Thursday, 6 September 2012

Resistance to Surveillance

During the LISS-COST State of Surveillance conference in Barcelona (May 2012),  I was asked to give a short talk at one of the evening public events associated with the conference.

I spoke about the politics of resistance to surveillance, and I've just found the scribbled handwritten notes from the talk, so I'll transcribe them here, combined with what I think I was trying to argue. The photo was taken by Kevin Macnish. This was also the first time I'd been simultaneously translated.

"I'd like to talk about the politics of resistance to surveillance. I'll mainly draw upon examples from the UK, the country with potentiall the most CCTV per head, which has seen a government or two with enthusiasm for surveillance, a proposed ID card, and where surveillance has come to public attention. Surveillance had become a public political issue to the extent that it featured in opposition manifestos during the last general election, and cropped up in the coalition agreement. However, the UK's seen variable resistance to surveillance. There is sometimes opposition, public outcry,  surveillance programmes sometimes get cancelled. But at other times there's nothing, no interest. Sometimes there is even public enthusiasm, even if some of that is fairly manufactured.

So there are two things - variable resistance to surveillance, and variable effects of that resistance. First a word about what I mean be resistance. Political resistance, for me, attempts to change, alter, regulate or remove surveillance. It is not an attempt to live with surveillance, or to evade it personally.

So in this reading, using TOR to disguise your own internet traffic, or wearing a bandana at a protest in order to hide your face, then I don't really want to call this political resistance.

My main argument is that, apart from specific privacy activists,  resistance is not often thought of as 'resisting surveillance' as we might think of it analytically within surveillance studies. Rather, it's more often part of a wider politics. This can be a liberal politics, for example a human rights discourse, but (at least in the UK) significant resistance to surveillance is driven by other things, including economics, identity and personal situations.

Some implications, or if you were in an Leninist/Bolshevik mood, and wanted to promote resistance to surveillance, then I think you'd need to make links with existing political struggles, and look for the presence of surveillance in other politics. There are a couple of problems with this. We can see that often the perceptions of what particular surveillance technologies are 'for' more important than the actual function of those technologies. Additionally, it also suggests that the activity of academic or journalistic 'revelation' in which a previously hidden surveillance practice is identified as such, doesn't often produce resistance (in itself). It's not surveillance targeted at the audience, its not effecting them. Experience of surveillance is probably a critical matter in resistance. 

Secondly, surveillance effects are not evenly distributed, and even if we do live in a surveillance society then this tends to impact us along existing social striations. Unfortunately, this tends to mean that those impacted often lack the social capital and resources to effectively challenge surveillance practices (in a political sense). Sometimes resistance to surveillance emerges when that surveillance threatens to remove or challenge a social privilege (see the article in Surveillance and society on speed camera). This might be a problem for certain types of radical politics.

This whole picture might prompt a politics of coalition, where you would attempt to make the connections between different politics issues each (or all) having a surveillant dimension."

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

CFP: Governing digital expression in the information age

Journal of Information Technology and Politics Call for Papers ‘Governing digital expression in the information age: Free‐speech, surveillance and censorship’ 

Guest editors: Helena Carrapico (University of Coimbra/ University of Strathclyde) and Benjamin Farrand (University of Strathclyde) What connects pro‐democracy and protest movements in the Arab world, Europe, and the Americas is not only their democratic aspirations, but also their innovative forms of communication and organization through online means, which are sometimes considered to be outside of the State’ control. At the same time, however, it has become apparent that countries are attempting to increase their understanding of, and control over, their citizens’actions in the digital sphere. This involves development of surveillance instruments, control mechanisms, and processes engineered to dominate the digital public sphere, and necessitates the assistance and support of private actors. Examples include the growing use of Internet surveillance technology with which online data traffic is analyzed and the extensive monitoring of social networks. Despite increased media attention, academic debate on these technologies, mechanisms, and techniques remains relatively limited, as is discussion of the involvement of corporate actors. 

The guest editors of this special issue welcome articles reflecting on how Internet‐ related technologies, mechanisms, and techniques may be used as a means to enable expression, but also to restrict speech, manipulate public debate, and 'manage' global populaces. Articles should be no more than 8,000 words, including references, and should be sent to the guest editors Helena Carrapico ( and Benjamin Farrand (, and officially submitted through the journal’s manuscript submission system ( All manuscripts should follow APA, 6th Edition formatting guidelines. 

