The Self, the Stasi, the NSA: Privacy, Knowledge, and Complicity in the Surveillance State
63 Pages Posted: 14 Mar 2015 Last revised: 15 Mar 2016
Date Written: 2016
We focus on privacy in public. The notion dates back over a century, at least to the work of the German sociologist, Georg Simmel. Simmel observed that people voluntarily limit their knowledge of each other as they interact in a wide variety of social and commercial roles, thereby making certain information private relative to the interaction even if it is otherwise publicly available. Current governmental surveillance in the US (and elsewhere) reduces privacy in public. But to what extent?
The question matters because adequate self-realization requires adequate privacy in public. That in turn depends on informational norms, social norms that govern the collection, use, and distribution of information. Adherence to such norms is constitutive of a variety of relationships in which parties coordinate their use of information. Examples include student/teacher, and journalist/confidential source. Current surveillance undermines privacy in public by undermining norm-enabled coordination. The 1950 to 1990 East German Stasi illustrates the threat to self-realization. The “hidden, but for every citizen tangible omnipresence of the Stasi, damaged the very basic conditions for individual and societal creativity and development: Sense of one’s self, Trust, Spontaneity.” The United States is not East Germany, but it is on the road that leads there. And that raises the question of how far down that road it has traveled.
To support the “on the road” claim and answer the “how far” question, we turn to game-theoretic studies of the Assurance Game (more popularly known as the Stag Hunt). We combine our analysis of that game with a characterization of current governmental surveillance that in terms of five concepts: knowledge, use, merely knowing, complicity, and uncertainty. All five combine to undermine norm-enabled coordination. The Assurance Game shows how use — both legitimate and not legitimate — leads to discoordination. Enough discoordination would lead to a Stasi-like world. But will that happen? A comparison with the Stasi shows cause for concern. The United States possess a degree of knowledge about its citizens that the Stasi could only dream of. Moreover — perhaps — it arguably surpasses the Stasi in complicity, even though Stasi informants “spied on friends, workmates, neighbours and family members. Husbands spied on wives.” The Stasi only clearly exceeded the United States in repressive use. While it is difficult to predict the future of surveillance, we conclude with three probable scenarios. In only one is there an adequate degree of privacy in public.
Keywords: privacy, public, Georg Simmel, surveillance, data collection, knowledge, self, Stasi, game theory, Assurance Game, government
JEL Classification: K10, K19, K30, K39
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation