Surveillance regimes in the UK and Turkey, and how they are responding to the Coronavirus

The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1562)

I will start by looking at the literature on plague to understand how power has historically responded to instances of disease. Foucault’s study of the history of medicine is a good place to start, as he looked both at the history of responses to disease, and also how those responses found institutionalised form in the hospital, clinic, prison, asylum and so on.

“You know that there is an interesting body of literature in which the plague appears as the moment of panic and confusion in which individuals, threatened by visitations of death, abandon their identities, throw off their masks, forget their status, and abandon themselves to the great debauchery of those who know they are going to die. There is a literature of plague that is a literature of the decomposition of individuality; a kind of orgiastic dream in which plague is the moment when individuals come apart and when the law is forgotten.”

“Such at least is the literary dream of the plague.”

Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the College de France 1974-1975

There are two conflicting political forces that have historically accompanied mass epidemics. Foucault called them the two dreams of the plague. A literary dream, which imagines the breakdown of antiquated, oppressive laws, if not of individualism itself, and a political dream of order and control. The plague of the 1340s helped to end Feudalism, and led to rising wages and social mobility, but it also led to the persecution of marginalised groups, including Jews, Romani, lepers, foreigners, beggers and pilgrims.

The plague, according to Foucault’s political dream, is “the marvelous moment when political power is exercised to the full”: “Plague is the moment when spatial partitioning and subdivision … of a population is taken to its extreme point, where dangerous communications, disorderly communities, and forbidden contacts can no longer appear. The moment of the plague is one of an exhaustive sectioning … of the population by political power”

Representation of a massacre of the Jews in Antiquitates Flandriae (1349)

Foucault describes the partitioning of the town.

“The plague town … was divided up into districts, the districts were divided into quarters, and then the streets within these quarters were isolated. In each street there were overseers, in each quarter inspectors, in each district someone in charge of the district … There is, then, an analysis of the territory into its smallest elements … And everything thus observed had to be permanently recorded by means of this kind of visual examination and by entering all information in big registers. At the start of the quarantine, in fact, all citizens present in the town had to give their name. The names were entered in a series of registers … Every day the inspectors had to visit every house, stopping outside and summoning the occupants. Each individual was assigned a window in which he had to appear, and when his name was called he had to present himself at the window, it being understood that if he failed to appear it had to be because he was in bed, and if he was in bed he was ill, and if he was ill he was dangerous and so intervention was called for.”

The idea of the plague, the upturning of order it represents, must be disciplined. The status quo must be upheld. This was why the state response in England following the Black Death of 1348 was to try to set wages. The Ordinance of Labourers, (1349), and the Statute of Labourers (1351), restricted wage increases and the relocation of workers. Employers were given the right to have deserting workers imprisoned. However, the Statute was poorly enforced, and farm wages in England doubled in the 100 years after 1350. The high taxes that resulted from England’s ongoing wars with France also led the peasants to revolt in 1380.

Medieval illustration of villeins (Feudal serfs) harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks

Martin Wagner, writing about Foucault, says that “The plague town… became the laboratory of an unprecedented extension of state power over the population.”

So the social upheaval created by disease has always been a laboratory for power to attempt to gain or regain control when social, economic or political relations start to loosen. As the pieces of society and government adjust to the new reality of the disease, it provides room for political actors, not just the state but any group with power, to attempt to gain advantages, whether this is the state extending its power-knowledge over citizens through surveillance, or citizens organising to demand better wages. In a Marxist sense, the base of society, its productive forces of labour and capital, and their relations, are moving, and this will lead to changes in the superstructure created by those material relations. Like an unbalanced table, society has been knocked over, and we have to wait and see where the objects on the table will land.

Base and superstructure in the Marxist conception of society

For Foucault, the goal of the criminal justice system was not justice but to maintain social order. The disciplining of bodies in historical plagues, by surveilling the population, quarantining people, isolating the infected, were not just about stopping the spread of disease but of maintaining order. A part of maintaining that order, for those in power, is the preservation of the political status quo. If they are not in power, they cannot maintain order.

Foucault recounts a fundamental shift from the disciplining of the physical body of citizens to the disciplining of their minds. Foucault looks at the design of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, his ideal prison in which prisoners never know when they are being watched, so they have to behave as if they are being watched all the time. ‘A new method of obtaining power of mind over mind’, as Bentham described it.

