Information literacy and the surveillance society

By St├ęphane Goldstein

Tallinn Soviet stairwayA few days ago, I attended a talk by Ian Clark on the subject of surveillance, libraries and digital inclusion. Ian is an psychology subject librarian, and also a member of the Radical Librarians Collective; as such, he holds pretty thought-provoking views on the way that information is used (and abused) in contemporary society. His well-documented presentation can be found here. There is a worthwhile reflection to be had on how this might relate to information literacy.

His contention is that, even in ostensibly democratic societies, surveillance provides a means of exerting power over individuals. Surveillance is often justified in terms of protecting citizens, for instance from terrorist threats, but – he argues – it is also about monitoring, control and guidance, without the knowledge or understanding of the individuals concerned. Surveillance may be undertaken both by the state and by commercial entities. The state’s role in surveillance is long-established and reaches far and wide, as demonstrated by the Snowden revelations. It may have an inhibiting effect on free expression, for instance leading to self-censorship. It could undermine important democratic practices such as dissent, and the willingness to be critical and to challenge the status quo. For these practices to thrive, privacy is necessary, to allow space for citizens to think and act freely without fear.

Additionally, in a society where information is increasingly a commodity, and therefore a source of profit, surveillance takes another, more subtle form, characterised by the acquisition of large volumes of data about consumers, employees, citizens in general. Monitoring of activities and behaviour (and not least online behaviours) thus becomes a factor in a drive to derive commercial benefits from information that is gathered, often surreptitiously, from people. That innocent-looking Nectar card in our wallets is not entirely benign.

Ian suggests that the prevalence of surveillance leads to a further divide in society, over and above the well-documented digital divide: a divide between those who have the know-how and ability to protect themselves against at least some forms of intrusion, through the use of tools such as encryption, and those that don’t. I might argue that this sort of know-how forms part of information literacy, albeit at a fairly advanced level; protecting against intrusion is more complicated than running a Google search.

But information literacy may be relevant in another, more fundamental way too. Democracies, if they function properly, are characterised by countless checks and balances at all levels of society. As part of that, smart and judicious use of information can be a means of countering intrusion; not negating or eliminating it, because, frankly, that is often not realistic, but instead helping to hold state and commercial players to account. So if information about people’s behaviour is indeed being harvested stealthily for commercial gain, citizens can also gather information about those corporate practices, shine light on them and if need be, challenge them. Similarly, if agencies of the state are using surveillance to erode fundamental liberties, there is scope for concerned individuals and organisations to probe for, discover and disseminate information about any such covert practices. There is a name for the ability to discover, interpret and deploy this information: it’s called information literacy. So, yes, in a context where surveillance may be increasingly prevalent, information literacy is a vital adjunct to democracy, accountability and empowerment.

Photo: Tallinn, Estonia, relics of Soviet-era architecture – St├ęphane Goldstein on Flickr – CC BY-ND 2.0