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Privacy is Theft: On Anonymous Experiences, Infrastructural Politics and Accidental Encounters

By Ned Rossiter and Soenke Zehle

Urban piracy, data piracy, cultural and media piracy, oceanic piracy, ecological piracy – piracy abounds across the world today. Whether analyzed in terms of property violations or acts of resistance, invoked by commercial monopolies or citizen alliances, addressed through strategies of criminalization or the invention of new rights, analyses of piracy delineate the boundaries and (il)legitimacies of specific regimes of power. Across legal, governmental, social, cultural and affective articulations of power, piracy involves a wide array of actors in contestations of ownership, new forms of use and alternative politics of the common.

Beyond analyses regarding the informality of origins, we contend that piracy is also a model dynamic because it is so deeply interwoven with techno-cultural practices of anonymity. In order to analyse some of these practices, we provide a gloss on anonymity to extend perspectives on a ‘movement without a name’ to the material infrastructures enabling and sustaining it.1 While visions of ‘data mining’ explicitly redefine creative industries as extractive industries, the financialization of commodities as informational entities has already made the distinction between digital and non-digital objects a matter of degree rather than definitive delineation. As the informatization of products and processes increases, more and more piratical practices also become enmeshed with one another, according the information infrastructures that enable and sustain them a key role that extends far beyond the ‘digital domain’ of contemporary economies of culture.2

Technologies of anonymization, decentralization and informalization have not simply framed or favoured these practices. Beyond the conceptual horizon circumscribed by analyses of piracy, they offer elements of an emergent politics of invisibility. What these technologies can help us comprehend are the stakes of (in)visibility and forms of desubjectification. Anonymity registers the possibilities for both individual and collective refusal to turn our communicative relations into generators expected to power the data-driven enterprises of an experience economy. The result, in effect, is a withdrawal of ‘free labour’ from the institutional settings of a digital economy, its clouds and communication platforms. In supporting personas without profiles, anonymizing technologies offer a more immediate subtraction of value from the extractive economies of search and social media.3

These extractive economies, in turn, rest on the twin pillars of surveillance – public and private.4 For national security agencies, real-time social media networks offer opportunities for ‘obtaining and disseminating real time open source intelligence’ and improving ‘situation awareness’ that complement their traditional approaches to intelligence.5 Use of data scraping technologies to collect ‘open source intelligence’ has obvious implications for the maintenance of user privacy rights, with potential institutional collusion between security agencies and social media platforms that have a commercial interest in safeguarding user-generated data. While not yet on a scale that rivals the reach of commercial alternatives, free software attracts renewed attention as the focus shifts from the rights of individual users to modify code to the political promise that the desire to opt out is best protected by communities developing non-proprietary software.6

At stake is not simply the (il)legality of sharing, but the autonomy of experience. To better grasp this, a mere focus on the need to shift analysis ‘beyond representation’ to the material registers of communication will not suffice. Acts of communication are now, by definition, acts of surveillance meshed within an economy that aggregates even the affective, non-representational dynamics of relation. Without anonymity, nothing escapes extraction. Experience is tied to technological assemblages or diagrams of power comprised of technical, cultural, social, economic, political and affective forces. And this is why we use the term technology in a broader sense of practices of collaborative constitution, of a technics that literally involves both objects and subjects and can therefore not usefully be exclusively framed in terms of either.

At the same time, such attention to affect and the singularity of refusal does not imply a neglect of collective, geopolitical registers. Quite the contrary. The arrival of such a politics of (in)visibility includes the rise of the piratical whistle-blower as a key figure of civil disobedience. The effects of Edward Snowden’s activities, for example, have already been acknowledged in a number of macropolitical initiatives, from European Union proposals to reorganize internet governance (including the establishment of a Global Internet Policy Observatory) to Brazilian plans to maintain national information and communications infrastructures.7 The digital experience, it turns out, is both singular and geopolitical.8

Pirate Infrastructures
The logistical infrastructures of both piracy and the politics of (in)visibility cut across the contours of a geopolitical and geocultural modernity made dominant through global institutions such as the IMF, WTO and World Bank along with the industrial and economic extension of advanced economies coupled with the colonial and imperial legacy of these nations. No longer can European and US power be assured through the exportation of expertise and infrastructure that has marked many post-crisis economies (be they the ‘end’ of Maoism and the rise of China as an authoritarian neoliberal state, or the reconstruction of so-called failed states in Africa and the Middle East). Countries from the ‘global south’ – China, India and Brazil chief among them – increasingly remodel a global state system in their own image.

