianity). I remain convinced by the Habermasian account of subjectivity (though slightly modified), and when it comes to how he analytically divides civil society his (effective) distinction between zones where reason is used strategically and areas where it is used to develop consensus is appealing because it reflects the world as I perceive it (thus integrating with some of the demands that phenomenology requires, namely that theory is immanently developed and predicated on experience).

What concerns me in the Habermasian system is this: How can we ensure that individuals will authentically communicate with one another to develop intersubjective relations and democratically legitimized political systems? Given that communications increasingly take place in digitally mediated environments, what are the implications of moving to this environment for the possibilities of authentic/non-coerced discourse?

Step Back: Information Technology

Before continuing with ‘why privacy matters to me’, I want to alert the reader to why I was interested in digital technologies. Throughout my undergraduate and MA degrees I worked on campus doing IT work. This began with routine monitoring of some computers labs and their associated equipment (carefully noting exactly how much paper was used, how much toner, what computers were damaged and why, etc) and gradually led me to survey computer operations using a variety of software programs that were hooked into various networking infrastructures. I was involved in opposing the shift from a centrally-hosted campus email system to a Google-base system, as well as in trying to more effectively monitor hardware and user interactions to develop systems that minimized hardware losses while improving user experiences. I was involved in surveying a large user base, and trying to perform my job as efficiently as possible.

During my time as an IT worker I learned of some of the ways that surveillance was routinely performed on the campus by other IT divisions, and I was made aware of the realities of privacy invasions when dealing with students who had their privacy (and personal dignity) invaded. Given that my immediate boss, and many of my friends, were (and continue to be) involved in web development I learned about some of the surveillance systems that they used to discretely identify and track users as they moved across websites. The hands-on experience of digital surveillance systems, and learning the language of IT, led me to read and learn about how various pieces of hardware and software are used to watch, shape, and track what individuals do in digital environments.

In essence, my limited time spent in IT showed me just how much data could be collected on individuals without their ever knowing, got me thinking about how that data could (and should) be used to enhance IT operations, and the consequences of these surveillance technologies for political systems.

Step Forward: Digital Communications

Given that individuals are commonly unaware of the surveillance apparatuses that are deployed around their digital environment, what might we think would happen if individuals were aware of the privacy-invasive technologies that are deployed to monitor their daily actions? What might be the logical consequences of this awareness? What might Habermas have to say about this kind of surveillance, and what would his response(s) be to the use of digital surveillance instruments? These were the questions that motivated my MA thesis.

Habermas’ theoretical framework is appealing because the account privacy that can be derived from it is neither communitarian nor liberal – it takes a middle ground and recognizes that the establishment of public and private rights are co-original, and that privacy rights are similarly co-original and necessary to secure both domains. I won’t bother you with the technicalities, but if you read my MA thesis you’ll see how this is developed (though I think that I could probably articulate it better, now, after reflecting on this for a year since the thesis was written). In my MA thesis, I draw out what kinds of privacy rights we should expect from a Habermasian system. While the principles strongly resonate with Fair Information Processing Standards (FIPS), I think that the difference is that the privacy rights I derive are not based in a purely liberal understanding of the subject, which lets me sidestep accusations that FIPS privilege the individual at the expense of the community.

So, while my MA thesis focused on understanding how privacy rights that would permit authentic communication were possible, it didn’t spend a great deal of time actually looking at the policies that establish and shield privacy rights in nation-states. What’s more, my MA thesis focused on the nation-state, rather than on the international domain, leaving a (self-recognized) blind spot in my thesis. While Habermas’ architectonic does account for how international standards might be established in a democratically-legitimated way, his thoughts commonly rely on the EU as a case example, which continues to strike me as a shaky empirical foundational case. So, while in my MA I attended to what kinds of privacy rights might emerge from a Habermas’ system, now I want to look at how international data privacy regulations have developed, and whether or not these regulations allow for authentic discourse by citizens in multiple jurisdictions. In particular, I want to look at the gatekeepers of the Internet (ISPs) and understand who influences their use of deeply privacy-invasive technologies and why. These accounts will then be drawn into a larger examination of the Habermasian-derived privacy rights, to let me understand the intersection of Habermas’ own thoughts surrounding cross-jurisdictional discourse and the instantiations of data protection law that may, or may not, actually facilitate the process of establishing cross-national privacy protections that secure the privacy of personal communications. This is a long-term project that I expect will extend well beyond my doctoral studies.

So, Why Privacy Issues?

Given my attention to discourse as a grounding facet of people’s existence in the world, accompanied with the shift towards digital technologies that can monitor data traffic/communications in real time and alter/censor them, I focus on digital privacy issues because they tend to threaten people’s abilities to authentically communicate with one another. The Habermasian system (accompanied and fleshed out by other theorists and complementary frameworks) gives me the structure to constructively perceive and address these issues, while simultaneously offering possible avenues to theoretically understand (and test) the formation of privacy policies internationally. My focus on privacy dovetails with issues of surveillance – especially when surveillance is understood as both categorizing and modulating the preferences and perceptions of individuals and groups – but surveillance is understood as a means of invading/upsetting privacy, rather than privacy as functioning under the umbrella of surveillance.

This has been a long post – I’m sorry if it was particularly dull and/or convoluted. It should be read as an early (and relatively brief) articulation of why I focus on digital privacy issues, and perhaps give some insight into the reasons why I pursue issues of privacy.