The Biopolitical Public Domain: the Legal Construction of the Surveillance Economy

Abstract

Within the political economy of informational capitalism, commercial surveillance practices are tools for resource extraction. That process requires an enabling legal construct, which this essay identifies and explores. Contemporary practices of personal information processing constitute a new type of public domain—a repository of raw materials that are there for the taking and that are framed as inputs to particular types of productive activity. As a legal construct, the biopolitical public domain shapes practices of appropriation and use of personal information in two complementary and interrelated ways. First, it constitutes personal information as available and potentially valuable: as a pool of materials that may be freely appropriated as inputs to economic production. That framing supports the reorganization of sociotechnical activity in ways directed toward extraction and appropriation. Second, the biopolitical public domain constitutes the personal information harvested within networked information environments as raw. That framing creates the backdrop for culturally situated techniques of knowledge production and for the logic that designates those techniques as sites of legal privilege.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Within the U.S. legal system, the definitive treatment of these questions is Johnson v. M’Intosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823).

  2. 2.

    Intelius, “About,” http://corp.intelius.com/; TowerData, “Enhance Your Email List with Email Intelligence,” http://www.towerdata.com/email-intelligence/overview; CoreLogic, “Data: Breadth and Depth,” http://www.corelogic.com/about-us/our-company.aspx#container-Data.

  3. 3.

    Hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, “What Information Do Data Brokers Have on Consumers, and How Do They Use It?”, 113th Cong., 1st Sess., December 18, 2013 (statement of Tony Hadley, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs and Public Policy, Experian).

  4. 4.

    Gros’s later periodization (from industrial to managerial and then financial capitalism) ignores the underlying transformative importance of the sociotechnical shift to informationalism as a mode of development; Zuboff’s important formulation (surveillance capitalism) nonetheless ignores certain other important dimensions of informational capitalism, particularly those that revolve around intangible intellectual property entitlements.

  5. 5.

    Richard M. Smith, “The Web Bug FAQ,” Nov. 11, 1999, https://w2.eff.org/Privacy/Marketing/web_bug.html.

  6. 6.

    See, for example, Hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, “Spyware,” 109th Cong., 1st Sess., May 11, 2005 (statement of Trevor Hughes, Executive Director, Network Advertising Initiative); Hearing before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, “Combating Spyware: H.R. 29, the SPY Act,” H.R. No. 109–10, 109th Cong., 1st Sess., January 26, 2005, pp. 17–14 (statement of Ira Rubinstein, Associate General Counsel, Microsoft Corporation).

  7. 7.

    Kamal Tahir, “Marketing in the Internet of Things (IoT) Era,” Acxiom Perspectives, April 9, 2015, http://www.acxiom.com/marketing-internet-things-iot-era/.

  8. 8.

    Maryland v. King, 133 S. Ct. 1958, 1968 (2013).

  9. 9.

    Acxiom, “Data Solutions,” http://www.acxiom.com/data-solutions/; Oracle, Press Release, “New Oracle Data Cloud and Data-as-Service Offerings Redefine Data-Driven Enterprise,” July 22, 2014, http://www.oracle.com/us/corporate/pressrelease/data-cloud-and-daas-072214.

  10. 10.

    Moore v. Regents of the University of California, 793 P.2d 479 (Cal. 1990).

  11. 11.

    See, for example, U.S. Federal Trade Commission, “Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change” (2012), http://www.ftc.gov/os/2012/03/120326privacyreport.pdf; White House, “Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World: A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Promoting Innovation in the Global Digital Economy” (2012), http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/privacy-final.pdf.

  12. 12.

    For some examples, see Oracle, Press Release, “New Oracle Data Cloud and Data-as-Service Offerings Redefine Data-Driven Enterprise,” July 22, 2014, http://www.oracle.com/us/corporate/pressrelease/data-cloud-and-daas-072214 (unprecedented intelligence”); Spokeo, “About,” http://www.spokeo.com/about (“proprietary merge technology”); Intelius, “About,” http://corp.intelius.com/ (“proprietary genomic technology”); ID Analytics, “Company Overview,” http://www.idanalytics.com/company/ (“patented analytics”).

References

  1. Acquisti, A., Brandimarte, L. E., & Loewenstein, G. (2015). Privacy and human behavior in the age of information. Science, 347(6221), 509–514.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Andrejevic, M. (2007). iSpy: surveillance and power in the interactive era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Andrejevic, M. (2013). Infoglut: how too much information is changing the way we think and know. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Arteaga Botello, N. (2012). Surveillance and urban violence in Latin America. In K. Ball, K. D. Haggerty, & D. Lyon (Eds.), Routledge handbook of surveillance studies (pp. 259–266). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Benkler, Y. (1999). Free as the Air to Common Use: First Amendment Constraints on Enclosure of the Public Domain. New York University Law Review, 74(2), 354–445.

  6. Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks: how social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Boyd, D., & Crawford, K. (2012). Critical questions for big data: provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 662–679.