The deadline for submission is October 31, 2012. Please contact the guest editors with any questions regarding the special issue.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Representing Surveillance, Privacy and Identity Technology

Towards the tail end of the VOME project, working at Cranfield, I was trying to get some input for artistic projects by David Benque and Austin Houldsworth on representing surveillance, privacy and identity technology,. As part of this, I asked around for comment and suggestions. I had the following responses which I've collated together. I'd been meaning to post this for a while. 

Many thanks to John Guelke, Christian Bonnici, Aaron Martin, Bernd Stahl, Chiara Fonio, Athina Karatzogianni, James Harding, Jason Pridmore, Dan Trottier, Kevin Haggerty, Stuart Reeves, Kristen Veel, Kirstie Ball and Gavin Smith for their help with this. They each answered the following questions:

1) If there was one concept or idea regarding the topics of privacy, surveillance, and identity technology that you wished was better understood by the general public, what would it be? Why is this idea important?

2) Are there topics or issues in this area that you feel are particularly difficult to grasp?

There was a range of responses, and I think they make interesting reading.

You can download the pdf from here

Monday, 18 June 2012

building you own data node

Just read this on Brock Craft's blog, about building your own data sharing sensors:

Building your own data node raises an awareness of the data all around us, and gives one pause to consider our place within the global information space.
 One of the purposes of the VOME project was to try to find ways to help people reflect upon their position and experience within such an environment. I wonder what we might have been able to do if we'd done something like this (instead of or as well as the other fun stuff we did!). Take that quote as a starting hypothesis, combine some tech education, with some qualitative ethnographic stuff, and a bit of co-design. Something to file for the future I think.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

State of Surveillance - Living In Surveillance Societies conference, Barcelona

State of Surveillance. LISS-COST conference 3 – Barcelona.
28th May to 1st June 2012

I was in Barcelona this week for the third ‘living in surveillance societies’ conference, and as is becoming fairly routine, I’ll blog some of my notes from the conference.  There are a few summative thoughts at the end of this. 

William Webster (Uni. Sterling) opened the conference with  a talk about surveillance studies as an ‘x-ray’into the state, potentially offering a different perspective on government, public admin, and the nature of ICTs. This drew upon Jack Taylor’s theory of informatisation as an x-ray. In order to understand the state, we have to understand its information flows, how these interaction technology and existing practices. We can’t understand the state w/out understanding information and IT, and this will give us a deeper understanding of government.  Information is seen as  critical resources, rapidly taken up by the state, and made central. Institutional arrangements are shaped by and shape informatising powers.  William proposed surveillance as a  concept for interpreting the state, as a factor of production, as a normal part of life, but an increasing part, as an understanding that all ICT’s have a latent surveillance potential (I like this framing), and that surveillance shines light on why information is collected, how, for what purposes, and what are the informational relationships between the surveilled and the surveyor. For Webster, states are always concereend with surveillance, the capture of information for the provision of services and protection is part of the core purpose of the state (e.g. tax). The state is information intensive and collects and processes vast quantities of information. Surveillance platforms emerge from state investment in the technology. The state normalises surveillance, it habituates us to the exchange of information for services, which is then used elsewhere. There is also explicit surveillance for protection of the state, which then enters the domestic sphere. The state also plays a key role in regulating surveillance in terms of rights and protections.
William addressed a few potential concerns with this perspective, including the misrepresentation of a dystopian picture of the state, the strong normative base of the field, top down views of relations between state and citizens, that eGovt is not surveillance, that the theory is the same as informatisation, and that there is nothing new about the surveillance perspective.I was concerned about making a distinction between the argument that we need to understand information or surveillance in order to understand the state form, from the argument that we automatically have a privileged perspective by using surveillance. I think there’s certainly something to this focus upon the information and surveillance practices, and how they make up the state. Although the question and answer session after the paper suggested that there were a lot of different perspectives across the different disciplines in surveillance studies. I’d quite like to go over this paper from a political philosophy perspective. I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the strong sociological threads in surveillance studies might be leading to some reification of the state, which might well be understudied given the sympathy for the subjects of surveillance. 

