Wednesday, 11 December 2013


Guest Post By Vincenzo Pavone [1] (IPP-CSIC) and Elvira Santiago (IPP-CSIC)

Big Brother 2.0?

No doubt, after the Snowden revelations and the recent confrontation between Germany and the US, several citizens will be asking themselves whether their private communications are under surveillance, and to what extent. This very event has triggered intensive debate in the media and in the political arenas of several European countries not only about the extent and purpose of the surveillance programs, but also about one of the technologies that are being used to arrange such surveillance: that is Big Data. Big data is high-volume, high-velocity and high-variety information assets that demand cost-effective, innovative forms of information processing for enhanced insight and decision-making.[2]

It must be acknowledged that there are different ways of using Big Data, and that the application of this set of technologies does not necessarily need to be oriented towards the surveillance of individual citizens. For instance, data can be anonymised, which allows research to be conducted and data to be extracted and analyzed without preserving any link between the data and the citizens to whom these data are related.

Is technology neutral?

However, this is not equal to saying that Big Data is a neutral technology. Any technology, regardless of how many uses it may have, is never neutral. Technologies, or rather sociotechnical practices, can never be understood as stand alone pieces of human art crafts because they only work and make sense in a network of socially constructed meanings, practices, organizational protocols and tailor-made jargons. They come with their own ethics, their own values. These values reflect the dominant political priorities and ethical values of the societal stakeholders producing and using such technologies. They may indeed change over time, but they will do so along with the changes occurring in the society adopting, sustaining and implementing such sociotechnical practices.   

This is, in a few words, the basic assumption proposed by what is known as a co-production approach in science and technology studies [3]: science and social order are co-produced and they live in a mutually constitutive relationship. Producing new scientific knowledge, as well as the new technological tools stemming from such knowledge, produces new forms of social order, and the opposite is also true: in order to produce new forms of social order, new knowledge and technical tools are constantly fabricated.

Of cars and Big Data

An example, perhaps, may illustrate this better. If asked about the cost of a specific car, we would normally answer by pointing at the price of that car. But that is hardly the actual cost… or better that is the cost only if seen from a specific point of view, which externalizes all the real costs of a car and narrows the question down to the transaction between the car dealer and the potential customer. However, cars, as a technology, only make sense as part of a sophisticated network of sociotechnical practices that needs to be constantly maintained to ensure that cars can fully operate across a given space. Cars need roads, police, laws, speed cameras, hospital, doctors, insurance companies, mechanics, gasoline pumps, etc. Without these sociotechnical infrastructures and practices, a car is simply a meaningless, useless box with five seats and four wheels. All these infrastructures have a cost and we accept that most of these costs are to be paid collectively by the citizens, often via the public system of tax collection. And why do we do so? Because we believe that cars are a socially legitimate way to move around.

If that is true for cars, it is even more so for Big Data. The latter, as a sociotechnical practice of security, only can be understood in a society that understands security as a function of surveillance. This is why, in so far as security is concerned, Big Data could never be anonymised as it would not make sense to have millions of data proceeding from harmless citizens’ communication without having name and surname (and much more) on it. The question, thus, is not whether we are spied or not, but rather: how did we come to pursue a concept of security, where many seem to believe that the latter can only be increased through massive surveillance programs operated through Big Data technologies?

A paradigm shift concept of security?

While in the 1990s, human security was associated with human development, human rights and multilateralism, in the aftermath of the Twin Towers attack it has evolved into a new, encompassing term that questions the separation between internal and external security: religious fundamentalism, ethnic conflicts and guerrilla-type wars are sources of threats that can well come from inside the state borders [4]. As a result, internal and external security agendas have eventually merged together [5].  Drug-trafficking, undocumented migration, and economic crimes cease to be an issue of justice or social integration and, overloaded with urgency and exceptionality, get subject to a new security approach emphasizing threat anticipation.

In a regime of threat anticipation, risk assessment and risk management become the cornerstone of a comprehensive approach that is geared to constant detection and prevention of the threats and risks. In this new approach, security is expanded well beyond the criminal domain in order to cope with any sort of suspicious behavior, information or action that could potentially constitute a threat. The resulting securitization of people’s movements and actions cannot be confined to migrants: under the new concept of security, controlling and integrating all sorts of information about ordinary citizens is nothing but inexorable.

The constitutive role of security technologies

In this approach to security, surveillance-oriented security technologies, and the analysis of Big Data is one of them, play a constitutive role: they are part of a new social order. As it has become impossible to conceive security without technology, we are permanently exposed to a technological fix approach to the problem of security: the focus constantly shifts from the search for a (complex) variety of causes and factors that has produced the on-going transformation of security threats to (simple) series of technological remedies that could be conceived, developed and implemented to keep these challenges under control.

Inevitably, the successful deployment of new security technologies under this new holistic concept of security comes at a cost: a restriction of civil liberties and individual privacy. Security and liberty get framed as two interchangeable goods that could be traded against each other: any increase in security requires an equivalent contraction of civil liberties. As the increase of security levels is intrinsically associated with an ever-increasing implementation of surveillance technologies, it does not consider the possibility of increasing security levels through either non-surveillance-oriented technologies or through non-technological actions and interventions.

Without freedom, we are no longer citizens

This is how we got to the point where millions of citizens around the world are spied indiscriminately. However, once we have lost our privacy, we can no longer act, meet, communicate, share or express ourselves freely. Under surveillance, regardless of whether we have something to hide or not, we cannot enjoy our basic civil and political rights. It is in this context that we have to understand Big Data. They are key to the development and implementation to a specific vision of what needs to be promoted as social order. Needless to say, this specific view of a desirable social order is at the same time promoting and fostering the development and implementation of Big Data.

This is why developing such powerful technologies and then hope that a few parliamentary bills will prevent their full implementation is wishful thinking. Rather, we need to learn to conceive security in different terms, as a shared responsibility and not only a function of repressive and preventive surveillance. Social and economic factors such as social and cultural integration, welfare supports, rule of law, fair redistribution of resources and citizens’ participation are at least as important. We often hear that without security, citizens cannot be free. Sure, this is true. However, without freedom, no matter how safe, we are no longer citizens.

[1] Corresponding author: Vincenzo Pavone, Institute of Public Goods and Policies (IPP), Consejo Superior Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid, SPAIN.
[3] Jasanoff, S. 2004. States of knowledge: the co-production of science and social order: Psychology Press
[4] Lutterbeck, D. (2005) "Blurring the dividing line: The convergence of internal and external security in Western Europe," European Security 14(2): 231-53.
[5] Bigo, D. (2000) "Internal and external securitisations in Europe," International Relations Theory and European Integration: Power, Security and Community: 154.

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