Government Surveillance: When Realism Clashes with Idealism


In a democratic society, the public asks (and expects) its government to serve the people; we demand high-quality infrastructure, health care, education, transportation, security, etc. Like any business, improvements can only be made by collecting and analyzing data. In an America governed by capitalist dogma, how can we be dumbfounded to learn that the government will go to any legal or illegal end to collect the necessary data to manipulate the system? Governments do illegal things all the time, both with and without the public’s knowledge and/or consent. We want to be served better, we demand the government do it, and the digital data necessary for them to meet our demands is, in our legal system based on democratic and capitalist ideals, often not illegal. This is not unlike the trash we leave at the street: still ours and still on our property, yet it’s a free-for-all for anyone who wants to access and use it against us.

Having an international relations background, these articles related very much to neo-classical realism for me, which suggests that states exist in a paranoia-driven anarchical system, and in order to survive they will do absolutely whatever is necessary, to enemies and allies alike. This is where I see West’s point about international surveillance coming in, namely with China (#4 & #8). If the U.S. has the capability of doing it, it will do it legal or illegal, plain and simple. However, there is no distinction between enemy or ally (#5, #10, #11, #12, & #14), because such titles are subjective and non-binding. Social and political factions in Russia and China are critical of the U.S., but so are comparable factions in Great Britain, France, and Germany. If we watch our own citizens, what makes us think we won’t do it to others?

Looking domestically, neo-classical realism in IR also believes that countries are concerned with protecting national ideologies and values, not people. In this light, citizens are nothing more than hollow shells of flesh, resources to be used and abused by the system to consolidate power domestically and internationally. A great piece by Giorgio Agamben argues that governments make law, and as the highest powers in the system, they suspend law as they see fit. So while Richards is very correct in saying secret and total surveillance is illegitimate, illegal, and harmful, in a realist light, it honestly doesn’t matter. The U.S. has violated domestic and international law for centuries and will continue to do so. Shining a light on its surveillance practices will only result in them moving on to other more subvert methods. Whether they collect data “legally” through government contracts and agreements (#1, #6) or illegally (#2, #3, #15, & #17), they will do whatever it takes to get the intelligence they believe they need to quell “threats” like the Disrupt J20 organized protests.

Government behavior has been this way long before digital technology, and I doubt it will change anytime soon. Every day we see (or fail to see) our society living out what John Mearsheimer called the “tragedy of great power politics.”


Crowdsourcing: A Modern Approach to Anti-Terrorism


As discussed in her article, Dr. Maha Hosain Aziz sees potential in the U.S.’ new efforts to crowdsource as a means to fight ISIS. She explains how the U.S. Department of State engaged in active crowdsourcing when it used its online platform DipNote to ask the U.S. public for new strategies in taking on ISIS. She also discussed how the FBI has used domestic crowdsourcing to track people leaving the country who might be trying to join ISIS. While these crowdsourcing attempts have been made, few in Washington are willing to make major policy shifts based on public-suggested strategies. Further, the contributions such crowdsourcing is making to FBI efforts is not yet apparent. It has provided the bureau with much information, yet has not significantly mitigated such attempts of potential ISIS recruits exiting the U.S.

Contrary to Brabham’s argument that crowdsourcing can attain meaningful information through people from a variety of demographic and socio-economic backgrounds, Aziz suggests that, in relation to U.S. strategy toward ISIS, experts should be crowdsourced rather than the general public. However, she does see many applications of crowdsourcing the general public for the purposes of tracking ISIS potentials and reporting where and how the organization is targeting Americans for recruitment. In her eyes, this is the key potential of crowdsourcing, meeting ISIS recruitment efforts head on amongst the population they are seeking to inspire defection in.

Similar to Brabham’s article, however, is the motivation to help deter, if not defeat, ISIS-based terrorism. Ideally, such participation would be an, “opportunity to contribute to a collaborative effort.” Since loss aversion is a universal human trait, defeating terrorism would be an activity all Americans could join in as a goal that would, “appeal to a broad range of interested parties, each with their preferred level of engagement.” With the sheer size of the Internet and volume of web content, the government has little to no hope of tracking everything. Thus, crowdsourcing the public is a means to mobilize a broad and diverse domestic watch force existing both in the real world but also in the digital world.