Presidio Modelo, a prison in Cuba based on the Panopticon

Prisons are expensive, and the state can avoid a lot of these expenses by turning society into a Panopticon. Versions of the Panopticon can be used to monitor and surveil employees, and of course we are all subject to such disciplining by way of CCTV, and the monitoring of our internet traffic by states and corporations.

We can see examples in the current crisis of local government in Turkey who are using the opportunity to extend common forms of physical surveillance. In Sakarya, the police have put up 50 new CCTV cameras to watch people coming in and out of the city. In the UK meanwhile, the crisis is being used to do something slightly different. 

The UK already has CCTV everywhere, and a very technically sophisticated surveillance system, because it is part of the Five Eyes (US, UK, Australia, Canada, NZ). This Anglophone intelligence alliance cooperates to share signals and other intelligence. Its ECHELON system which was developed by the Five Eyes during the cold war was massively expanded to sweep up the private communications of millions of people in the 90s and 2000s. This amount of data provides some logistical problems, even for the UKUSA alliance, and over the past 10 years, the UK government has put forward legislation like the Investigatory Powers Act which effectively legalised much of the bulk data collection already being undertaken by the security services, and which began to deputise ISPs to create backups of the data going over their systems so that the government could look at what it calls Internet Connection Records (ICRs) of customers – metadata about what sites they had visited, but not the content itself.

RAF Menwith Hill, North Yorkshire, England, a site with satellite uplink capabilities believed to be used by ECHELON

We know a lot about the UK and US’s surveillance capacity because of the 2013 Snowden leaks. We don’t have a comparable set of information about the capacity of the Turkish surveillance state, but we can assume it is smaller and less sophisticated than the one run by the US.

So what is the UK looking to do with its surveillance and data collection capacity as a result of Coronavirus which it already wanted to do. This week there has been quite an interesting investigation by Byline Times, a UK new media organisation which (full disclosure) I have written for a few times. 

The investigation said:

“On the same day that the contact tracing app was announced, former MI5 Director-General Lord Jonathan Evans argued that existing technology used in counter-terrorism and organised crime probes could be used to augment the app being developed by NHSX, the NHS subsidiary focused on digital innovation. 

Lord Evans, who headed up Britain’s domestic security service from 2007 to 2013, currently leads the Government’s public standards watchdog and is thus a top advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson on ethical standards in the public sector.”

Lord Evans looking serious

A week before this, Health Secretary Matt Hancock had granted GCHQ access to NHS data, specifically ‘in order to better protect the health service from cyber attack‘. Darktrace, a company which Lord Evans lobbies for, won a contract in 2018 “to safeguard systems and patient information, including prescription and blood type data”. It has now offered its services to the NHS for free.

In April, Open Rights Group, Privacy International and other privacy organisations in the UK submitted an open letter to Palantir, the big data firm run by pro-Trump businessman Peter Thiel. Palantir has won a big NHS data contract, and has committed 45 of its engineers (10% of its UK workforce) to the project, charging the government just £1. This has led to the question of what Palantir hopes to get out of its relationship with the NHS in future, and what it plans to do with the data. ORG has asked for clarification from Palantir about a number of concerns like:

  • How does the information put into the Foundry system inform the learning systems of other Palantir products, such as Gotham?
  • What are the types of data processed by Palantir in this work?
  • Is Palantir obtaining access to any databases and/or records held by the NHS, such as online prescription systems, patient records, general practitioners’ files, etc? 

The implications of all this is that private sector companies closely connected to the government are aiming to monetise NHS data owned by the state. The Conservative Party in the UK has had a longstanding ideological drive to privatise as much of the public sector as possible, and the Coronavirus is providing a laboratory in which they can test how much of the National Health Service can be privatised.

Lord Evans, the former MI5 Director, is also an advisor to the UK facial recognition start-up Facewatch. He withdrew from this role in order to become Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in October 2018. In this new role, he oversaw a report encouraging greater use of AI technology. This report stated that “Our evidence showed that healthcare and policing currently have the most developed AI programmes, with technology being used, for example, to identify eye disease and to predict reoffending rates, though levels of system maturity differ across NHS trusts and police forces”. The main barrier to progress with these systems, the report said, was access to data.

Facewatch’s homepage

So we have not even got into the privacy concerns with the contact tracing apps in the UK and Turkey, but we can already see that the UK government is keen to see what it can do with the medical data generated as a result of the pandemic. Before we get to the contact tracing app, let’s take a step back and look at Turkey’s surveillance state and how it operates.

