Hide and Never Seek

Ece Canli

Ece Canli

“Is there anyone in this room that says ‘I don’t have anything to hide’?” asks Jillian York as a prelude to her presentation entitled “The chilling effects of surveillance”. Only two people raise hands.  At the very end of her one hour speech on personal data at stake, surveillance and freedom of expression; she repeats the question. This time only one person raises the hand. She sits next to me, as an old dear companion of mine, and is not headstrong as Jillian amusingly implies so. She rather explains herself as not wanting to participate in the game in the way it was asked, because the question about surveillance is much deeper than simply ‘hiding’ something, especially for someone who suffers from it in a social and political level. I can now take her argument further and shortly reason it: to approach to the issue from the point of ‘hide and seek’ is to reduce the severity of being poked and pried into a matter of choice as if to hide or to preserve things can be truly possible in today’s globalized, cyber and alleged ‘democratized via individualized’ world. Is it possible?

When the subject is surveillance, it is rare not to mention Foucault’s analyses based on Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison model. Foucault definitely enabled us to understand how architectonic and diagrammatic implementations of surveillance serve for creating disciplinary and punished societies in order to maintain the state power. However, as architect Solà Morales states, today power is shifted from Foucault’s strict control and discipline mechanisms (i.e. schools, prisons, hospitals, asylums…) to fluid and obscure open control mechanisms. It means that today’s surveillance systems do not hinge upon expressively concrete mechanisms, but, they are, especially by the help of the information technologies, ‘transparent’, ‘open’ and based on ‘personal choices’. I can think of two different employees to exemplify this paradigm shift: while a worker in a Ford factory in the early 20th century would have been controlled and monitored through mechanical and physically immersive systems (such as doors, calibrated machines, uniforms etc..), today a creative staff from an advertising agency would be watched via surveillance cameras in the office, inspections by the host computer and extensions of working hours in case of an unfinished work –despite their possible motto of being open, cool, timely flexible and individualistic than corporate. This example represents a very small scale of power and control mechanisms in states’ level.

The slight and great difference is that when it comes to politics in (inter)national level, the nets behind the curtains are beyond our understandings: bugging devices in ministry offices, already outdated Wikileaks documents, disappearances of international spies, interconnected war games…However, what still needs to be understood is how this surveillance mechanisms work person-by-person. Today any kind of private information can be accessed by governments anytime they need, if a person is “suspected”. Especially, as Jillian points out, governments use the guise of national security against so-called terrorism, put us under the threat of being potentially watched, listened or followed and leave us paranoid and vulnerable to watchful eyes. Turkey, as one of the surveillance countries, sets a good example in this case: during the last years, thousands of dissident people were interrogated, arrested or threatened just because they were part of a protest, wrote a critique against government or random pedestrians passing by an incident’s street. In the courts, it was revealed that many of them were peeked and spied on from their phone calls with their families to most intimate and irrelevant conversations in their e-mails. Nevertheless, the message was clear: if you become an openly dissident, you know what you will end up being: unemployed, exiled or imprisoned (as a turn to Foucault, since we are not living in a completely cyber world, but still physical.) By this technique, surveillance makes people fearful, self-conscious, but most of all self-censored.

Bridging the foregoing examples with my critique of ‘hide and seek’ approach, one might see the relation clearer:  in the societies of surveillance the question is not whether we have something to hide or not: We are asked, compelled and forced to hide regardless of our level of transparency. Besides, how can we talk about freedom of expression while we self-censor ourselves? As an activist, Jillian surely asks such questions everyday, but I remain on the side of my friend and search for deeper questions than simple answers related to the claimed transparency, the way informatics is operated and the matter of personal choice: how much we take and how much is given to us.