In considering the implications of Asmolov’s article, while the digital nature of this crowdsourcing does allow average people to be agents of change regarding U.S. approaches to ISIS, in the end, the federal government still maintains and oversees the crowdsourcing platform and process. Thus, the process is organized in a top-down orientation based on governmentality as opposed to the bottom-up model of “folksonomy of activity.” Such an orientation inherently dictates the kinds of interactions that will occur with the public and limits the full scope of information feedback the public is capable of providing. Unlike Asmolov, who breaks crowdsourcing into either informing, alerting, or engagement, I see public mobilization to countermand ISIS as simultaneously involving all three elements, insofar as Asmolove defines each classification regime in his article.

Mobile Internet: Diffusion of a Technological Innovation across Underdeveloped Cultures


While mobile internet has been a highly discussed phenomenon in relation to the digital divide between core and semi-periphery states, Wijetunga and Baird & Hartter’s studies suggest markedly different approaches to mobile telecommunication devices in Sri Lanka and the Massai tribes of Tanzania.

As reported by Wijetunga, mobile devices in Sri Lanka have a 98% penetration rate, however, such penetration is not reflective of internet penetration on those devices. Oriented from youth usage, most young people use and update their mobile devices frequently despite socioeconomic status, however, the applications of the devices are reflective of socioeconomic status: richer kids have mobile-computing services while poorer kids have basic talk and text services. Further, as a cultural artifact, the responses collected by Wijetunga did not address the inherent moral or immoral value of the technology

Baird & Hartter’s study of the Maasai suggested more constructively practical uses than mere social ones. Oriented from adult usage, mobile phones offer the Maasai advantages of quick and convenient communication in respect to the agriculture, business, safety, and health. Similar to usage in Sri Lanka, the primary use of mobile phones in based in non-computing services such as calling, time-telling, calculating, and basic flashlight usage. However, unlike the cultural view in Sri Lanka, the Maasai have mixed views on the value of the technology, with some seeing the adoption of mobile phones as corrupting members of their community in allowing people to be dishonest and not contribute to the community, while others see it has inherently neutral.

To further the research of these authors, one could employ similar qualitative interviews with the Palawa, the aborigines of Tasmania. Similar to Sri Lanka, Tasmania is a somewhat developed island culture off the coast of a developed major world authority that offers some level of modern technology. However, like the Maasai, the Palawa still live in indigenous tribal settings. Interviewing a broad age demographic of the Palawa would allow for an understanding of how both younger and older tribe members use or view the technology, allowing for comparisons with both Wijetunga and Baird & Hartter’s studies.

Understanding that the family unit is often a sacred artifact in indigenous tribal cultures, and supplemented with Baird & Hartter’s findings suggesting mobile phone usage should not interfere with marriage talks, it would be interesting to ask:

  • RQ1a: What role does mobile phone/internet access play in inter-family communication patterns in indigenous tribal cultures?
  • RQ1b: What role does mobile phone/internet access play in intra-family communication patterns in indigenous tribal cultures?

Baird & Hartter also mentioned the adoption of mobile communication in religious contexts with the “laibon” of the Maasai using the technology. While a number of religions are infamously seen through history as hostile toward scientific and technological progress, it would be interesting to ask:

  • RQ2: How is mobile phone/internet access viewed from the perspective of religious authorities in indigenous tribal cultures?

Asking such questions of the Palawa would allow for drawing general similarities and differences between the findings of Wijetunga and Baird & Hartter.


Digital Outlaws: Social Rejection of the Political Economy in Intellectual Property


The concept of technological determinism (TD) is essentially a “chicken and the egg” argument. There is a circular relationship where at any point the existence of one necessitates the prior existence of the other. Chickens are born from eggs, but then where did the first chicken come from? There would have been no pre-existing chickens to lay its egg. Looking at communication systems in society, we attempt to postulate which effects the other. Was the smartphone randomly invented, radically altering society? Or did society have a need for a mobile computing device, thus prompting the creation of the smartphone? Indeterminacy ties into this thinking, when after observance one is incapable of determining which initiated a circular relationship between two phenomena.

