Data mining centre, Utah; GCHQ; sketch of Panopticon
In view of the scandal that's broken over the last couple of days (6-7 June 2013) on both sides of the Atlantic concerning the shadowy PRISM programme, it seems timely to revisit this blog's previous engagement with issues of privacy and surveillance.
PRISM, whose existence is no longer in doubt, gives government agencies access to personal internet data without users' knowledge.
Such all-seeing "inspective force", to use the phrase coined by Jeremy Bentham, Romantic author of Panopticon (1791), allows swathes of real-time data to be gathered for retroactive analysis, and is unprecedented technologically, though by no means unforeseen. Major tech companies are falling over each other to deny knowledge, and complicity:
"Several senior tech executives insisted they had no knowledge of Prism or of any similar scheme. They said they would never have been involved in such a programme. "If they are doing this, they are doing it without our knowledge," one said. An Apple spokesman said it had "never heard" of Prism. (Nick Hopkins, guardian.co.uk, Friday 7 June 2013 14.27 BST)Speaking at #29c3, 28 December 2012
Over the new year, Anne Marggraf-Turley and I held a talk at the 29th Chaos Computer Congress "Not My Department", entitled "Romantic Hackers: Keats, Wordsworth and Total Surveillance". In it, we traced the beginnings of debates around these issues in the Romantic period that in many ways anticipated, and certainly framed - continue to frame - such discussions now being rehearsed in the world's media.
The 29C3 conference's electrifying keynote was given by Jacob Appelbaum. Jake warned about the reach, both in terms of time and space, of the enormous NSA data-mining facility in Utah - which, along with the UK's own GCHQ, is now at the centre of wide controversy involving senators, parliamentarians and members of various publics.
Part of Jake's talk explored the implications, legality and social effects of total "inspective force". In that respect, his keynote recalled a lecture given in 1795 by a twenty-three-year-old Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Coleridge lamented that the populace's awareness of wide government inspection in that radical decade - which had its own war on Terror, the terror of France and revolution - encouraged them to adapt and flatten their behaviour to conform to social norms. This was during prime minister William Pitt's Reign of Alarm, when the argument was framed, much as many commentators contend it has been in recent years, as a choice between "national security" or "privacy". Thorns in the side of the State, such as John Thelwall, found themselves imprisoned without charge, or facing show trials on charges of Treason, which carried the death penalty. Under the pressure of such inspective force, Coleridge warned, the "beautiful fabric of love", community, begins to unravel:
"All our happiness and the greater part of our virtues depend on social confidence. This beautiful fabric of Love the system of Spies and Informers has shaken to the very foundation. There have been multiplied among us ‘Men who carry tales to shed blood!’ ... Little low animals with chilly blood and staring eyes, that ‘come up into our houses and our bed-chambers!’ These men are plenteously scattered among us: our very looks are decyphered into disaffection, and we cannot move without treading on some political spring gun." (Lectures, 1795)Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1782)
The Romantic internet - rapidly printed pamphlets, hastily communicated reports, distributed around informal networks, poems and essays - discussed spies, whistleblowers and the social effects of surveillance with a feverish sense of the importance of arriving at a consensus on the proper relation between State, public and private spheres. Today's internet is similarly animate with a healthy exchange of information on precisely this topic. Indeed, the parallels between the Romantic age and our own have rarely seemed closer.