Exposed: Desire and Obedience in the Digital Age

By Bernard E. Harcourt

 Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015

Review by Eric Laursen

Early in Exposed, his fascinating and disturbing new book on surveillance, social media, and the state, Columbia University legal scholar and critical theorist Bernard Harcourt includes two illustrations: in one, an engraving from 18th century France, a man dressed like a courtier of the time and seated in front of what looks like an old-fashioned library card catalog, industriously files and refiles slips of paper. In the other, a PowerPoint slide from 2013, a man in modern dress sits in front of a computer terminal, pulling information—phone numbers, email addresses, log ins,  user activity—from a database.

The first illustration is of a proposed system for collecting, classifying, and extracting data, down to the level of stairways and doors, for use by police agents, spies, and informants throughout Paris. Designed by “an eccentric French inventor,” it was never actually built. The second diagrams XKeyscore, a National Security Agency search tool that “can instantaneously give an intelligence analyst access to all the content that a user types in an email, the websites she visits, the searches she performs, as well as all of her metadata—in short, ever keystroke, every touch, every click.” XKeyscore is not the figment of a quirky imagination: in use today, it reportedly hoovered up some 41 billion records in just one month in 2012.

What’s eerie, however, is the similarity between the two illustrations. In each, a functionary of the state feeds data into and extracts information from a database intended to provide 360-degree vision of the world: a “faultless system to perfect omniscient state surveillance,” in Harcourt’s words.

Exposed does the best job to date of exploring the guts of systems like XKeyscore and an excellent job teasing out the overweening ambition it’s inspired in the 1%. (I should note here that Harcourt is a personal friend.) It also raises some important issues that it doesn’t fully answer: Is the new Panopticon changing the nature of the state itself, or (only) supercharging it? Is real resistance, as opposed to guerrilla actions that discomfit the data lords without throwing them seriously off balance, really possible?

Answering these questions, however, will have to start with the insights Harcourt gleans from his study of the new digital imperium, including the historical perspective he provides. The data nerve-centers that Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and other whistleblowers began exposing several years ago, not to mention their breathtaking reach into our lives, are not exactly new: something like them has existed in the imagination of the modern state ever since its birth more than 500 years ago. There’s a direct line of development here. From the passports and identity papers that governments first started to demand in the 16th century, to the astrological charts that monarchs regularly consulted in the so-called Enlightenment era, to the census rolls and IBM punch-cards of the 19th and 20th centuries, to today’s vast databases and data-vacuuming technologies, the state has always aspired to know its people’s business down to the minutest detail.

I include astrological charts in this list for a reason: partly because princes, from Queen Elizabeth I to Ronald Reagan, have resorted to them, but mainly because the point of all this—the surveillance, the data gathering, the inhalation of, seemingly, everything that takes place in cyberspace—is not just to nab citizens doing or thinking things the authorities disapprove of. Literally, it’s to predict the future.

Crystal Balls

In another new book, Playing on the Edge, General Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA, notes that his agency is in the business of “preventive counter- terrorism”: attempting to identify and control a category of people that doesn’t actually exist in our legal system, the “not-yet-guilty.” In a twist on Philip K. Dick’s dystopian novel, Minority Report (and the Spielberg movie based on it), the NSA and our other intelligence-gathering agencies, from local police on up, aspire to read the minds of anyone they deem “of interest,” via the internet and social media. With the data they collect, the authorities aim to establish a breadth of knowledge and control over these individuals —and their communities—that Napoleon’s secret police, the Gestapo, the Stasi, and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI could only dream about, and, crucially, the ability to anticipate their future actions.

Of course, certainty is never possible with human beings; they have a way of upending expectations and veering off in unforeseeable directions. But, given the vast amounts of data available to the state today, certainty is no longer necessary. Probability will do. That’s why metadata—the “address” on the digital envelope, its origin and its destination or destinations—is, in some ways, more important to the NSA, the FBI, MI5, and their ilk than the actual content of online messages. (Read Exposed, and I bet you’ll consider canceling your gmail account there and then.) Metadata enables the authorities to map the individual into a network of other individuals, revealing patterns of association that a risk analyst can use to arrive at the probability that one or more of the subjects in a given network is a terrorist, a drug dealer, or a Black Lives Matter activist—for instance.

“Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life,” the NSA’s general counsel once said. “If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content.” If there was any doubt about the matter, Hayden himself said, “We kill people based on metadata.”

To make it work—to make sure the state is killing the right people, most of the time, at least—requires more data. And more data. The state has always wanted as much as it can get, but with the probabilistic turn in its reasoning, the urge to collect as much data as possible has become overweening, insatiable. In its own words, Harcourt notes, the NSA’s stated ambition is to “sniff it all,” to “know it all,” to “collect it all,” “process it all,” and of course, “exploit it all.”

