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Shareveillance: Subjectivity between open and closed data

December 06, 2016 by Claire Birchall

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This article attempts to question modes of sharing and watching to rethink political subjectivity beyond that which is enabled and enforced by the current data regime. It identifies and examines a ‘shareveillant’ subjectivity: a form configured by the sharing and watching that subjects have to withstand and enact in the contemporary data assemblage. Looking at government open and closed data as case studies, this article demonstrates how ‘shareveillance’ produces an anti-political role for the public. In describing shareveillance as, after Jacques Rancière, a distribution of the (digital) sensible, this article posits a politico-ethical injunction to cut into the share and flow of data in order to arrange a more enabling assemblage of data and its affects. In order to interrupt shareveillance, this article borrows a concept from Édouard Glissant and his concern with raced otherness to imagine what a ‘right to opacity’ might mean in the digital context. To assert this right is not to endorse the individual subject in her sovereignty and solitude, but rather to imagine a collective political subjectivity and relationality according to the important question of what it means to ‘share well’ beyond the veillant expectations of the state. Two questions dominate current debates at the intersection of privacy, governance, security, and transparency: How much, and what kind of data should citizens have to share with surveillant states? And: How much data from government departments should states share with citizens? Yet, these issues are rarely expressed in terms of ‘sharing’ in the way that I will be doing in this article. More often, when thought in tandem with the digital, ‘sharing’ is used in reference to either free trials of software (‘shareware’); the practice of peer-to-peer file sharing; platforms that facilitate the pooling, borrowing, swapping, renting, or selling of resources, skills, and assets that have come to be known as the ‘sharing economy’; or the business of linking and liking on social media, which invites us to share our feelings, preferences, thoughts, interests, photographs, articles, and web links. Sharing in the digital context has been framed as a form of exchange, then, but also communication and distribution (see John, 2013; Wittel, 2011). In order to understand the politics of open and opaque government data practices, which either share with citizens or ask citizens to share, I will extend existing commentaries on the distributive qualities of sharing by drawing on Jacques Rancière’s notion of the ‘distribution of the sensible’ (2004a) – a settlement that determines what is visible, audible, sayable, knowable and what share or role we each have within it. In the process, I articulate ‘sharing’ with ‘veillance’ (veiller ‘to watch’ is from the Latin vigilare, from vigil, ‘watchful’) to turn the focus from prevalent ways of understanding digital sharing towards a form of contemporary subjectivity. What I call ‘shareveillance’ – a state in which we are always already sharing; indeed, in which any relationship with data is only made possible through a conditional idea of sharing – produces an anti-politicised public caught between different data practices. I will argue that both open and opaque government data initiatives involve, albeit differently pitched, forms of sharing and veillance. Government practices that share data with citizens involve veillance because they call on citizens to monitor and act upon that data – we are envisioned (‘veiled’ and hailed) as auditing and entrepreneurial subjects. Citizens have to monitor the state’s data, that is, or they are expected to innovate with it and make it profitable. Data sharing therefore apportions responsibility without power. It watches citizens watching the state, delimiting the ways in which citizens can engage with that data and, therefore, the scope of the political per se. Opaque government data practices (practices that we cannot see through, that are not readily knowable), such as those enacted by the NSA and GCHQ via the PRISM, TEMPORA, and XKeyscore surveillance programs as revealed by Edward Snowden, produce ‘closed’ data. The main point about closed data in relation to the state (and it is important to note at the outset that the details would be different for commercial enterprises) is that it is withheld from general access and circulation for reasons concerned with diplomacy, stability, power play, or security.1 Despite the sense of restriction, claim, and withholding here, opaque government data practices still involve sharing, however, not least because they require citizens to (often unknowingly) ‘share’ data with the veillant state in a way that renders them visible and trackable. But we should not think of the positions carved out for citizens in each configuration as an oscillation between agency and impotence. Nor is it quite right to think of this as the ‘equiveillance’ diagnosed by Steve Mann (2013) – an evenly poised balance between surveillant and sousveillant forces. Rather, shareveillance constitutes the anti-politicised role the datafied neoliberal security state imagines for its public; the latter is configured more as either a flat dataset or a series of individual auditor–entrepreneurs than as a force with political potential. For those of us unhappy with the political realm being delimited and politics disavowed in this way, we will need to experiment with ways to interrupt shareveillent subjectivity. A radical critique of ubiquitous and default ‘sharing’ in the digital context is clearly necessary, but I also want to seek out opportunities to salvage this concept in order to imagine a collective political subjectivity that could emerge from within this socio-technical moment (rather than pitching one against it). In this article, then, I will propose that we can interrupt shareveillant subjectivity by claiming not a right to access more data or a right to privacy, but a ‘right to opacity’ (Glissant, 1997). In the context of shareveillance, I am imagining this right as the demand not to be reduced to, and interact with, data in ways delimited by the state; to resist the terms of engagement set by the two faces of shareveillance (i.e., sharing data with the state and monitoring that shared data). In order to make this argument, I will appropriate the term ‘sharing’ by calling on the etymological roots of ‘to share’ – particularly the Old English for ‘portion’ (scearu) which points towards a cutting, shearing, a part, or division. I will posit a right to opacity that cuts into and apart veillant formations and data distributions through various tactics such as hacking, data obfuscation, decentralisation, encryption, anonymity, and anarchic algorithms. Accepting shareveillance means accepting a ‘distribution of the sensible’ that is not based on equality, necessitating a different, more ethical distribution, cut, or share by way of a response on our part. Exploring a right to opacity in the face of shareveillance can politicise the concept of ‘sharing’ by envisioning it as an equitable, ethical cut.