For reasons such as these, the question of ‘pirate modernities’ continues to be relevant, not as a counter-discourse to (‘Western’) modernities nor as affirmation of ‘alternative modernities’ as an analytical framework, but as a possible prefiguration of a new generation of infrastructures that is virtually unmappable. As Ravi Sundaram writes: ‘does the future trajectory of modern government follow the historic Western liberal and neoliberal models of power and property, or, does it acknowledge an actually-existing constellation where the boundaries of visible property and formal economies coexist with those of the informal and un-propertied?’.9 Here, the issue of informality is less related to the romanticisation of subaltern agency through piracy than as a mode of relation that underwrites the resilience (and redundancy) of network infrastructures. Complementary rather than simply parasitical, pirate economies undo the cohesion assumed of discourses distinguishing ‘the West’ from ‘the Rest’.10

Following the legacy of Giedion, Mumford and Benjamin, Brian Larkin notes: ‘Infrastructures create a sensing of modernity’.11 The material qualities special to infrastructure ‘produces sensorial and political experiences’.12 There was a certain palpability to infrastructure in the age of modernity and industrialisation. Concrete and steel, asphalt and railways, shipyards and factories, electric illumination and flying machines – all provided an index of progress that fuelled utopian dreams of technological prowess and the centrality of human agency.

Network infrastructure in the age of pirate modernities produces experiences (aesthetic sensations) more often abstracted from the logic of the machine. Modernity’s meta-narrative of progress became less tenable as a proposition in part due to the dislocation between informatization and action in the world. Progress, in other words, lost its indexical relation once communication departed from its infrastructural supports. Temporality nowadays is all about waiting for the next software update. The result is a sort of perpetual present in which immediacy becomes serialised across the time of expression, experience and, occasionally, action.

Sovereign Logistics
Communication and transport infrastructure provides the architecture for global circuits of trade and economy. The extent to which interoperability occurs across these systems depends upon coherence at the level of standards. Bowker: ‘each layer of infrastructure requires its own set of standards’.13 The universality of infrastructure – its capacity to relate organized practices with material and technical agencies – corresponds with a political economy of standards.14 Here we see the instantiation of governance and sovereignty beyond the state. International standards are achieved through a combination of national and surpranational institutions, state and non-state actors (private corporations and civil society organizations), reaching some form of agreement which is then implemented.

The political economy that conditions the possibility of infrastructural regimes on a universal scale signals the imperial ambition of both standards and infrastructure. It therefore comes as no surprise that sovereign powers attach themselves to infrastructural projects. Because sovereignty is effectively and materially distributed across a wide range of governance dynamics, its reaggregation (in the name of a democratic politics of information, for instance) requires an awareness not only of the logistics of networks (which include the operations of pirate networks), but of the logistics of sovereignty. We see this most obviously in the case of Chinese infrastructural interests in various African countries, along with port leaseholds and factory acquisitions in Europe and the US.15

Whether it is the materiality of ports, warehouses, airports, intermodal terminals, railways, satellites and fibre optic cable or the immateriality of digital code, infrastructural protocols tend to be driven by proprietary systems that regulate access and manage sociality within an economistic horizon. Whether it is experts engaged in consultation, management and engineering oversight, or semi-skilled labour undertaking the work of construction or maintenance, infrastructure is always accompanied by labour power. As such, the economic productivity surrounding infrastructure is coincident with the surplus value underpinned by the scale and cost of labour. Deliberately downplayed in enthusiastic visions of globalization-as-dematerialization, the labour of bodies and minds continues to trace the trail of infrastructural development and the redistribution of sovereignty.

