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Libertarians Foolishly Ignore

Workplace Data Collection

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The Increasing Prevalence Of Workplace Surveillance Does Not Seem To Have Raised The Ire Of Libertarians, But What They Miss Is That Data On Individual Citizens Will Undoubtedly Move From The Private Sphere And Into The Public One


By Thomas Brian
Special For Modern Times Magazine

Feb. 22, 2014 — The ongoing crisis for the surveillance state that is the age of the great information leakers and hackers has sparked a raging debate in editorial boards and online forums about the potential for a left-right alliance against surveillance. Slipping out like guilty teenagers after mom and dad go to bed — and bypassing the pro-surveillance establishment consensus via a magic trap door in the left-right spectrum — pundits and politicos weigh the pros and cons of attacking the center from the edges.

We have you surrounded, they think.

But while aspiring to be part of broad alliance, the issue has, in fact, focused only on one piece of the mass data collection spectrum — the part managed by the state. But if the era of “big data” has taught us anything, it's that the surveillance community aims for ubiquity. It isn't limited to the public sphere. Employers, insurance companies, landlords, cell phone companies, and business owners increasingly gather massive amounts of data on employees, tenants, passersby, and customers.

Not only is this private information increasingly used to target, profile and track people, it also represents a tremendous threat to personal liberty. Amazingly, this doesn't seem to concern libertarians, whose politics generally center around property rights, and the right of the property owner to do as she likes free from government or other regulation. The libertarian tells us, if the boss wants to spy and we don't like it, we can quit.

But what about when every employer does it and when it becomes “standard” industry practice?

When the NRA has a massive database on gun owners and Amazon, the CIA's cloud data host, has the longest list of who is reading, “banned books,” what does it mean to focus exclusively on the NSA and government data collection?

Mass data storage and processing power means the modern workplace is reinventing surveillance. Call it Taylorism 2.0 after the famous advocate of factory efficiency.

Take for instance the case of Hitachi's “business microscope.” Hitachi's tool, a tracking device to be worn by each worker, monitors employee movements about the office. The bathroom breaks, the lunches, the stops by the coffee maker or soda machine.

Don't stop to chat too long! In trials so far, the company boasts, they have recorded and stored "over one million days of human behavior and big data." Despite ever-widening gaps between productivity and wages, the business microscope aims to squeeze every little bit of productivity out of the modern workplace by collecting as much information as possible.

I worked in the transportation industry for many years. A competing company decided to install GPS units in the delivery trucks, not just to increase efficiency — which, from the worker's point of view is called a “speed up” — but also because they suspected that drivers were meeting to conspire together. Management wanted to know where the workers were at all times and to prevent these unplanned rendezvous. Like the mono-linguistic American traveling abroad, bosses are constantly worrying, “are they talking about us?”

But the bosses didn't count on something. Most drivers have a morning ritual. Before they head out on their route, they grab some coffee for the road. And time after time, wouldn't you know it? That coffee kept spilling on those GPS units, ruining them time and time again. The company replaced them a couple times at first but eventually gave up. They eventually sat stacked, harmless, in a corner of the warehouse collecting dust.

Is the libertarian contention that those workers were less free without those units?

If so, why does the libertarian oppose that kind of anti-surveillance direct action with every fiber of his being? To them, the right to property — and the resulting authority of the boss — is sacred and inviolable.

But what happens when public and private data collide?

Across the country police are increasingly merging private and public surveillance networks. In San Jose, Calif., the police see great benefit from connecting private security cameras up to police networks. And this is only the most recent expression of an ongoing and reciprocal surveillance relationship between state and business. Among the first uses of telephones included placing them in businesses to make it easy to call the coppers to quell the many raucous and riotous explosions of city life. Wireless radio made the leap into police cars when the hugely popular bank robbers of the Great Depression took to crossing state and county lines as they fled.

This libertarian objection to public surveillance while turning a blind-eye to private surveillance rests on a false dichotomy: the idea that business and government are opposing institutions when in fact their collaboration is one of the few constants. Police and business have frequently had a symbiotic relationship when it comes to control technology. Both have an interest in controlling behavior, punishing lawbreakers and collecting data. Criminal background and credit score checks, and employer-managed blacklists, made possible thanks to “big data” can lock people out of employment with devastating effects, and yet these are all administered by private companies.

Given its nature, challenging the surveillance state requires taking on this private infrastructure in ways that libertarians may oppose. Not just because the risk of data winding up (or being funneled into) the hands of the state, but also because they represent genuine threats to freedom in any one's hands. This may take the form of government regulation of business, or even illegal sabotage, just as it has in the public sphere. The incestuous relationship between state and business means we're facing two heads of the same dragon. The libertarian directs our efforts towards one head while the other one is roasting us alive.

Thomas Brian is a freelance writer. He can be reached at
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