Michael Nagenborg spoke about Anonymous, collective identities and hacker practices – something I’d looked at a little in my own paper ‘This is not a Cyber-war....’.  Michel drew quite strongly upon the work of Gabriella Coleman on Anonymous, which he strongly recommended reading. He was not offering a defence of anonymous, but argued that they are not ‘others’, outsiders of western liberal traditions, but rather make relatively familiar claims to freedom of the individual, free speech and against censorship. However, one divergence from this ethical tradition is the rejection of visibility of an identifiable person behind political statements and ethical acts. He drew upon the Hacker Ethic (1984) and its moral core. He argued that this set of ethics is still recognised in places, including, as an example Mark Zuckerberg’s claims that information wants to be free. There are tensions now between the ethic of early hacking and the digital mainstream of today – the powerful centralising effect of facebook for example. The hacker ethic included a strong egalitarian position in which hackers would be judged on their hacking rather than on irrelevant personal identity characteristics. Michel also pointed to circular media reactions to hacking (often starting with a young male caught for computer crime) and how early hackers became a threat to national security almost by accident. This includes outright misrepresentation, such as news reports that suggested people would be unable to use their credit cards due to anonymous, when only the public facing website of MasterCard was affected by DDoS attacks, and was presumably unconnected to the payments systems. He drew attention to the meme that using the internet anonymously is morally irresponsible – this allowed him to move to his second theme – the ethics of the mask.
The mask allows the wearer to be present in space, but harder to identify. It also prevents reading of the face. It shifts power to the wearer of the mask, but does not silence the wearer. It prevents non-presence. The pseudonym is similar, allowing comment or action without identification. In hacker culture bragging is an important feature, and there is a need to attribute hacks with their authors. Michael engaged with Agamben’s work on persona to look at the space between the actor and the act that the mask allows and how this might itself be an ethical space allowing possible reflection. He connected this to ‘Being Anonymous’ where some people using the Guy Fawkes wake up to a larger identity and awareness through this practice. Michael seemed to be seeing this as an individual process, but on further reflection, it sounds a little like some of the group consciousnesses that can emerge from participation in collective action. Michael did identify the totalitarian potential within anonymous masked collectives- which would also resonate with some of those powerful group subordinated identities. Trust dynamics seemed to be important, but also incredibly problematic given anonymity. This suggests to me that there might be some value in a language for practices of trust in situations of anonymity. I’m guessing that this might potentially emerge from within collectives like anonymous, rather than be written for it by somebody outside, but it’s certainly something to look for.

Ben Wagner, from the European University Institute spoke about internet censorship and surveillance before, after and during the jasmine revolution in Tunisia. He started with Ben Ali’s final speech, which was full of concessions, but included the opening up of the internet, with no censorship and no surveillance. Whilst these concessions were ineffective (Ben Ali fled the country within 12 hours of making the speech) Ben thought it was important to ask why he had felt it necessary to include these particular concessions. Ben spoke about how the infrastructure of Tunisian internet surveillance simply stopped, was turned off within two hours – as evidenced by the explosion in Tunisian access to YouTube. This ability to turn things off hints at a strong degree of centralisation. Ben also spoke about the role of Tunisian telecoms providers which attempted, post-revolution, to position themselves not as censors and surveillers, but just as service providers.  Ben’s historical account of developing surveillance and censorship through the late 1990’s to 2011 was an interesting picture of privatisation, increasing bandwith, and shopping expeditions for surveillance technology. The Tunisian regime apparently bought similar, overlapping pieces of surveillance technology from several different providers so as to prevent being locked-in to any particular vendor. This was combined with a typical authoritarian move of slipllting up surveillance and censorship roles across different agencies, although the boundaries blurred under pressure. Ben remarked on the local inability to develop these systems, leaving countries like Tunisia dependent on international markets. Centralisation of architecture and institutions makes the regime possible, functional differention protections, stabilises and allows the regime to adapt. International markets crucial for access to technology, consultants and systems.
Concluding the first panel session was Pete Fussy, talking about the centrifugal and centripetal governance of UK counter-terrorist surveillance. Counter-terrorist practice is conflicted and fragmented and not as coherent as we might think. This brings its own problems of accountability. The state acts as both the ‘risk-holder’ and a target of terrorism, but responsibility is dispersed (for example to the private sector or local government). There is surveillance in different forms throughout the CONTEST strategy, and this is often in tension with other parts of the strategy. He drew upon a number of terrorism events that have been particularly influential on UK counter-terrorism strategy (notably the Herhausen assassination by red army faction in Germany and the bombings in London by David Copeland). These events produced narratives about what is learned from these events. This now leads to a focus on upstream preventing, hostile reconnaissance, owning suspiscion and the normality of space (including attention towards ‘matter out of place’). Drawing upon policing literature, Pete suggested that when discretion increases in policing, more stereotypes are used, and there is a greater play upon ‘respectable fears’. He used the case study of Operation Champion (the placing of CCTV cameras for counter-terrorist purposes around ethnic minority communities in Birmingham as an example of the levels of government involved. This project was cancelled due to public backlash.