According to Özgün E. Topak in Security Dialogue, the Turkish state surveillance system “operates through the complex interactions among once discrete surveillance systems, including a protest and dissent surveillance system, an internet surveillance system, a synoptic media surveillance system, and an informant–collaborator surveillance system. Rather than having fixed boundaries, these systems continuously expand their capabilities, connections, and reach. Multiple actors of surveillance operate within them and cooperate with one another. These actors include the riot police, social media monitoring agents, intelligence officers, pro-government trolls, hackers, secret witnesses, informants, and collaborators.”

He calls this an authoritarian surveillant assemblage (ASA). ‘The authoritarian state mobilizes its despotic and infrastructural powers to assemble the diverse surveillance systems of the ASA to make them serve the overarching purpose of controlling the population and suppressing dissent.’

This surveillance apparatus is also aimed at critics abroad, especially in Germany. NordicMonitor recently reported on a document they had seen which showed police in Konya attempting to gain access to Twitter accounts connected to a Gulenist foundation in Germany.

Following the failed 2016 coup attempt, a large scale crackdown on online dissent took place in Turkey under State of Emergency laws. The government said it was attempting to root out members of Fethulla Gulen’s Cemaat movement, a religious group which had been allied with Erdogan but fell out of favour. This was used as a pretense to investigate a much larger group of people who were simply critical of the government. According to Topak, “Close to 70,000 social media accounts were investigated by the police forces. 3,861 individuals were detained and 1,734 later arrested”.

Akin Unver, writing in Turkish Policy Quarterly, 2018, says that,

“In this context, Decree Laws 670, 671, and 6803 allowed for the digital communication interception of individuals who were actively involved in the coup attempt—or were believed to have taken part (an obscure definition)—and their families. The decrees also granted full authority to Turkey’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority (Bilgi Teknolojileri ve İletişim Kurumu, BTK) to take over any telecommunications service provider believed to be a threat to national security, health and morals of the public (another obscure definition) and finally, to allow the State Cyber Crimes Division to intercept any Internet data traffic without a court order or supervision.”

Topak again says that, “Surveillance has moved from being targeted against specific groups to having a mass character: it expanded from a focus on key oppositional members of the civilian and military bureaucracies, selected political opponents, and demonstrators to everyone critical of the AKP and Erdoğan.”

This also mirrors the provisions in the Investigatory Powers Act allowing security services to carry out bulk surveillance. Surveillance techniques including wiretapping, IMSI catchers, and internet surveillance were used to target and remove individuals considered opponents of the AKP from the military, bureaucracy, media and politics. They were used to discredit those caught up in the Ergenekon trials, launched by the AKP to remove political opponents, and to create scandals such as private video recordings of politicians like then CHP leader Deniz Baykal with another MP.

After the 2013 Gezi Park protests, “new amendments to the internal security law (Law No. 6638) and anti-terror law (Law No. 6526) gave the police extended powers to search and arrest individuals and seize property without a warrant, as well as new discretionary powers to use lethal weapons against protesters. The wiretapping powers of the police were also increased, or rather legalized.”

Again, this expansion of legal powers for the Turkish security services mirrors the intention of the Investigatory Powers legislation in the UK. It shows a parallel trajectory which both countries are following, where there is more data than ever before and the instinctive impulse of government intelligence agencies is to collect it and analyse it. Both governments hate the idea that citizens are saying what they want to in places where the government cannot reach them. In 2015, British Prime Minister David Cameron proposed a complete ban on strong encryption ‘to ensure that terrorists do not have a safe space in which to communicate’.”

Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron

After 2016, according to Topak, “The amended internet law (Law No. 5651 ) enabled government authorities to censor websites within hours without a court order, while the amended law on State intelligence Services and the National Intelligence Agency (Law No. 6532) permitted Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) to access all forms of information, digital and otherwise, about individuals from all public and private institutions and to collect data from telecommunication channels without any judicial oversight.”

Now, just because the Turkish government has the legal right to collect data from Internet Service Providers about their users behaviour, it doesn’t mean that it has the capacity or ability to monitor every citizen’s internet traffic. Turkey probably lacks the sophisticated abilities possessed by the Five Eyes, like its Tempora programme, which is used to buffer most Internet communications that are extracted from fibre-optic cables in the UK, so these can be processed and searched at a later time. In Turkey, the lack of high level surveillance over the population is replaced by its low level network of social informants.

It requires huge data centres to back up all the data created today, which is why part of the Investigatory Powers Act deputised ISPs to create data centres where it could back up user data for the government to look at. The amount of money offered by the government to do this was not enough according to many of the ISPs who gave evidence in Parliament about the legislation, and as this programme is not public, it may be hard to find out if the British government has the ability to back up all internet traffic for longer than a few days. The fact that it is not possible for those in authority to know everything that’s happening and everything people are saying leaves open the possibility that we are always able to evade the gaze of the state. That fact in itself makes the state afraid of us.

Even British government ministers were not informed about the existence of programmes like Tempora, as you can see from this Guardian article

Topak, however, compares Erdogan’s network of spies and informants to the spy network of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II, famous for repressing the Ottoman constitutional reforms of the Tanzimat era, for the Hamidian massacres of Christian minorities in the 1890s, and for being overthrown by the Young Turks in 1908.

Topak again:

“The AKP possesses a large collaborator-informant network within the State bureaucracy and public institutions, including public schools, universities, and hospitals. More research is required to reach a clear understanding of the role and extent of this network. However, considering that the AKP has filled most key institutional positions with its own members over the last 15 years, it is not hard to assume a large network of potential and active collaborators”

Topak also points out that the AKP is attempting to spread the surveillance regime into local villages and rural areas using Muhtars (local headmen) and employing guards. Erdogan once referred to himself as the ‘Chief Muhtar controlling all of Turkey’, and in 2015 a digital system was created allowing muhtars to better send intelligence to local authorities. “We aim to establish a ‘notification network’ between locals and authorities by using muhtars’ role in neighborhoods,” said one member of the digitisation development group.

I think that after reviewing these features of the Turkish surveillance system, we can say that it is less technologically sophisticated than that of the Five Eyes, relying less on huge infrastructure for communications interception than the Western powers, and more on a personal network of interconnected collaboration and social surveillance by informants, encouraged by pro-government media and political influence networks.

The Turkish surveillance system is less technologically advanced than the British one, which is seeking to use big data to gain increased power-knowledge over its population, as well as to create profit from private companies who have a stake in the continuation of the status quo power structure. The Turkish system is used more simply to maintain Erdogan and the AKP’s position of authority over the Turkish state. 

The threat of civil unrest and the fear of chaos is regularly used by authorities in Turkey to maintain the government’s power. In 2015, after losing its majority in June elections, the Turkish government conducted large scale military operations in Kurdish areas, and returned with early elections at the end of 2015 promising stability. The government itself was responsible for the lack of stability, yet it still threatened the population that only by voting for the AKP would stability return. The pro-government media in Turkey regularly uses this tactic during the Coronavirus pandemic, and has been accusing the opposition CHP of attempting to launch another coup attempt. Meanwhile, government supporters go on television saying that they have lists of opponents who they are ready to kill to defend the government. The Turkish government thus engages in a kind of gaslighting, or emotional abuse, where it simultaneously threatens violence and promises that it alone can keep people safe.

Contact Tracing

Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, written in 1722 and based on his uncle’s 1660s diaries describing the plague in London, contains the official orders of the time by which London’s authorities disciplined those people infected with the plague, the Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London concerning the  infection of the Plague, 1665.

Martin Wagner summarises the importance of these orders:

“In the original 1722 edition of the Journal, these orders take up over ten pages, describing in detail a pervasive system of compartmentalization and surveillance, which the modern reader recognizes as the system outlined by Foucault.  Most prominently, these orders specify what is to be done when a person is found to be infected by the plague. In this case, the house in which the sick person lives has to be shut up and marked with a red cross and the words “Lord have Mercy upon us.”15 From this point on, no one living in the house is allowed to leave the house anymore, and the house has to be constantly observed by a watchman. Under the heading “Watch-men,” the orders specify “[t]hat to every infected House there be appointed two Watchmen, one for every Day, and the other for the Night: And that these Watchmen have a special care that no Person go in or out of such infected Houses, whereof they have the Charge, upon pain of severe Punishment … And the Watchman by Day to attend until ten of the Clock at Night: And the Watch-man by Night until six in the Morning.” Among all the measures taken against the plague, the shutting up of houses receives by far the most extensive coverage in A Journal of the Plague Year.”

I think that a comparison of this system to what many governments are doing with the contact tracing applications is apparent. These apps have the benefit of not just tracking and isolating individuals, but creating huge amounts of data about them which could be used later for other purposes. The UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights has stated that “Without clear efficacy and benefits of the app, the level of data being collected will be not be justifiable.” The UK government has so far failed to provide a convincing argument about why it chose to use its own centralised data collection system, rather than the decentralised one built by Apple and Google which many European governments are using.

