DATA-PSST

Today, much of life is conducted through digital means. Greater transparency of citizens' communications and data to state surveillant organisations can deliver many benefits to citizens, ranging from increased national security to less corruptible delivery of welfare and basic services. However, abstract and invisible processes of dataveillance-informed targeting also negatively impact citizens' privacy, as well as their awareness of being unduly influenced by targeted messages designed to provoke outrage and change voting behaviour (as in fake news).

Investigating these transparency arrangements, across 2015-2017, MPC members ran a series of activities as part of an ESRC-funded project, DATA-PSST (Debating and Assessing Transparency Arrangements: Privacy, Security, Sur/Sous/Veillance and Trust). This generated three documentaries (with documentary-maker Dyfrig Jones); 7 policy briefs; a final report summarising the outputs of the project; and a report on public feeling on surveillance and privacy.

It also generated a Special Issue on Veillance and Transparency Post-Snowden in Big Data and Society (guest-edited by Vian Bakir, Andrew McStay and Martina Feilzer. This engaged and show-cased the creative practice of others. For instance, Evan Light created a mobile installation that allows people to examine the leaked intelligence files from whistle-blower Edward Snowden without being tracked online. Jennifer Gradecki & Derek Curry created a crowd-sourced intelligence agency to highlight the surveillant nature of social media.

Following the leaks by Edward Snowden in 2013 of massive state surveillance of citizen's digital communication flows in a host of liberal democracies, Vian Bakir coined the term 'veillant panoptic assemblage' to highlight contemporary society's profoundly unequal arrangements of mutual watching. In the veillant panoptic assemblage, citizens' watching of self and others through corporate channels of data flow, is fed back into state surveillance of citizens. This is ethically problematic if citizens have no knowledge that these processes routinely occur, or if they have no control over these processes. While theoretically, citizens can vote with their feet when it comes to commercial surveillance, either opting out of the digital platform or using encryption and ad blockers, in practice, it is more common for citizens to acquiesce to, or ignore, the surveillance in order to facilitate their digital lives: the effort of understanding the abstract practices of commercial surveillance, or taking protective action, are simply too great. That state intelligence agencies collect and store people's everyday digital communications and meta-data (i.e. data about data, such as when and to whom communications were sent) shows the repurposing of commercial surveillance by the state for disciplinary ends, adding another layer of abstraction, complexity and secrecy to what is surveilled.

Vian's work on the veillant panoptic assemblage was used by legal scholar, Yvonne McDermott, who applied this concept to a legal context (on data protection and consent in the information age). These insights found their way into a 547-page landmark judgment by the Indian Supreme Court on 24 August 2017. India's Supreme Court ruled that privacy was a constitutional right, deserving of protection. Its ruling was a response to a constitutional challenge to the Government of India's Aadhaar card biometrics project – which aimed to build a database of personal identity and biometric information covering every Indian resident – the world's largest endeavour of its kind.