In the second session Peter Lauritsen spoke about research into video surveillance in Danish police work. This highlighted the challenges of establishing video surveillance, police hesitating in adopting and using the new technology despite legal reforms and political pressure for them to use it. The solution (CCTV) was politically determined prior to the specific problem it was to be used to solve. Police were not convinced that CCTV would make their work more effective, and rarely used it in solving crimes. Lauritson described these issues as ‘oligoptic bugs’ and highlighted the fragility of surveillance systems. Opinion on the usefulness of surveillance tech is ‘yes’ but not for serious crime or safety. Help in understanding the sequence of events and dealing with regular normal events (e.g crowd flows at football). Tom de Schepper and Paul de Hert spoke about use of CCTV in Flemish cities and municipalities, arguing that efficiency objections (cctv doesn’t do much) will have to be looked at again (possibly constantly) as the technology improves and developes. There is a need to know details about this, but also to open discussion on comparative numbers and legal cultures. This was a fairly quantitative paper, which attempt to draw some large scale models for the likelihood of cctv use across different jurisdictions. Tanguy le Goff spoke about his ethnographic research on municipal CCTV workers in France. This work fits into a tradition of cctv control centre ethnographies which is getting pretty developed now. Tanguy focused upon the relative social invisibility of the workers in the control centre compared to their cameras, and also to the subjects of surveillance.

Kevin Macnish gave a philosophical paper on authority and surveillance. This was based around a definition of authority, with strong links to context, persons in roles, appropriate delegation or attribution of authority. I liked the way that Kevin broke up the potential sources of authority into top-down/peer/bottom-up(democratic).I had a couple of thoughts about this approach. Firstly, I think the routinisation of surveillance makes some changes to the actual perceptions of necessity and authority. Secondly, this approach of holding ‘all other things’ consistent in order to focus upon authority is probably analytically necessary, and does introduce some clarity into the political theory of surveillance. It sits uncomfortably for a lot of people, because firstly there’s a sense that ‘all other things are not equal’ and that surveillance actors are often not legitimate, necessary or other qualifiers. Secondly, because there’s a sense that a scheme like this might legitimate surveillance. It will, because it is intended to, and exists in a world in which there is some legitimate surveillance, carried out by legitimate actors. What this does is opens up the whole set of institutions in contemporary society for challenges about the sources of their authority to act, and how accountable this is – it is not just surveillant institutions that might be lacking in just authority. ‘Authority’ in practice just doesn’t play out in analytically neat ways, but in complex, negotiated, challenged, contested power and politics.
The second day of the conference kicked off with an early panel on ‘Scandinavian Exceptionalism and surveillance studies’ which I saw part of.  I think this revolved around the extent to which several Scandinavian countries could be thought of together in relation to their experiences and attitudes towards surveillance (contrasted perhaps to ‘anglo-saxon’ or ‘continential’ models and traditions). Looking at the discussion, the answer could well have been... maybe, sort-of, but in a very careful and contingent way, that recognises the significant differences even within that grouping. 