Designing Autonomy
The political economy of enclosure inspires wilful acts of piracy, and it does not come as a surprise that privacy and property have been the conceptual twins of critical analysis. Misappropriation of data, IP infringement, sabotage, high jacking, hacking – these variants of piracy cross from oceans to information, from cable to dirt. Their actual or apparent illegality is relative to the concept of property and its concomitant juridical regimes designed to protect private ownership. Shifting our focus to the infrastructural practices of a politics of anonymity, we begin to find ourselves preoccupied more with techniques of invention and the politics of intervention.

If we hold on to the term ‘piracy’ to describe a collective dynamic, pursued by a multitude of actors whose modes of relation are not based on principles of identity but linked through their usage of overlapping logistical infrastructures, piracy is neither adequately nor exhaustively comprehended by way of framing it in terms of the legality/illegality of its practices. Given the continued (if romanticized) connotations of a democratization beyond representation, piracy requires instead that we continue to revisit and reframe concepts of collectivity.

It makes no sense, neither conceptually nor politically, to pit ‘material’ (migrant workers) and ‘immaterial’ (creative class) labour against one another (nor to rest one’s hopes for change with only one of them). As the processes of globalization and informatization transform our communicative relations into networks of social production powered (and made profitable) by free labour, the pursuit of anonymity has to be understood in terms of such a deliberate de-linking from networks designed to capture value through lifestream logistics. The desire for anonymity is not (only) a result of the simultaneous disappearance of privacy and the public. It is, above all, an indication of the growing interest in self-determined uses of social production and technologies of the common that may have been developed and distributed across commercial infrastructures, but whose modes of relation already outgrow the imaginative scope of economies of scarcity and rival goods.

How to design a movement? This is not so much an idle speculation as a question central to the work of political organization. It is a question all too often side-lined by those on the frontlines, squares and encampments of social-political change as they log into their Facebook and Twitter accounts to communicate and organize the urgency of our times. The over-design of user-experience (UX) is so totalising that we find it near impossible to operate outside of aesthetic regimes of computational clouds. Strategies of commercial communication are already engaged in ‘primitive accumulation’ on the terrain of affect, from ‘people-centred’ design approaches to the use of real-time biometrics.16

Experience these days is so heavily formatted at both design and hardware levels. Contra Virilio, there is rarely an occasion for the ‘accident’ in experience when mediated through predictive technologies and, increasingly, ‘big data’ profiling. To begin, then, we suggest that autonomy, here, relates to the status of the accidental encounter, of modes of relation not yet framed by the technics of pre-emptive government and targeted marketing.17 Piracy, however, has always understood the accidental encounter.

Forthcoming in Martin Fredriksson and James Arvanitakis (eds), Piracy: Leakages from Modernity, Sacramento: Litwin Press.

