Chapter 17 – The Right to Sanctuary
Big Other Outruns Society
The concept of a refuge that each of us can retreat to is under attack by Big Other. The ancient Greeks had codified the concept of sanctuary before our era, and it has since been inscribed in all forms of national and international laws. Yet, it seems that the sacredness of a personal, unassailable space is dwindling, with all of our experiences, even the most private ones, increasingly being there for the taking by Surveillance Capitalists. How do we collectively reclaim our safe spaces?
Justice at the New Frontier of Power
In America, in order to protect people’s privacy from the reaching hands of an overarching goliath-like power, the go-to strategy has always been to invoke the 4th amendment, which ensures “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures […].” But this legal recourse was designed to protect against governments, not private companies. Similar inadequacies to the modern world can be observed globally. New solutions need to be found, and the European Union is leading the way, with its GDPR which came into effect in 2018. At time of writing, Zuboff wonders if the initiative will be successful, and she laments probable herculean difficulties in actual enforcement of the regulation.
At the heart of the issue is the fact that much of users’ data is being inscribed in the Shadow Text and is therefore hard for a company to be transparent about (on top of the fact that they will not willingly stop this collection of data). So when a user asks to download their personal data from a service, they will only ever be given the “first text”, the one that they had provided (photos, posts, etc…), but the second text (the behavioral data that was extracted from them) will remain in the hands of the behemoth. Even if surveillance capitalists wanted to share that data back with a user, they most likely would not be able to, given the rise of Machine Learning and other AI processes.
Zuboff highlights the need for collective action: “the individual alone can not shoulder the burden of justice [against behavioral data extraction] any more than an individual early twentieth century worker could bear the burden of fighting for fair wages and working conditions.” It should apply to privacy, for example, with organized action from collectives, organizations, activists who can band together to move the needle. But it will all depend on how regulators and justice systems interpret the laws, including the surveillance capitalists’ moves to evade them (like Facebook moving 1.5 billion of its users away from its Irish subsidiary’s terms of services just as GDPR was coming into effect).
Every Unicorn Has a Hunter
As we reckon with the invasion of Big Other into our personal lives, Zuboff calls us to push back against the glass walls that have been erected around us. But this is no easy feat, in a world where wanting to hide away from the instrumentarian power is seen as suspicious by most forms of power and government. A new generation of activist artists are dedicating their brains to fighting the collection of their behavioral data, through adversarial clothing and tech equipment that confuse face recognition software, for example. But Zuboff laments that all this energy and creativity is essentially spent to make us more invisible, so as to fly under the radar of the general, organized surveillance. “Tunnels under the wall are not enough: the wall must come down.”