  8. Boyle, J. (2008). The second enclosure movement and the construction of the public domain. Law and Contemporary Problems, 66(1–2), 33–74.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Brown, W. (2003). Neo-liberalism and the end of liberal democracy. Theory & Event, 7(1),http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theory_&_event/.

  10. Callon, M., & Muniesa, F. (2005). Peripheral vision: markets as calculative collective devices. Organization Studies, 26(8), 1229–1250.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Castells, M. (1996). The Rise of the Network Society. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

  12. Chander, A., & Sunder, M. (2004). The romance of the public domain. California Law Review, 92(5), 1331–1373.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Chen, B. X. & Singer, N. (2015). Verizon wireless to allow complete opt-out of mobile “supercookies”. New York Times Online, Jan. 30, 2015, http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/30/verizon-wireless-to-allow-complete-opt-out-of-mobile-supercookies/?_r=2.

  14. Cohen, J. E. (2012). Configuring the networked self: law, code, and the play of everyday practice. New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Cohen, J. E. (2013). What privacy is for. Harvard Law Review, 126(7), 1904–1933.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Cohen, J. E. (2016). The surveillance-innovation complex: the irony of the participatory turn. In D. Barney, G. Coleman, C. Ross, J. Sterne & T. Tembeck (Eds.), The participatory condition in the digital age (pp. 207–226). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  17. Deleuze, G. (1995). Postscript on control societies. In Negotiations 1972–1990 (trans. Martin Joughin). New York: Columbia University Press.

  18. Dreze, J. (2015). Unique identity dilemma, The Indian Express, Mar. 19, 2015, http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/unique-identity-dilemma/.

  19. Elmer, G. (2013). IPO 2.0: the Panopticon goes public. Media Tropes, 4(1), 1–16.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Feldman, E. A. (2006). The tuna court: law and norms in the world’s premier fish market. California Law Review, 94(2), 313–369.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Feller, D. (1984). The public lands in Jacksonian politics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality, vol. 1, an introduction (trans. Robert Hurley). New York: Random House.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Foucault, M. (1983). Afterword: the subject and power. In H. L. Dreyfus & P. Rabinow (Eds.), Michel Foucault: beyond structuralism and hermeneutics (2nd ed., pp. 208–228). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Foucault, M. (2007). Security, territory, population: lectures at the College de France 1977–78 (trans. Graham Burchell). New York: Picador.

  25. Fourcade, M. & Healy, K. (2016). Seeing like a market. Socio-Economic Review, 14(4), [pages], doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/ser/mww033.

  26. Frischmann, B. M. (2012). Infrastructure: the social value of shared resources. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Gandy Jr., O. H. (1993). The panoptic sort: a political economy of personal information. Boulder: Westview.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Gates, P. W. (1996). The Jeffersonian dream: studies in the history of American land policy and development. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Gates, K. A. (2011). Our biometric future: facial recognition technology and the culture of surveillance. New York: New York University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Gilliom, J. (2001). Overseers of the poor: surveillance, resistance, and the limits of privacy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Gilman, M. E. (2012). The class differential in privacy law. Brooklyn Law Review., 77(4), 1389–1445.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Gitelman, L. (Ed.). (2013). “Raw data” is an oxymoron. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Greenwald, G., & Hussein, M. (2014). Meet the Muslim-American leaders the FBI and NSA have been spying on. The Intercept, July 9, 2014, https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2014/07/09/under-surveillance/.

  34. Gros, F. (2016). Is there a biopolitical subject? Foucault and the birth of biopolitics. In V. W. Cisney & N. Morar (Eds.), Biopower: Foucault and beyond (pp. 259–273). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  35. Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2004). Multitude: war and democracy in the age of empire. New York: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Hildebrandt, M. (2015). Smart technologies and the end(s) of law. Northampton: Edward Elgar.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Hildebrandt, M., & Rouvroy, A. (Eds.). (2011). Law, human agency and autonomic computing. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Kephart, J. O., & Chess, D. M. (2003). The vision of autonomic computing. Computer, 36(1), 41–50.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Kerr, I., & Earle, J. (2013). Prediction, preemption, presumption: how big data threatens big picture privacy. Stanford Law Review Online, 66(2013), 65–72.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Kristol, D. M. (2001). HTTP cookies: standards, privacy, and politics. ACM Transactions on Internet Technology, 1(2), 151–198.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Lash, S. (2007). Power after hegemony: cultural studies in mutation? Theory Culture & Society, 24(3), 55–78.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Lemke, T. (2001). “The birth of bio-politics”: Michel Foucault’s lecture at the College de France on neo-liberal governmentality. Economy and Society, 30(2), 190–207.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Litman, J. (1990). The public domain. Emory Law Journal, 39(4), 965–1023.

  44. Locke, J. (1947). Two treatises on government. In T. I. Cook (ed.). New York: Hafner Publishing Co.

  45. Manning, R. D. (2000). Credit card nation. New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Marx, Karl. 1996. Critique of the Gotha program. In Terrell Carver (Ed. & Trans.), Marx: later political writings (pp. 208–226). New York: Cambridge University Press.

