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Review: The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance

[Robin Tudge. The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance. Toronto: Between the Lines and London: New Internationalist, 2011.]

This will be a little review of a little book. It is a useful resource – part of a series of small, focused No-Nonsense Guides put out by Toronto publisher Between the Lines – but it is also one that has limits and should be read with a certain amount of caution.

There are two main strengths to the book. The first is its sense of urgency. Despite the problems with the book I note below, the ever-increasing amounts of data that are collected about each of us by states and by for-profit corporations, and the ever-increasing sophistication with which disparate pools of data are connected both to each other and to various mechanisms to regulate and discipline us, are not understood as broadly as they need to be nor treated with sufficient urgency even by some of those who have a sense of the scope of the problem. On that level, a bracing call to wake up already and pay attention to the issue is certainly welcome.

The other main strength of the book, and perhaps the one that matters more to me, is its usefulness as a piece of reporting and a collation of a great many sources. I did notice a few problems with referencing, but by and large it seems to make good use of reports (both establishment and dissident), scholarly research, and pieces published over the years in the mass media, as well as the words of whistle-blowers from within organizations that do various pieces of the work that the book describes. Moreover, bringing it all together into one volume helps give a sense of the scale of the problem and the sweep of its trajectory in a way that is easy to miss when all you see is an out-of-context article here and an isolated news story there. I think anyone looking to investigate further will find this book a good first stop in terms of tracking down important resources.

That said, there is lots that makes me more hesitant about the book too. For one thing, even before getting into the substance of its politics, despite being co-published by a Canadian publisher, the book has very little to say about how all of this has been implemented here. That would be nice to know about.

But there’s a lot more than that. The book is fairly narrowly focused on questions of surveillance, and is obviously written to appeal to people with a broad range of politics on other issues. While understandable from the perspectives of winning converts to a narrow cause and of selling books, I think that approach almost always leads to shoddy politics. In this case, the fairly singular focus on surveillance and the consequent state and corporate regulation and discipline leads to a fairly flat understanding of power. Thankfully it is robust enough that it recognizes private tyrannies (capitalist corporations) as well as public tyrannies (states), but it still is almost entirely organized around “freedom from” rather than a richer understanding of “freedom to” or of “thriving”, and that leads it towards … well, in some places, the flavour is almost right-libertarian, whereas in others it is a particular kind of U.S. American liberalism. And I think as urgent as surveillance is, as part of broader questions of power, oppression, and resistance, thinking of them only in terms of “freedom from” is dangerous and will likely create that freedom for people who are already privileged while merely reshaping the cage slightly for most of the rest of the people on earth.

In a related problem, it presents enforcing a “right to privacy” as the answer to surveillance, and “privacy” as an unambiguous good. While there are plenty of examples historically of strategically-deployed struggles for privacy winning gains for ordinary people, and I’m certainly not taking any absolute position against doing so now, it’s a lot more complicated than that. “Privacy” and how it is put together socially can be a component in a lot of gender and sexual oppression, for example. A more liberatory response to the issues raised by this book may struggle not for “privacy” but for a way of organizing our lives that does not depend on an axis between “public” and “private” as currently constituted.

There are points where the shallow, Cold War liberal or even libertarian rhetoric is thick enough to make you cough and splutter. For instance, in its potted history of surveillance – some of which is useful, mind you – it frames the world in terms of “communist” and “fascist” and “democratic”, which is itself a sign of simplistic liberalism to follow, and then it frames the surveillance/regulation problems of the first two earlier in the twentieth century as systemic while the excesses of the latter are blamed on the power hungry machinations of one man, J. Edgar Hoover, and it proceeds to pine for a time when the true principles of democratic freedom were more freely adhered to in the U.S. of A. While Hoover is someone who belongs in the ‘evil’ category in any just accounting of history, this framing ignores the reams and reams of work showing that liberal-democracy has also been systemically violent, nasty, and oppressive, from the get-go – it just organizes and distributes it all a bit differently.

I could do some more detailed dissection of the book’s limitations, but I promised a short(ish) review and I really have other work that I should be doing, so I’ll just note general themes. A particularly egregious one, given how surveillance and the disciplinary practices attached to it have played out in the last decade and more, is the seriously underplaying of the centrality of racialization and white supremacy in how surveillance is organized and experienced. Then there is the book’s tendency to not always be careful in distinguishing among what happens now, what theoretically could happen and probably will at some point, what technically could happen but probably won’t, what various political actors wish to happen and that may or may not actually happen, and what state/corporate/surveillance industry insider rhetoric claims in denial of the complexity and unevenness of how huge bureaucratic and technological systems inevitably function. The little hypothetical scenario with which the author opens the book is perhaps the most egregious example, but far from the only one. And while that kind of approach might help to produce a sense of short-term urgency, it can lead to misidentifying the problem. And, in fact, it can be one part of another larger problem with the book, that it consistently gives too much power to that which we struggle against and underemphasizes our capacity to make change through struggle. This can lead to a circumstance where dissatisfaction with the status quo is urgently felt but leads to little or no activity, and that is not a good thing.

This has not been as little a review as I intended. Sorry! In any case, the book’s urgency is important and the resources that it collects are useful, but read it with caution: Its political and rhetorical limitations nudge the reader towards a politics that will be woefully insufficient to truly address, in a just and liberatory, practices of surveillance and the oppressive and exploitative social relations in which they are embedded.

[Scott Neigh is a writer, parent, and activist based in Sudbury, Ontario. He is the author of two books looking at Canadian history through the stories of activists, which you can learn about here and buy here. He is also the host/producer of Talking Radical Radio. This review originally appeared on his personal blog.]

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