The next panel session had a presentation from Massimo Ragnedda on student attitudes towards Facebook in Italy. He was drawing upon a similar model of research by PVNETs and also Christian Fuchs to assess student knowledge about surveillance in society, their practices and concerns about personal data. He found that students were much more worried about personal surveillance by their peers than by institutions or for marketing purposes. Massimo described this as ‘strong against the weak, and weak with the strong’, and identified what he saw as a underestimation of the use of data and targeted advertising. Jason Pridmore spoke about sign-on surveillance and transitions in consumer surveillance. This included the shifts from knowing customers and relationship marketing with web based information platforms for companies, to social networking. Social sign-on includes the log-in with facebook, and includes the reliance on 3rd parties to say who you are. This is a delegation (Jason’s drawing upon Actor Network Theory to make sense of this). Marketers have delegated data acquisition to social networks, while social sign-on creates active participation, towards the dream of a targeted market. This creates a particular personalised world at the intersection of social media and big data. Bence Sagvari gave a presentation on children’s online safety. He linked this to an ideology combining a desire for a risk-free environment, a notion of childhood innocence, and moral blindness. A culture of fear drives disproportionate reactions, combining the fear of the new, exaggerated media panics, and reverse socialisation. Monitoring software is constructed as the thing for responsible people to use, the use is binary or not with reduced room for negotiation, communication and development over time. He related this to trust, suggested that trusting leads to trustworthiness over time. He looked at other alternative strategies in use for managing safety online including co-use, active mediation, restrictive mediation, moniroting, technical restrictions. Across the EU, there was relatively low use of monitoring but it was most widespread in the UK, Poland and Ireland. Bence identified a shift from a paradigm of self regulation and strict state/governmental control towards a more flexible and faster co-regulatory regime. 

After lunch, Evgenia Alexandropoulou and Maria Nikita spoke about the Greek regulatory framework for personal data protection, with specific attention to the way that this affected the placement of CCTV within various different locations in Greek society.  All the general European data processing requirements (consent of data subjects, appropriate security measures, notifying the DPA) all apply to video surveillance, except when used for security reasons. The framework seems much stronger than in place in the UK, with some quite sensible distinctions between different types of place, but I was unable to find out how they got to this situation, what the politics of it were.  One particularly strong element was that the Greek constitution prohibits the use of ‘evidence’ collected by systems not in compliance with data protection (unless this is the only way you might prove your innocence of a crime). Eleni Crysopoulou spoke about surveillance and the investigation of organised crime, Lilian Mitrou presented on naming and shaming in Greece as a form of social control. Public stigmatisation raises feelings of guilt and shame, and shaming practices imposed psychological and social costs. She gave a short history of branding and similar practices of ‘spoiled identities’ as a mechanism of preserving social order. The growth of a strong central state and increased mobility shifts this model, but she believes we now see a rebirth of shaming, including as a tool of law enforcement. Anti sex-offender legislation in 2007 was based around the concept of a right to informed living – the right to exercise informed choice about those you associate with. The previous criminal behaviour of a person was not counted as part of personal information, and doesn’t benefit from the protection associated with it. Now the naming of tax evaders, as a comeback of the scarlet letter as part of an acknowledgement of the supposed limits of traditional methods. Mitrou described this as ‘social control by the man next door’ and identified that there was no evidence of the usefulness or efficacy of shaming in dealing with crime. I wanted to make a distinction between public identification of criminals, and public shaming (including mainly the direction of identification, the purposes of knowledge-release, and the forms that takes). 

