Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Westminster Student Blog Series

We will be posting a series of blogs written by University of Westminster Postgraduate students. They are all based on their research of social media, and come with a YouTube video as well. We will be posting one a week for the next month, so keep your eyes peeled!

Pandora’s box: The Conflict Between Privacy and Security

Trenton Lee (@trentjlee) is a PhD Researcher at the Communications and Media Research Institute and the Westminster Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Westminster. His research focuses on the intersection of critical political economy of the internet and identity theory.
The Guardian published an address to discuss the “uncomfortable truths” of the Apple vs. FBI court case in the United States where the FBI wanted Apple to aid in a terrorist investigation by developing a “back door” to “circumvent user-set security feature in any given iPhone” (Powles and Chaparro 2016). They argue that companies like Apple, Google and Facebook, who collect and store an exorbitant amount of the population’s information, must earn our trust, which is “predicated on transparency and it demands accountability, not marketing and press releases” (ibid). Christian Fuchs, in his recently published book, Reading Marx in the Information Age: A Media and Communication Studies Perspective on Capital Vol 1, demands this same transparency and accountability. Fuchs states that communication companies only tell one side of the story by, what Marx would say, “fetishizing” use-value (i.e. connectivity, communication) “in order to distract from exchange-value, from the fact that communications companies are out to make lots of money” (2016, p1). Throughout the book, Fuchs engages with the concepts and theories Karl Marx develops in Capital Vol 1, developing Marx’s critique of the political economy into a critique of the political economy of communication, which is useful in the study of the “role and contradictions of information in capitalism” (ibid).
Understanding the role and contradictions of information lies at the centre of the debate surrounding the Apple vs. FBI court case. How is this information collected? Why is it collected? What happens to it? Who decides this? 

This court case is at the centre of two clashing issues - the need for security and the right to privacy, which ignite a crisis of morality. In these times of crisis, people turn to each other to exchange information, experiences, and stories to make sense of the crisis. In the case of Apple vs. FBI, this exchange has developed into a familiar cultural narrative, one that ends in chaos - Pandora’s box. The UN human rights chief, Zeid al Hussein, described the FBI’s actions as an attempt to open Pandora’s Box, the mythological container contain all the worlds evils (Nebehay 2016). It is an interesting allegory for Hussein to compare to this dilemma over the management of the information collected by information companies like Google, information which is produced on a mass scale as a commodity, a ‘peculiar good’ (Fuchs 2016). This information is the stored in and left under the management of information companies like Apple, Google and Facebook, putting these information companies in the role of Pandora, the one who guards the box. However, their close ties to the capitalist mode of production and the concentration of power these companies possess challenges the trust we can place in their hands. We must use Marx and his political economic framework as a means to achieve the desired transparency and accountability that predicates the public’s trust in these information companies. Should we allow these companies to take on the role of Pandora? Will they guard the box that contains all of the world’s evils? Or will they too, fail at the job?

Fuchs, C. (2016). Reading Marx in the Information Age: A media and communication perspective on Capital Vol 1. New York: Routledge.

Nebehay, S. (2016). UN Human Rights Official Warns Against 'Pandora's Box' Precedent In Apple vs. FBI case. Huffington Post, 4 March. Available from [Accessed 20 April 2015].

Powles, J. and Chaparro, E. (2016). In the wake of Apple v FBI, we need to address some uncomfortable truths. The Guardian, 29 March. Available from [Accessed 20 April, 2016]


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