Six Frames Against Surveillance

Till Wäscher, School of International and Intercultural Communication & TU Dortmund

For years, privacy advocates had been speculating about a possible “Privacy Chernobyl” – a major scandal that would put the issue of surveillance on the global agenda and create a mass social movement against privacy intrusions committed by governments and corporations.[1] In the summer of 2013, this speculation became reality. Edward Snowden’s leaked documents detailing the mass surveillance activities conducted by the National Security Agency and its international partners caused – to stick to the nuclear disaster analogy – a temporary meltdown of public trust by citizens around the world.

The Snowden revelations revitalized in the public consciousness an almost forgotten genre of contentious politics – privacy activism. The main objective of this blog series is to identify, analyse, and critically assess the political communication of activists during anti-surveillance campaigns in the first year after the Snowden revelations to better understand the ways in which these issues have been framed by activists, understood by the public, portrayed by the media, and potentially acted upon in a variety of contexts.  

The series is based on the author’s dissertation on political communication tactics of the global privacy community for which he conducted 21 semi-structured interviews with activists from 14 countries. This first post in the series focuses on the core collective action frames against surveillance, articulated by the privacy activist community over the course of four campaigns: “Restore the Fourth/1984 Day” (July-August, 2013), “Stop Watching Us” (October, 2013), “The Day We Fight Back” (February, 2014), and “Reset the Net” (July, 2o14). These were largely on U.S.-centric protests; subsequent pieces in the series will explore how resistance to surveillance has been framed in other parts of the world.

Legal Frames

“Restore the Fourth” was the first attempt to organize and protest surveillance issues after the Snowden revelations. Mainly coordinated through message boards on the social news website Reddit, in more than 80 American cities (as well in Munich, Germany) people took to the streets to protest NSA surveillance. The three core demands of the “Restore the Fourth” network were to reform section 215 of the controversial Patriot Act; the creation of an oversight committee to keep checks on surveillance programs; and initiate accountability measures for public service figures involved in domestic spying activities.

Much of the communication efforts by… (click here to read the rest of this post).

Internet Governance, Technical Standards and the “Tree” Antennas

Diego Vicentin is one of the eight 2014 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar: “The Third Man Theme Revisited: Foreign Policies of the Internet in a time of Surveillance and Disclosure.” Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2014 Seminar discussions.

Just as soon as I arrived from Brazil in the US, to join the Center for Information Technology Policy Princeton team as graduate fellow, the curious image of cellular antennas disguised as trees caught my attention. It is common to see these “tree” antennas right beside the road while travelling from Princeton to New York, Philly, or Boston. Aside from the purpose of avoiding visual pollution, this attempt at producing a friendlier landscape is representative of our relation with information and communication infrastructure. The technical and political apparatus that supports the mode of operation of digital technologies is predominantly invisible to the end user. Only the ones who really pay attention can see the antenna behind the fake tree branches. Normally that is not the case. The majority of users take infrastructure for granted, rendering it invisible. Whereas such invisibility might be seen as an unintended result of both the technical complexity of digital communication networks and its decentralized form of governance, in fact, it is commonly used as a power strategy to avoid accountability as well as broader political participation in technology governance.

Fortunately, Edward Snowden’s revelations have shed light on the issue of technology governance, bringing…

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Cyberspace and Surveillance: Challenges to State Identity and Ontological Security in the Digital Age

Robert Ralston is one of the eight 2014 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2014 Seminar discussions.

Increasing state surveillance of the internet and a seeming lack of global accountability and best practices regarding foreign and domestic internet policies demands the attention of students, scholars, and practitioners of media and communication, political science, sociology, computer science, and the like. With these concerns in mind, the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar highlighted themes of surveillance, visibility, disclosure, and espionage in the digital age. This essay seeks to touch upon some of these themes, and to present a case for the study of ontological security in international relations as a way to explain, in part, U.S. practices of surveillance following the leaks by former National Security Administration (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. Politically, the stakes are high as cyberpolitics becomes an issue of “high politics” in the study of international relations; states and the agents who produce narratives about the state frame cyber discourse in ways that attempt to justify practices of surveillance, espionage, and censorship. States justify intrusion into cyberspace in the name of stability and an idealized self-image. This, can prove violent and costly, with parallels to justifying war on the basis of empire in offline venues. In cyber venues, the United States in particular has had to justify state intrusion into such venues. Void of routinized…

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Disclosure and its Discontents: Protecting Privacy in a Time of Surveillance

Colin Agur is one of the eight 2014 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2014 Seminar discussions.

In the 1825 farce play Paul Pry, the title character spies on his neighbors by asking third parties for details of their lives and leaving objects (often umbrellas) behind so he has an excuse to return unannounced. His catch-phrase, “I hope I don’t intrude,” is as contrived as his reasons for monitoring his neighbors. In the years following Paul Pry, government efforts to read letters in the post and telegrams sent over the wires eclipsed the threat of a bumbling snoop.[i] Today, in the wake of the Snowden disclosures, these concerns seem quaint. With powerful agencies monitoring our electronic communication, ours is a world of frequent and deep intrusions. Nosy neighbors are the least of our worries.

Surveillance was a recurring theme at this year’s Milton Wolf Seminar, held at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna. In formal sessions and social events spread over three days, the participants — an international mix of scholars and practitioners — explored how, in a time of increasing concerns about privacy and surveillance, diplomats, international organizations, the private sector, civil society, and the press can influence internet governance. The Snowden surveillance disclosures figured prominently in discussions about the capacities and…

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