The final session of the day introduced work by Andreas Pap on the practice and political philosophy of regulation of public access to criminal data. This involves asking how technologies constitutional requirements – for example of access to the court room. Is there a legal difference between physical presence and online access/broadcasts? What are the publicity expectations of testimony? Arguments for courtroom transparency including controlling the judicial process, courts as community norm upholders, presenting the law in action, providing legitimacy for law and law enforcement, judicial offices being public places. Arguments against include the invasion of privacy, identity theft, victims being afraid to report crimes, cameras intimidating jurors, and secondary victimisation. Andreas identified some different tensions in different countries including frespeach vs free trial in the US, privacy in a transparent democracy in Sweden, and democracy vs privacy in Hungary. In the US the general rule is that reporters are no different to any single individual member of the public. There are also business making money out of providing searches of court records on people, with significant regularity. In Sweden, criminal data is not available, but employers can ask individuals to get it on themselves and show it.  In Hungary, privacy is the heritage of the dictatorship, but there are complications in that there are no official hate crimes in Hungary, because the police ‘don’t know’ minority status (as a protection). The transparency deficit is also a democratic deficit.
Heidi Mork Lomel gave a really interesting presentation on the role and impact of faulty statistics in surveillance policy debates. Drawing upon case studies from Norway, she looked at the way that controversial surveillance initiatives are legitimated with the help of persuasive but dubious statistics (that won’t go away). Proposals for open street CCTV in 1993 looked to the UK, and claimed 30-60% crime reduction effects. These claims were not challenged, but rather made it ‘almost impossible not to try [CCTV] in Oslo. After introduction, the success criteria change from deterrence of crime to detection of crime. There is a shift from number to belief and convction. The new numbers may not document some achievement, but police officers and security agents believe it, despite what ‘researchers’ might claim. Later sober and critical evaluations from the UK of CCTV, didn’t have much effect on the debate. Similar effects for the expansion of the DNA database (alongside looking towards the UK for initial statistical evidence). Success criteria shifted from detection rates to the number of registrants in the database, and how many hits when the database was used. Interpreters do not say that researchers are ‘wrong’ but rather that they still believe in the questioned practice.  The persuasive power of numbers is used to bolster weak arguments and doubt statistics of opponents. But nothing happens when numbers are proved wrong. Statistics that prove what you think. Further research requires a focus upon the preliminary stages, what numbers, what sources, and how are they used. How do politicians use research.  The numbers allow the making of decisions without seeming to decide, not ‘we want this controversial thing’. These are ridiculous numbers that play a central political role, especially when linked to concepts of proportionality. Some of the reasons for this include a lack of mathematical competence, technology optimism, lack of scepticism and critical reflection, and a state of emergency/necessary evil. I really enjoyed this presentation because I’d never really thought about numbers in relation to discourses of surveillance before, they’re an intimate part of legitimating and representing surveillance practices. 

I was at the parallel Doctoral School session first thing on the morning of the third day of the conference, looking at the PhD work of Maria Murphy and Philip Shultz, so I missed a panel of surveillance and ethnography.  When I rejoined the main conference stream, Rosamunde Van Brakel was presenting on using the concept of play to better understand some forms of surveillance and our interaction with it. Separating her work from playful representations of surveillance, she ran through a number of interesting projects and made a strong argument that further work on the relation between surveillance and play was necessary. Louise Norgaard Glud and Sofie Stenbog spoke about the work of Chinese artist and dissident Ai-Wei Wei who makes use of surveillance as a device in his art but who has also been put under surveillance by the Chinese authorities. This presentation touched on issues of self-surveillance and empowerment, the multiple audiences for surveillance, and the way that the camera (and presumably other surveillance technologies) can act as as a sign of surveillance as much as a technology of it. Susanne Wigort Tngvesson, spoke about perception, surveillance, logics of seeing, interpretation and various other aspects of the theory of vision, particularly drawing upon the work of Merleau-Ponty. Finally in this session, Kat Hadjimatheou spoke about the research the Detecter project at Birmingham had done with counter-terrorist professionals and their perceptions of the practical and ethical factors in their use of surveillance. This included the perception of technology as a double edged sword, that both enabled and could protect against invasions of privacy, reducing the effectiveness of oversight and make legal regulation obsolete, both increase and reduce trust in CT practitioners, and allow the maintenance of ‘back doors’ useful to police but at the same time the source of security breaches. Technology was represented by one participant as ‘the only alternative to repression’. Police officers felt prevented from doing ‘normal’ technological things, for example using mobile phones to send MMS to each other.  There was also concern for a ‘CSI effect’ in which high public expectations of police technologies were not met, with the concern that if things were not recorded, they were not happening. Security practitioners worried about collateral damage in terms of the non-suspected caught up in surveillance operations, but not too much about the false positives.  In terms of what they thought about ethics per se, Kat reflected that ethics, primarily meant proportionality, which meant The Law.  In the questions following, Pete Fussy drew parallels with the police studies literature, and the sense of beleaguerment  running through cop culture. 