This mania isn’t confined to surveillance and law enforcement. There’s a fervor to public figures’ embrace of data that’s borderline messianic. “We obsess over metrics, get excited about data,” Hillary Clinton declared at a Clinton Global Initiative conference in 2014. “Data, data, data.” The passion to make all decision-making “evidence-based” pervades policy-making today, from the so-called education reform movement to the cost-benefit analyses that regulators are increasingly compelled to submit. But it began in the national security apparatus, and that’s where the greatest investment of money and resources continues to reside. Fortunately for the state, it has a partner—in fact, many partners—in the private sector: from consulting firms whose contracts are entirely with government to companies in every conceivable industry that gather data on their customers to tech behemoths like Apple, Facebook, and Google. Unlike the French monarchy’s 18th century spies and spymasters, Harcourt writes, today’s data gatherers and analysts “may be working for a private consulting company [as Snowden did], not the police; querying data provided willingly by enthusiastic users of social media, not the scribbled jottings of a gumshoe; using software manufactured by a multinational corporation, not a tool produced by the royal carpenter; sitting in a location operated by a private tele- communications company, not the préfecture de police.”

What we have, then, is a new agglomeration of power, overlapping the public and private sectors, or perhaps a new incarnation of the state itself. Harcourt’s book is about surveillance in the digital age, but it focuses especially on social media and monitoring devices like the Apple Watch, which he sees as providing a completely new way for (state) power to circulate in society. What is the Apple Watch, he asks, if not a more digitally alluring, tricked out version of the ankle-bracelet monitors that parolees are forced to wear? “Virtual transparence functions through seduction.” The vaunted Internet of Things, which promises to integrate computers into every corner of our lives via “wearables” with sensory capabilities, is really just another way to gather information about us, from biometric data to room temperatures.

Back to the Future?

The digitalization of data gathering and analysis is progressing quickly, fueled by massive injections of government funding and venture capital. Trying to make sense of where we’re headed, the rest of us first need to decide how different this all is, really: Is the extraordinary metamorphosis of the last decade and a half something unprecedented, or is it just the latest stage in a process that began with the state’s introduction of personal identity papers during the Renaissance? The mania for data, and data analysis, is part of the same progression, just immeasurably intensified. So, too, the umbilical connection between government and business.

It’s true that surveillance is just as likely to take place today “in a location operated by a private tele- communications company, not the préfecture de police.” But this goes back at least to the founding in 1600 of the British East India Company, which would always be as much an instrument of state policy, control, and expansion as it was a profit-making enterprise. Another thing that hasn’t changed: government’s, and business’s, thirst for secrecy. Even as it strip-mines our digital travels and messaging for clues and correlations, the state classifies more documents and data than ever and punishes whistleblowers more severely—the Obama administration has been the most enthusiastic yet in this respect—while the private sector fights to obscure more and more of its doings from public view. The two trends go hand-in-hand.

Harcourt inventories, briefly, a number of ways to fight back. These range from creating a “civil liberties ombudsman” inside the NSA to make sure it submits to the rule of law to “privatizing the data” so that the data-gatherers have to pay us for the information they collect and exploit to taxing certain data collection practices.

Surveilling the surveillers, as the Open Data movement and WikiLeaks attempt to do, forcing them out into the open, is another vital form of resistance. Blocking tactics in the presence of surveillance cameras, such as wearing a hood or coating their lenses, are other useful “avoidance” measures. From some combination of these, Harcourt recommends we build a leaderless resistance, along the lines of Occupy Wall Street. Authority loves data, loves to surveille; it would make no sense to build resistance to our digital prison around a new leadership that, once in office, would turn just as readily to the same old methods of control.

But this begs another question: What is the purpose of resistance, and what exactly are we resisting? Obviously, we want to resist the violation of our privacy, the creation and deployment of our digital twin, because it undermines our integrity as individuals. But if these developments are encoded into the DNA of the state and its private-sector partners—are fundamental to their purpose and objectives —then it does us no good to resist if we don’t extend that resistance to the state and capitalism themselves. And if our resistance is as broadly targeted as that, we need to establish our own objective. Is it to reform the law enforcement, security, and intelligence establishments? to democratize them? Or to overthrow them?

Harcourt does not address these questions, perhaps because this conversation is only beginning and requires a much wider ranging discussion about the nature and trajectory of the state. His book does a fine job of defining the issues, however. The next step is ours.


Eric Laursen is an independent journalist and activist living in Buckland, Massachusetts. His last book was The People’s Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan (AK Press, 2012).