Open Rights Group, again, has published an assessment of the UK Government’s app in which they voice concerns about re-identification of app users, re-use of their data, and the “potential impact of measures taken against individuals as a result of the data which has been collected”. ORG’s assessment continues:

“According to the Data Protection Impact Assessment (released by NHSX), contact tracing will not result in any deprivation of your rights and freedom, nor involve profiling or evaluation of your personal aspects. However, this app is designed to:

  • evaluate your likelihood of being infected, by means of a risk-scoring algorithm that profiles your daily encounters;
  • influence your behaviour, e.g. by pushing you to self-isolate; and
  • inform the strategic management of Public Health responses, e.g. by allowing the Government to identify geographic areastoput into quarantine.

Thus, this is yet another example where the NHSX is improperly downplaying the areas of risk associated with the use of their app.”

The government has repeatedly stressed that the app is designed to protect anonymity, despite the data being held in a centralised location, because the app “works with pseudonyms — i.e., by “including identifiers which are unique to individuals”, in order to uniquely recognise the activity logs generated by a given person.” Enough metadata collected on anybody could eventually be used to identify who the person was, so it is simply not convincing that the UK app protects its users anonymity.

The corporate surveillance state in the UK uses its power to maintain control over workers in other ways too. The GMB Union, which supports care workers in the UK, has warned its members not to use another government app intended to help care workers “because it allows their managers to identify staff who have complained about pay, testing and personal protective equipment.” The UK government has wanted to recruit 18,000 human contact trackers to warn those who may have come into contact with someone with the virus. So far only 1,500 have been recruited.

In its rush to access and leverage data, the UK government has also potentially created a very valuable database of information that lots of people would like to use. In April, an open letter to NHSX was published by a group of 173 scholars concerned that the centralised nature of the NHS contact tracing app could leave it open to being hacked and stolen. 

As another example of a privacy concern created by a similar Coronavirus tracking app in South Korea, the app ended up exposing the fact that some users were cheating on romantic partners by exposing metadata about their movements. This kind of example makes you wonder what government intelligence agencies could do with so much metadata about the movements of their population. In the part of the UK where the contact tracing app has been trialled, about 50% of the population installed the application. That’s going to be a hugely valuable data set for anyone who can access and use it for other purposes. We are being asked to trust the British government that they are not going to misuse it.

Meanwhile, Turkey has a Coronavirus tracking app called Hayat Eve Sığar developed by the Ministry of health. The app’s code is not Open Source and it cannot be assessed for privacy concerns. The UK’s NHSX tracking app is at least Open Source, so in this sense the Turkish app is much more concerning in terms of privacy implications. Turkey’s 3 biggest GSM operators are cooperating with the government on the tracking app, which will be mandatory to download if you have Coronavirus.

Turkey has been imposing lockdown on all citizens over 65 and under 20, and the app will track the location of all people in those age groups to ensure they stay inside. The app will warn people to go home if it sees they have left their home location. If they refuse, security forces will be informed. If a person comes into contact with someone who poses a risk, they will also be notified.

The app asks for permission to access a user’s GPS and Bluetooth data to estimate the proximity and duration of an encounter between two people. GPS access also allows you to see the density of infected people in your neighbourhood. The app also requires your Turkish government ID number, the name of your father and your birth date to work properly. If you don’t provide your ID number you cannot use all the features of the app. 

The app also asks for permission to access your phone book so that you can invite your family members or friends to download the app and track them via the app. You can also have the option to add people by their phone numbers manually. The app also asks for permission to access your camera to scan QR codes: you can request masks via the app and it provides the user a QR code to use at pharmacies where people buy masks.

We have to look at this app in the context of recent attempts by the Turkish government to generate more data on their citizens which can be used to understand and control them. Most major companies, especially social media ones, are based in Western countries. The Turkish government, which allows the use of most major social media platforms, cannot easily access the data of users whose social media posts it disagrees with, so its main weapon is content filtering, and requesting that commercial websites remove content for Turkish users. Recent laws passed by the Turkish Parliament require streaming services to get a license to operate from the broadcasting authorities. This has led to Netflix censoring an episode of the show Designated Survivor at the request of the broadcasting regulator. The episode in question “depicts a fictional Turkish president who manipulates the US president (played by Kiefer Sutherland) into sending a political opponent back to Turkey.”

