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The Threath to Privacy
An interview with Saskia Sassen

Saskia Sassen is Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. She is the author of several books on the political economy and the sociology of cyberspace and on globalization. Sassen is most widely know for her concept of the global city (The Global City, Princeton University Press 1992), her most recent book publication is "Globalization and its Discontents" (New Press, 1999). In her lecture at the WIO World InfoCon at Brussels, 13 - 15 July, 2000, she spoke about the "Topography of E-space - electronic networks and public space"

Q: Saskia, in your lecture you were distinguishing between private and public access to networks. How real do you think is the threat to privacy in the global electronic networks?

A: I think we need to reconsider this phrase: the threat to privacy. What you are really dealing with is a set of information that is constructed as private, and hence can be sold by those who are giving access to it, who is not us, we, who produce that particular set of information. It is not so much the threat of somebody knowing all my identity features that concerns me. What concerns me, is that there are firms who are making money of this, that is what I find the truly abusive issue.

Q: The issue of privacy needs to be re-phrased as an issue of privacy construction?

A: The way we have constructed the realm of privacy especially in the Anglo-American world is highly problematic. There are issues of privacy that are very important, there are abuses of privacy, but right now what I consider the most pernicious issue is that the way privacy and privacy protection has been constructed makes it possible for governments to abuse their intelligence apparatus, and for firms to commercialize private information about us. I am far more concerned about that, than about people having wide spread access to all kinds of things about myself, e.g. my preferences in reading, in food, my age, my race, my gender. On some level all of this is of little interest as long as you don't have big corporations or intelligence agencies using and manipulating this information precisely because it has been constructed as private.

Q: How do you assess the possibilities of civil society resources in this realm. You have put forward a cautiously optimistic view regarding the potential of civil society structures in digital space.

A: I am doing critical readings and interpretations of what is going on. I have documented at length the enormous power, not just the actual raw power of large corporations and global markets, but also their capacity to produce new norms. I am always very aware of the enormous power that is concentrating in certain actors, like big firms and powerful markets. But I oppose the view that because of such power concentrations we cannot do anything.

The power of these firms and markets has been created, it has been constructed; if that is the case, it is not a natural condition and hence we can invent tools and design policies that could make it possible to engage some of that power at least. Civil society is a big empty word if it is just used that way. But civil society stands for a multiplicity of organizations, of civil initiatives, of activist groups, of stories that are circulated. In this sense, we cannot give it away, we have got to believe that this very general and almost void term is one way of naming a complex reality made up of diverse groups, including very problematic ones in my view, that we are really dealing with something that is real. The term civil society, certainly global civil society, risks distorting the reality because it is right now an empty word.

Q: One thing that intrigued me in you presentation is how you described the digitalization of the economy. There are reports that suggest that 97 % of the financial transactions of the world economy have no real basis. Huge transfer of money are re-transferred within a very short time; it has become exceedingly difficult to relate such transactions to what we generally think are "real" economic processes. What are the limitations of this virtualization?

A: I emphasize digitalization rather than virtualization, because digitalization keeps us at least connected to a kind of material reality. It may not be the "real" economy, but it is the materiality of the infrastructure that is necessary to have this incredibly digitized world. Digitalization reminds us that it is not like the virtual environments generated by architects in their studios, which are truly 100 % generated realities.

The reality of global finance is not a 100 % computer-generated reality and this is what I want to recover. There is a lot of materiality there. Emphasizing digitalization rather than virtualization is also a way of saying that it remains connected to certain aspects of a real economy. What digitalization has made possible is maximizing the distance through the invention of new instruments, new types of markets, between that financial capital and whatever the real economy is. I very purposefully use the term digitalization, because it reminds us of the work of transforming that economical reality into a digital reality.

What is the connection with the real economy? It varies. In same cases the distance is closer than you might think. The shares that are bought and sold on financial markets, that represent the oil industry and large manufacturing complexes, the pharmaceutical industry etc. are really a different kind of economic reality behind the financing of it.

With some of the dotcoms, the distance is much longer and it is not clear what they produce. Again, in the case of, there is a reality of warehouses and trucks and books that are material. So the distance there is shorter, than with dotcoms that inhabit an in-between world, for example, producing software that neither here nor there. The speculative impulse has nothing to do with what a firm is producing, but with the fact that there is a financial imaginary that applies a value to it. You really buy a financial instrument that you then buy and sell repeatedly, no matter what the company is doing. There are different gradations. But at the limit there is a world of financial transactions so centered in speculative activity, in overvaluation and capturing the temporary imagination of investors around a certain set of issues, that we are talking about a very feeble connection with the real economy.

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