  1. Keith Kahn-Harris, ‘Naming the Movement’, Open Democracy, 22 June 2011.
  2. See, for example, the use of file sharing platforms to distribute models for 3D-printing, which have already been accorded a key role in ‘industry 4.0’ policy visions of industrial informatization. In addition to providers such as The Pirate Bay (which created a ‘physibles’ search category), a global network of digital fabrication labs is officially exchanging such models on the basis of (emerging) open hardware standards, aimed at promoting peer-to-peer technology transfer. See
  3. For an early NSA analysis of the popular anonymization platform TOR, see As users note, ‘The irony is that TOR was originally developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. And even now, the project is still partially funded by the US government through both the State Department and National Science Foundation’ (ibid.). The politics of anonymity clearly cut across dichotomies such as privacy/surveillance and state/civil society.
  4. For sample analyses of public surveillance, see Electronic Frontier Foundation, ‘Government Releases NSA Surveillance Docs and Previously Secret FISA Court Opinions In Response to EFF Lawsuit’, 2013. For private surveillance, see Lois Beckett, ‘Everything We Know About What Data Brokers Know About You’, PRO PUBLICA, 13 September 2013. The phrase ‘privacy is theft’ is one of three mottos (sharing is caring, secrets are lies) of a (fictional, of course) Silicon Valley company. See Dave Eggers, The Circle, New York: Knopf, 2013.
  5. In a Request for Information (RFI) published on January 19, 2012, the FBI notes that ‘a geospatial alert and analysis mapping application is the best known solution for attaining and disseminating real time open source intelligence and improving the FBI’s overall situational awareness … The purpose of this effort is to meet the outlined objectives for the FBI SIOC, in addition to FBI Field Offices, LEGATS (overseas), and Operational Units for the enhancement FBI SIOC’s overall situational awareness and improved strategic decision making’. Access the RFI via
  6. See, a site maintained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
  7. Discussions of an ‘open internet’ maintained mainly under the auspices of the United States are a reminder of much older conflicts, from resistance to the Cold War ‘free flow of information’ doctrine to ‘multi-stakeholder’ approaches to internet governance initiated in the course of the 2003-2005 World Summit on the Information Society. See Soenke Zehle, ‘Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers’ in George Ritzer, ed., The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Globalization, Chicester: Blackwell Publishing, 2012, 1-2.
  8. This is one reason why assemblage theories have at least made visible the limitations of established micro- and macropolitical frameworks of analysis. Also see Isabelle Stengers, Brian Massumi and Erin Manning, ‘History through the Middle: Between Macro and Mesopolitics. Interview with Isabelle Stengers’, Inflexions 3 (2008), l.
  9. Ravi Sundaram, ‘Externalities, Urbanism and Pirate Modernities: India’, Rising Powers Working Paper, ESRC Rising Powers Programme, Goldsmiths, University of London, July 2010. See also Ravi Sundaram, Pirate Modernity: Delhi’s Media Urbanism, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2010.
  10. See, for instance, the comment on software piracy submitted to the US Trade Representative by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). Its recommendations include: ‘Unlike recorded media business models such as the CD and DVD businesses, piracy is not primarily a drain on the software business, but rather a critical part of the business model that allows the building market share in low-income countries and the effective locking out of open source alternatives. These network effects are enormously valuable to quasi-monopoly providers like Microsoft, but also smaller vendors seeking to establish a foothold in foreign markets; Unlike recorded media business models, the software industry has strong forms of technical protection at its disposal that go mostly unexercised because for fear of inconveniencing paying customers; Unlike recorded media business models, the software industry has an entirely viable business model in developing countries, based on institutional licenses to large businesses and the public sector. The consumer/retail sector is effectively ignored through western-level pricing. This model has allowed Microsoft, for example, to report 100% growth in sales in China in 2010, despite what the 2010 Special 301 report characterizes as a near total lack of enforcement. Enforcement plays a role in this strategy in the form of pressure on institutions to legalize. But the key market factor is the threat of the adoption of open source alternatives, which creates competitive pricing pressure and leads to lower-prices on licenses. The USTR plays an appropriate role in this context by encouraging countries to legalize software in the public sector and to enforce against commercial pirate vendors under the TRIPS agreement. But in our view, given the complex relationship between legal, unlicensed, and open source adoption, that is as far as the evidence of harms goes. The assumption that there are massive overall losses to US software industries from piracy or significant benefits to stronger criminal provisions for end-user infringement should be heavily discounted. The problem of business sector piracy is best left to the technical protection measures of the vendors and the civil courts. The question of software choice, often involving open source adoption as a strategy for combating piracy, should be left to governments’. See SSRC, ‘RE: 2011 Special 301 Review / Docket Number USTR-??2010-??0037’, 2011. Also see See also, ‘Breaking Bad creator says “piracy” helped the show’s success’, The Inquirer, 8 October, 2013.
  11. Brian Larkin, ‘The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure’, Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (2013): 337.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Geoffrey C. Bowker, Memory Practices in the Sciences, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005, 111.
  14. Lampland and Star: ‘infrastructure is fundamentally a relational concept, becoming real infrastructure in relation to organized practices’. Martha Lampland and Susan Leigh Star ‘Reckoning with Standards’, in Martha Lampland and Susan Leigh Star (eds), Standards and their Stories: How Quantifying, Classifying and Formalizing Practices Shape Everyday Life, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009, 17.
  15. Related to this is the link between standardization and the sovereign influence of US-based rating agencies, registered through the mechanisms of development finance.
  16. To the extent that a new generation of natural-interface-based gaming consoles records and stores the interaction and movement profiles of players engaged in cloud-hosted multiplayer games, the notion of bio-piracy might acquire an entirely new meaning. See
  17. For an approach that comprehends our relations to and in technological networks not simply in terms of use and embeddedness but co-constituted experiences, see Anna Munster, An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2013.

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