In March access to opposition news portal OdaTV was blocked by a Turkish court order, and journalists who reported on the funeral of a high ranking intelligence officer killed in Libya were arrested. Fox TV presenter, Fatih Portakal was investigated for “insulting the President” and for “deliberately damaging the reputation” of banks, and The Independent’s Turkish edition and Sky News Arabia, were also blocked. This was seen as retaliation for the block of Anadolu Agency and TRT in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The Turkish parliament has now withdrawn a proposed new internet law requiring social media sites to host user data in Turkey due to heavy criticism from the public. However, Erdogan’s coalition partner, the nationalist MHP, proposed another new law “calling for all users of social media to receive an internet identity number from the government, without which they cannot use the platforms.” MHP MP Halil Öztürk justified the bill by claiming that internet users suffer from fake news and accounts on social media.

“We must save the country not only from the coronavirus, but also from communications and political viruses. These are even more dangerous than the coronavirus,” Erdogan has said. 

Conclusion

To return to the two dreams of the plague, the political dream of order, and the literary dream of disorder, we can say that the political dream is much easier to see in public life. It will take a while for the literature to be written, and it will take a while for us to see how much the crisis has altered the material relations of society. In the UK, I hope that it will lead to rising wages for key workers in the health sector at the very least. The economic consequences will be long lasting, but take time to be seen. 

The power Erdogan has in Turkish politics and society is to a large extent related to his ability to provide economic growth. AKP stands for the justice and development party. We all know the level of injustice in Turkish society, but this is something many people will overlook if they are happy with the economic situation. The AKP is aware that it is in danger of losing political power, as it has been since 2015. Increasingly it has turned to the repression and jailing of opponents who pose a political risk. Attempting to gain access to data on the movements, contacts and other content from citizens’ phones is a clear attempt to make sure the state knows who its opponents are, and to prevent them from causing trouble. We should assume that the lack of open access to the code of the Turkish contact tracing app means that the government is harvesting the data of anyone who installs it. 

The threat from the UK’s contact tracing app is less to individual freedom and more to the collective right to free healthcare. This threat comes from how the data could theoretically be used to monetise the health service and slowly privatise more and more of it. One effect of COVID 19 in the UK is that British people have become even more grateful for our National Health Service, which provides free care to everybody. It is only public opinion which stops the Conservative Party from fully privatising the health service, but that still leaves them many options like tendering contracts privately and harvesting data from its users which could be used in all kinds of future products.

I have tried to give a sense in this talk of the latent possibilities for change brought about by disease, as well as the intense desire of those in power to shut off any avenue for political change. If we return to the Marxist view of society as decided by material relations of labour and capital, it is likely that the changes to these material relations created by the pandemic will take a long time to become apparent, and we have to put the steps taken to control the pandemic and to control society’s response to it in this context. The British government was forced to pay the salaries of workers who would otherwise become unemployed, because it knows that millions of unemployed people on the streets are not good for its ability to retain power. This fact in itself is suggestive of a shift in power between the state and citizens, or between capital and labour.

Most of us probably have a schema in our minds about how revolutions are supposed to look. There should be violence, barricades, rocks thrown at police, someone should storm the parliament, arrest their opponents, depose an autocrat, and declare a new order. I wonder if this is not our cognitive bias towards human agency as a primary factor in social relations. Sometimes revolutions take a hundred years, and there is no central moment of change, but a gradual process. 

The Storming of the Bastille in 1789

Around 60% of the world population now has access to the internet in some capacity. The volume of data produced by billions of people presents both an opportunity and a challenge for those who currently hold power. The opportunity is there to know more than ever before about their citizens, and use this information to control them. At the same time, we should not think that governments are all knowing. When you look at the legislation they try to pass, you can immediately see that they are desperate for more information, but very incompetent about getting it. 

The two and a half year dispute between the Wikimedia Foundation and the government of Turkey over the blocking of Wikipedia ended with the website being unblocked at the beginning of 2020. Wikimedia didn’t censor anything, it didn’t open an office in Turkey, and didn’t compromise its principles. The Turkish government simply gave up. They didn’t understand the nature of the dispute they were getting into, and naively thought that Wikimedia would self censor to protect its access to the Turkish market. But Wikipedia doesn’t sell anything, and doesn’t care about market access. 

Governments want to have knowledge over their populations because they are fundamentally incompetent, vulnerable, and paranoid about protecting their power. No government lasts forever, because the material relations that keep it in power are always changing. Global forces like disease provide a powerful impetus to the material relations of society. They allow us to reimagine our society, to escape from the discipline and the gaze of the state, to organise new forms of social interaction, and to generate forms of knowledge and power which we can use to reclaim our autonomy. 

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