Söderberg asks did the politicization of the computer engineering field lead to outlaw-like behavior, thus necessitating the expansion intellectual property (IP) and the introduction of digital rights management (DRM) technology? Or, did the expansion of IP and the introduction of DRM technology infringe on the materialist rights of computer engineers, politicizing their industry and spurring retaliatory collective action constituting outlaw-like behavior? Based on Gillespie’s findings, Söderberg concludes that TD is not precisely the correct framework for understanding the true relationship between computer engineer behavior and digital software governance.

John tackles the semantic battle between “piracy” and “file sharing” as the descriptor of digital outlaw behavior towards the intellectual property. I see the two as substantively separate activities. Denoting pirates of old stealing from their victims, I see “piracy” as the initial act of taking something from the person who has the inherent ownership rights. “File sharing” is the subsequent behavior where anyone can get their hands on the stolen property, but they were not the initial perpetrators and in no way interacted with the inherent owner. Not unlike stealing jewelry, the initial crime was committed by a thief, however, if he/she gives the jewelry to someone who intuitively suspects merchandise to have been stolen, they, in turn, have something they know was obtained illegally but were not the ones to steal it themselves.

Unlike traditional sharing, file sharing is not a zero-sum game, where sharing candy is a social good because it leaves the giver with less. Copying digital files creates abundance, from which it does not hurt me to share with you. This fundamentally alters the market through shifting the supply and demand model of distribution. Thus, some of the inherent good semantically built into “file sharing” is lost. Further, the ambivalence invested in “sharing” reminds me of a Robin Hood-ism in taking from the rich to help the poor. While these social-economic parallels exist, shared data do not substantively improve quality of life. An American does not meaningfully “live better” with one new song or movie, and due to overabundance, the 3rd-world black market DVD seller still barely scrapes by selling 50 “pirated” or “shared” movies for $2. In spite of its Robin Hoodsian light, “file sharing” is not a socialist or Marxist fix for social class independence.

Foreign Policy and the Internet: Coalitions for Solving Global Problems

Global communication concept

Dr. Philip Seib’s Huffington Post article “Public Diplomacy in the Pacific” assesses the role of U.S. public diplomacy in East Asia and the South Pacific. Specifically, he criticizes the China-centric concept of U.S. strategy in the region, in favor of a more coalition-type effort among a variety states directed toward solving collective issues, namely climate change and the North Korean situation.

Since Seib’s article addresses U.S. governmental to foreign governmental involvement in foreign affairs, the article is more pertinent to the Comor & Bean article; addressing both traditional and digital outreach on the part of the government, they claim that US strategy is ultimately self-defeating because it is based on self-serving interests, not the genuine interest in collective good it claims to be. While US policy is typically state-specific, Seib argues that utilizing public diplomacy to address global problems could orient the US around issues in which there is a collective invested interest in solving. Per Comor & Bean, such a shift could reframe US public diplomacy more as, “ethically structured modes of communication” which would reduce the negative perception of a “persistent unilateralism” in US involvement abroad.

While Asian and Pacific states including South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand are sympathetic to the ideals of the liberal world order, other states such as Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia are much more controlling in nature. While Shirky doesn’t tie in directly to Seib’s article, in talking about the power of new media in the hands of mass audiences to affect policy, such a perspective would affect the ability of US foreign policy to forge a Pacific coalition to deal with world problems. As Seib mentions of climate change, most of Asia is based on or near water, so rising sea levels threaten both the governments and people of the continent. However, due to the highly authoritarian nature of many countries in East/Central Asia, many people there are oppressed by their governments. Whereas US policy is interested in spreading “internet freedom,” to do so would be counterproductive toward forging a multilateral coalition of Pacific states. It’s like putting a child in a candy shop; the US could see potential in establishing democracies in the region through the social action of digitally mobile citizens in such states, however, such behavior would be in contrast to global cooperation and is in nature unethical as it seeks to interfere with the internal workings of foreign governments.

Politics at the international level is a highly complex activity. In an age of globalism, all states, including the US, must work more with foreign entities. What the US must do is decide if it is committed to the Comor & Bean approach and constructively engage states through ethical public diplomacy, or the Shirky approach where it seeks to undermine authoritarian regimes with Internet freedom, in favor of protecting the inherent rights of people across the world as conceived of by the liberal world order.