  47. May, T., & McWhorter, L. (2016). Who’s being disciplined now? Operations of power in a neoliberal world. In V. W. Cisney & N. Morar (Eds.), Biopower: Foucault and beyond (pp. 245–258). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  48. McCoy, A. (2009). Policing America’s empire: the United States, the Philippines, and the rise of the surveillance state. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Mills, C. (2016). Biopolitics and the concept of life. In V. W. Cisney & N. Morar (Eds.), Biopower: Foucault and beyond (pp. 82–101). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Monahan, T. (Ed.). (2006). Surveillance and security: technological politics and power in everyday life. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Nail, T. (2016). Biopower and control. In N. Morar, T. Nail, & D. W. Smith (Eds.), Between Deleuze and Foucault (pp. 247–263). Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Pasquale, F. (2015). The black box society: the secret algorithms that control money and information. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  53. Pew Research Center. (2015). The smartphone difference. April 2015, http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/01/us-smartphone-use-in-2015.

  54. Polanyi, K. (1957). The great transformation: the political and economic origins of our time. Boston: Beacon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Polk, T. (2010). Handheld device helps soldiers detect the enemy, Jan. 14, 2010; http://www.army.mil/mobile/article/?p=32913.

  56. Pollan, M. (2007). The omnivore’s dilemma: a natural history of four meals. New York: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Punj, S. (2012). A number of changes. Business Today. Mar. 4, 2012, http://businesstoday.intoday.in/story/uid-project-nandan-nilekani-future-unique-identification/1/22288.html.

  58. Sathe, V. (2011). The world’s most ambitious ID project. Innovations, 6(2), 39–65.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Seffers, G. I. (2010). U.S. Defense Department expands biometrics technologies, information sharing. SIGNAL Magazine, Oct 2010, http://www.afcea.org/content/?q=us-defense-department-expands-biometrics-technologies-information-sharing.

  60. Shamas, D. (2013). Where’s the outrage when the FBI targets Muslims? The Nation, Oct. 31, 2013, https://www.thenation.com/article/wheres-outrage-when-fbi-targets-muslims/.

  61. Solove, D. J., & Hartzog, W. (2014). The FTC and the new common law of privacy. Columbia Law Review, 114(3), 583–676.

    Google Scholar 

  62. Taylor, L. (2016). Data subjects or data citizens? Addressing the global regulatory challenge of big data. In M. Hildebrandt & B. van den Berg (Eds.), Freedom and property of information: the philosophy of law meets the philosophy of technology (pp. 81–105). New York: Routledge.

  63. Taylor, L., & Broeders, D. (2015). In the name of development: power, profit and the datafication of the global south. Geoforum, 64(2015), 229–237.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Tene, O., & Polonetsky, J. (2012). Privacy in the age of big data: a time for big decisions. Stanford Law Review Online, 64(2012), 63.

    Google Scholar 

  65. Toga, A. W. & Dinov, I. V. (2015). Sharing big biomedical data. Journal of Big Data, 2:7, doi:10.1186/s40537-015-0016-1.

  66. Varian, H. R. (2014). Beyond big data. Business Economics, 49(1), 27–31.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Willis, L. E. (2013). When nudges fail: slippery defaults. University of Chicago Law Review, 80(3), 1155–1229.

    Google Scholar 

  68. Willis, L. E. (2015). Performance-based consumer regulation. University of Chicago Law Review, 82(3), 1309–1409.

    Google Scholar 

  69. Zarsky, T. (2013). Transparent predictions. University of Illinois Law Review, 2013(4), 1503–1570.

    Google Scholar 

  70. Zuboff, S. (2015). Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization. Journal of Information Technology, 30, 75–89.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  71. Zuboff, S. (2016). The secrets of surveillance capitalism. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Mar. 5, 2016, http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/the-digital-debate/shoshana-zuboff-secrets-of-surveillancecapitalism- 14103616.html.

Download references

Acknowledgements

My personal thanks go to Mireille Hildebrandt and Frank Pasquale and participants in the Fordham Center on Law & Information Policy faculty workshop, the Georgetown-Maryland Privacy Faculty discussion group, the 2015 Privacy Law Scholars Conference for their helpful comments, and Aislinn Affinito, Peter Gil-Montllor, Alex Moser, and Sean Quinn for research assistance.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Julie E. Cohen.

Additional information

Julie E. Cohen is Mark Claster Mamolen Professor of Law & Technology, Georgetown Law.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Cohen, J.E. The Biopolitical Public Domain: the Legal Construction of the Surveillance Economy. Philos. Technol. 31, 213–233 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-017-0258-2

Download citation

Keywords

  • Surveillance
  • Informational capitalism
  • Biopolitics
  • Public domain
  • Data
  • Big data
  • Personal information
  • Postcolonialism