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Power, knowledge, and the subjects of privacy: understanding privacy as the ally of surveillance

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The aim of this article is to argue that privacy, rather than serving only as a countermeasure against surveillance, can also be seen as its ‘partner-in-crime’. Normative statements made by governments and companies on privacy can be regarded as a tool of governance in service of informational capitalism. Initially defined as a fundamental freedom, privacy has become a precondition for a blossoming economy in the context of the information society. The notion of privacy, as a critique of information society, has been assimilated and reshaped by and in favour of informational capitalism, notably by being over-individualized through the self-determination principle. To develop this idea, this article builds on the results of a study on the loyalty programmes run by the four biggest retailers of Switzerland and on the Foucauldian concept of biopower. Indeed, sexual liberation and the development of scientific knowledge on sexuality, the democratization of privacy, and the emergence of scientific discourses about privacy are processes that show intriguing similarities. Like sexuality, privacy has become a ‘power-knowledge’ related to moral standards defining what privacy should be. It produces ‘subjects of privacy’ who are supposed to take care of it according to the official conception of privacy advocates and of the legislature. Finally, we suggest understanding the conception of privacy as a terrain of power struggle between the promoters of an informational capitalism based on surveillance of citizens and consumers, and those who would prefer to promote privacy as a common good leading society to more democracy and freedom.
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Keywords: Big Data; Foucault; biopower; loyalty programmes; sociology; surveillance/privacy

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Sociology, University of Geneva, 40, Bd. du Pont-d'Arve, Geneva, 1211, Switzerland

Publication date: November 26, 2014

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