Category Archives: IFLA

“Transparent Spying is Still Spying”

This is the first of what I intend to be a series of posts regarding my thoughts from the 2014 IFLA World Library and Information Congress. Although today is only my second full day at the conference, I already have enough material to last about a month. There’s definitely plenty of food for thought, which is appropriate considering that the conference is being held in Lyon, a city known for its culinary delights.

Among the sessions I attended was the Committee of Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression’s (FAIFE) panel: Mass Internet Surveillance and Privacy – how does it affect you and your library? Panelists included Marco Pancini (Google), David Greene (Electronic Frontier Foundation), and Louise Cooke (FAIFE/University of Loughborough). The session included a brief talk from each panelist, but the remainder of the session was devoted to audience Q&A. Some interesting points were raised, including Marco Pancini’s suggestion that Google provide more information about the number of requests in receives in relation to user surveillance. David Greene then outlined the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, which were developed by the EFF and other civil society groups.   These guidelines are based on international human rights law and provide a framework for determining whether surveillance practices are compatible with human rights law.

What I found most striking about the session was the number of times transparency was mentioned. It was mentioned by both the panelists and the audience in a variety of contexts, and it is one of the 13 Principles. Louise Cooke argued that since surveillance cannot be eliminated, more transparency is required so that we can at least know what data is being collected and for what purpose. I want to explore this point in a bit more detail, as it relates to a chapter I am currently working on for my PhD thesis on the conceptual underpinnings of the Freedom of Information (FOI) movement. In the chapter I argue that “transparency” is frequently touted as a solution to a host of sociopolitical issues (e.g. corruption, economic growth, and sustainable development), but the concept is nebulous and lacks the analytical framework necessary for any empirical study of its impact on these supposed outcomes. I  found it interesting that transparency was being presented as a way to potentially make surveillance more palatable as I argue in my chapter that transparency has been used to legitimate privatisation.

During the Q&A, a fellow audience member argued that “transparent spying is still spying.”* That is, Cooke’s pragmatic suggestions appears to legitimate, rather than circumvent, the spread of the surveillance state. This raises a number of questions regarding transparency. First of all, what is transparency anyway? Even if policymakers and academics were to agree on a singular working definition (spoiler alert: they can’t), how can we be certain that transparency is the solution? Criticism of the recently released US surveillance transparency report reveals that transparency initiatives do not always provide sufficient information. In fact, top-down transparency initiatives can be examples of what Irene Sandoval-Ballesteros calls “public relations transparency,” which allows governments to use the language to transparency to mask “business as usual.” Promises to increase transparency are frequently made, but then practical steps to actually ensure public access to information are not taken.

Furthermore, what are the implications of relying on private companies like Google to cooperate in the reporting of the surveillance activities of states? Are voluntary disclosure mechanisms really adequate? Although legislation like the recently proposed Surveillance Transparency Act of 2013 would provide more legislative teeth, it would only apply to data collected on US citizens and permanent residents. Whilst I appreciate the arguments put forward by Cooke and US Senator Al Franken (one of the sponsors of the aforementioned Act), I think there is a danger in relying on a philosophically and practically unwieldy concept like transparency as a solution to mass surveillance.


* The title of this post is a direct quote from a fellow audience member. Unfortunately, I did not catch the name or the affiliation of this person, so if anyone knows please let me know so that I can provide credit.