No fear or hope, but new weapons. On privacy and technology.

Matthijs Kouw, Edo Schreuders and Lizette Pater


In 1890, Warren and Brandeis famously formulated privacy as ‘the right to be left alone’. However, it may be argued that, in the light of contemporary technological developments, this definition demands a thorough reworking. Dealing with, for example, surveillance, cookies, computer hacking and so on, demands a revisiting of the concept of privacy. Debates surrounding privacy and technology tend to treat the former as a given concept to be found in human nature, thereby begging the question at hand, namely: how is privacy being articulated in particular social contexts?

Instead of treating privacy as a given, we will take a look backstage and problematize its apparent rigidity, thereby hoping to clarify the relation between privacy and technology.

Firstly, the traditional liberal distinction between the public and the private sphere will be reflected upon. It will be exemplified that the binary public-private distinction is not neutral in the sense that it applies equally to everyone (as it pretends to do). This commonly accepted dichotomy will be unveiled as supportive of certain inequalities. The liberal distinction appears to be an expression of a specific point of view, namely that of the neutral liberal state, in which the public sphere is carefully demarcated from the private sphere. All things associated with nature, body, particularities, irrationality are excluded from the public sphere. This serves the alleged neutrality of the liberal state, which claims to be impartial and rational, but that claim only works insofar all nee! d and desire is kept in the private realm. We argue that this dichotomous organization has exclusionary effect

That this exclusion is obvious, but at the same time maintained, will be explained in the second part. Panoptic power regimes, carefully explored in the work of Michel Foucault, exercise normalizing judgment by punishing deviations from the required standards. The constant threat of coercion disciplines and regularizes people as individuals, and causes an internalization of the norms. In the panoptic regime there is no distinction to be made between the public and the private sphere. Panoptic power is not limited to one realm: power is exercised always and everywhere. The ideal, which can easily be traced back to legitimizations of camera surveillance, is one of perfect visibility, complete transparency, and total surveyability. First of all, this Foucauldian model of disciplinary power will ! be supplemented by Reg Whitaker’s model of the participatory panopticon (which he describes as more consensual and voluntary because convenience for consumers is the motivation for implementing panoptic norms). Secondly, we will enhance Foucaults model by discussing Gilles Deleuze’s model of the society of control. Where, according to Foucault, power was thought to penetrate everything, Deleuze states that for Foucault each realm corresponds with a specific, limited exercise of power. Deleuze argues that control strives for ubiquity: it uses the newest surveillance technologies in order to accomplish the production of the ‘proper citizen’.

Thirdly, biometrics will be considered. The examination of practices of biometrics will reveal them as discursive practices, ideologically engineered to produce legible bodies that thereby represent cultural codes that deliver a description of socially appropriate responses. Bodies are then not pre-discursively given, but appropriated through discursive practices, as a discussion of the work of Judith Butler and Donna Haraway will reveal. Since these discursive practices are never devoid of ideological elements, inclusion and exclusion are concomitant to the protocols deployed in biometric practice

The way the body is made legible then leads to a preoccupation with visible properties, and a suspicion, or exclusion, of tactile properties that lie beyond the scope of biometrics. In the biometrics discourse the bodily aspects become the ultimate decisive factor in determining who one is. Biometrics seems to decontextualize people from their motivations and environments. This can be a particularly questionable practice when it is related to biometric body surveillance, since many social problems have socio-economic contexts: people may have good reasons to act in a certain, unaccepted way. Body surveillance basically ignores this, by focusing mainly on behavioral aspects.

Parallels will be drawn between biometrics and the preoccupation with visible behavior (which will be illustrated in a discussion on Closed Circuit Television). Just as biometrics reduces identity to what can be found in the text of the body, this preoccupation reconceptualizes socio-economic problems in terms of visible behavior.

Fourthly, we will consider some of the implications of technology on the public-private distinction. After elaborating on technology and the disappearance of the biological substrate of human agency, due to virtual technologies, a problematization of panoptic societies may be provided. Subsequently, common themes of both virtual technologies and control societies may be described – to what extent is disembodiment a common theme of both digital culture and control societies? A closer investigation will then allow a description of the emancipatory power of virtual technologies. The latter examination implies a definition of human agency as a locus that contains both creative and suppressive forces that can lead to an explanation of privacy as an evaluative concept that may unfold throu! gh processes of critical examinations.

In conclusion, we will argue that privacy is to be seen as an evaluative concept that emerges as an immanent possibility for the human subject to reflect upon its dependence on existing power structures. Privacy in our view is fundamentally contingent over time, and permanently needs to be worked upon.