Conscience in the Datasphere

Allow me to begin with two contemporary parables of conscience. The first is fictional. In Michael Haneke’s film Caché (2005), a well-heeled Parisian, Georges, finds himself subject to anonymous surveillance, sparking a series of events that lead him to reflect on his past. Specifically he is prompted to recall his jealous response, as a child in rural France, to the arrival in his home of an Algerian boy orphaned when his parents were killed in the 1961 “Paris Massacre.” 1 Georges dissembled and lied to ensure that the boy, Majid, was eventually sent to an institution. Back in the present, Georges locates Majid, now living in a drab flat in the Parisian suburbs, only to witness his violent suicide. In the film, Georges’s response to these events shades between anger and resentment, but as viewers we are conscious that he also feels guilt. Although he has committed no crime, his conscience appears to have been awakened with regard to his private past. But the film also hints at the relevance of the public past—that of France and its actions toward Algerians. If the private home is a repository of secrets and guilt at risk of discovery, so too, Haneke indicates, is the public domain.

The second story is nonfiction. In September 2014, forty-three veterans and reservists of an elite Israeli intelligence-gathering outfit, Unit 8200, signed a public letter refusing further service in the Occupied Territories.2 The signatories claimed the surveillance they were required to undertake failed to distinguish between combatants and civilians, put innocent lives at risk, and was used for blackmail and other political ends. According to one, named only as Nadav, “When you rule a population . . . they don’t have political rights, laws like we have. The nature of this regime . . . especially when you do it for many years, it forces you to take control, infiltrate every aspect of their life.” 3 According to another, D, “The only limitation is the limitation of resources. There’s no procedural questions regarding who can and cannot be surveilled. Everybody is fair game.” Coincidentally, the second story too has a filmic element: the New York Times reported that for one of the letter’s signatories, “the transformational moment came in watching The Lives of Others, the 2006 film about the surveillance operations of the East German secret police.” 4

Conscience, which is my subject in this essay, has, then, two very different faces. In Caché, Georges never learns who has been watching him or why: it is the condition of being watched that itself gives rise to his crise de conscience. His is a sliver of knowledge, of self-recognition, emerging from a fog of ignorance, and it manifests in guilt: Georges has a bad conscience. The Unit 8200 veterans feel guilty as well, but in contrast with Georges, they know too much. Not only do they know more than they believe they should; they also know that their knowledge is itself secret: their conscience prompts them to “go public” (albeit anonymously).5 They are driven not (merely) by guilt but by (to revive a biblical term) righteousness. Unlike Georges, they strive to do the right thing, to act with agood conscience. I take these two scenarios as representative, in certain key respects, of the rapid normalization of data-collecting practices giving rise to a widely articulated anxiety concerning privacy.

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