Baring to dare spy agencies

Raging cry for privacy should not blind us to the possibility that surveillance can ensure security .

The lines from Bible (Luke 22:36) are curt: He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one. It was Hasan Elahi's 2003 writing in New York Times that gave them a new meaning – hence a perspective – to make the ‘quaint’ script more relevant than ever.
In June 2002, Elahi, an interdisciplinary artist and an associate professor of arts at the University of Maryland, was mistakenly detained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at the Detroit airport on suspicion of terrorism. The six-month interrogation that followed changed something permanently in Elahi’s psyche.

The Bangladesh-born professor, known for his globetrotting schedules, started informing the FBI about his travel plans. The fear of being detained again made him offer more and more information and soon, he ended up giving them his complete itineraries. It was then that Elahi decided to make his life an open book with the help of technology. He started carrying a GPS device that tracks his every movement and feeds it to his website, trackingtransience.net. He also started uploading the bills of every purchase he has ever made, pictures of the food he ate, the cots he slept on and even the toilets he used.

Shedding privacy

Put Elahi against the facts thrown up by the Edward Snowden episode and it will be all too clear why one has to get a sword by selling his/her clothes or, precisely, why one has to lose the ‘autonomy’ over one’s body, the ultimate symbol of privacy.

The intrusive operations of the US’ National Security Agency (NSA) have already shown us how naive our ideas of privacy were. In such a situation, a ‘subject’ like Elahi has to voluntarily sell his privacy to the FBI to buy a weapon in return: An alibi which is alive,mobile but uninteresting. What will anyone do with someone who is always already ‘there?’ However, it is the ‘blandness’ of the alibi that is also its strength.

At the same time, the manifestation of a ‘disrobed’ subject (an open alibi) thathas nothing left to hide will, perhaps, shock the power systems more than an obtrusively camouflaged guerilla would ever be able to do. In modern-day surveillance society, one does not necessarily need the push that Elahi received.

We already share so much on social networking sites that we ourselves do not know the end-user of such information.

True, when a whole society voluntarily sheds privacy and enters into an open culture, the value of ‘private’ information and the meaning of privacy will be lost. However, there will be no room left for false implications, fake encounters and brutal incarcerations of the innocent. Moreover, criminals in politics will have no other way but to blow the lid off their own scams. The raging cry for privacy should not blind us to the possibility that surveillance can ensure security and help to bring justice for many victims.

There is the unmistakable double bind of surveillance: The anxiety generated by its colossal march into personal domain is supposed to be balanced by the comfort felt by a scared subject under vigilance (for instance, a lonely woman in a bus that has a CCTV camera), making it a force at once inescapable and inevitable.

More difficult to acknowledge is the flip side of privacy. The expose of spying mechanisms of various states in the world, including the Indian government’s project believed to be as intrusive as the US’ PRISM, shattered the sense of privacy that we cherished so much or took for granted. But in the melee, we failed to realise that it is the common man who is under surveillance while systems and men in power, especially the corrupt ones, perpetuate themselves by hiding everything under the veil of privacy and national secrecy. For men in power, privacy becomes a tool for obfuscating their criminality.

If a government can successfully use intelligence agencies to protect its own, not people’s, interests, then an advanced surveillance mechanism would only be a shot in the arm for its efforts to remain in power. Any technology that transfers power from people to an authority is detrimental to a democratic set up and there is very less evidence to prove that these vigilance projects are otherwise.

Then, the only way to take on such an all-encompassing and aggressive machine is the voluntary shedding of privacy and our pretence to the sanctity of the so called personal. ‘Disrobing’ is not a protest that can stall the invasive acts of the system (the FBI is still one among the regular visitors to Elahi’s website) but it ensures that there is no space for the deceptive mechanisms of those in power.

Baring oneself to the surveillance seems to be the subject’s last stand against power systems.

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