Kenneth Farrall, Production or Collection? Towards an Alternate Framing of the Problem of Information Privacy

Kenneth Farrall, Production or Collection? Towards an Alternate Framing of the Problem of Information Privacy

Comment by: Colin Bennett

PLSC 2009

Workshop draft abstract:

Bennett (2008) recently demonstrated that for privacy advocates to be effective in resisting the growth of surveillance systems in the 21st century, framing, or the specific language constructs used to articulate a social problem, is a crucial determinant of success or failure. This paper explores the benefits of framing the problem of digital dossiers (Solove, 2004) not in terms of the “collection and use” of personal data, but in terms of their production. Drawing on the theoretical tradition of the “social construction of reality” (Berger & Luckmann, 1966) and Foucault’s (1974) early work on discursive formations, the paper takes the position that personal information does not simply exist “out there” but is always first produced.  Latour & Woolgar (1986), for example, have shown that seemingly objective scientific facts are not discovered but are in fact thoroughly constituted by the material setting of the laboratory. Similarly, the totality of personally identifiable information (PII) comprising an individual dossier is always produced within, and is ultimately contingent upon, specific social, institutional, and technological contexts. Dossier information is not merely an abstract, formless reduction of uncertainty, but an object of discourse with a specific material embodiment — a pattern of ink on parchment or an electromagnetic disturbance on the surface of a metal disk—that may or may not manifest at a specific space-time location.

Using data from government documents, NGO reports, investigative journalism and extant academic research, the paper explores  distinct moments of production within historical and contemporary dossier systems in China and the United States, including the production of paper-based, highly localized “dangan” (dossiers) in mid 80s China and the accelerating production of Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) within the United States today. Drawing from these and other examples, the paper will identify key factors – legal, economic, technological – driving the production of PII and explore emerging strategies of resistance.