After lunch, Jerome Ferret spoke about policing in the risk society and panoptical violence. This drew upon the sociology of the state, something he felt was underrepresented in ango-american sociology but more present in the French tradition. Two points Jerome highlighted were the different between terrorism policing and risk policing, and the practice of symbolic distrust of the police by politicians, which he interpreted as the state saying to its ‘troops’, ‘you are not working well, I’ll turn to the private sector’. Franciso Klauser spoke about the surveillant management of space at sporting mega-events, using the Euro 2008 football tournament as a case study. Francisco drew upon Foucault’s work on security, territory and population to talk about space as a mediator of power, not just in fixed isolated space such as the panopticon, but also flows in open space. With the interrelation of terrorism and mobility systems, the challenge is how to secure control without breaking those mobility systems.  There is a temporally and spatially dynamic pathwork of access and passage control points, monitoring, restricting and filtering, but also facilitating and speeding up different forms of movements. I was also in this session, giving my own talk on aerial photographic reconnaissance during the two world wars, and what surveillance studies could draw from military history, which I’ll write about separately.

Picking between two parallel sessions, I attended a talk by Ian Tucker, talking about visibility in new media, and the constant engagement and informational interaction. Ian’s approach is social psychological, with a conception of subjectivity as fluid, transformed, produced through relational processes. Ian was interested in the relationships between power and affect, and how affects combine.  This might include the way that we use technology and new media for our benefits, to enhance our capacities to act, but these technologies may also limit other capacities over time. All new media technology is affective – this engages with its ability to after ‘power to act’ but also retains the non-deterministic, notion of the human. Foucault’s ‘care of the self’ suggests something strategic, but its really isn’t, there’s too much information. Ian suggested we’re fundamentally still learning how to live surveillantly.  Darren Ellis took a dive into the literature on trust, both emotional and psycho-social, in relation to citizens perception. In relation to privacy and technology, he found a relatively unsophisticated understanding of trust, linked to polls and surveys, and not accounting for trust dynamics. Darren wanted to break down the opposition of trust and distrust on a single continuum, and also challenge how certain levels of trust were interpreted as distrust. Similarly, trust is often thought of as good, something we should do, with distrust bad, a psychological disorder (and this certainly has a politics). He drew upon Luhman to suggest that both trust and distrust were potentially coexistant, and were both mechanisms for managing the complexity of information, uncertainty and complexity. It could potentially be dangerous to increase one without the other (vulnerability and paranoia). With impersonal trust through the functioning of a system, this requires something of a leap of faith and suspension of doubt, in which we accept assurances or look for further safeguards. The question is how to do this in surveillance contexts? Turning to Giddens, Darren looked at the way trust in abstracts systems is achieved through ‘access points’ where facework and impression management occurs, and the suspension of doubt is managed. Surveillance systems often have very restricted access points, continue to remain faceless. This leaves a gap in how to negotiate distrust. David Harper gave a presentation on conspiracy and urban myths in relation to surveillance, looking at rumour, contemporary legends and the public understanding of the use of personal information. He drew upon the literature on folklore and contemporary legends, showing several urban myths about surveillance, but asked why there were not more conspiracy stories about surveillance, and suggested that this was actually due to an absence of information.  He understood conspiracy stories as a form of social epistemology – a collective attempt to solve problems. The origin of urban myths was strongly linked to media portrayals, and linked into classic fears about cameras and screens that were very culturally available (even showing a screenshot from 1990’s gameshow Noel’s House Party to demonstrate this. Urban myths are strongly socially stratified, make use of strong arguments from analogy, corroboration and initiations to empirically verify them. Part of this area of cultural, social engagement with the knowledge of surveillance is managing our own labelling as paranoid – rhetorical inoculation against later hostile accusations. Urban myths allow us to be seen to be in the know, possessed of a counter knowledge, and resisting authority.  Listening to this presentation, I honestly wondered how much of this we do in surveillance studies. 

Concluding Thoughts:
I can away from the LISS-COST conference with a few ideas in my head, which probably say as much about the way I listened and interacted as they do about the topics people wanted to talk about. 

1) The state – The conference theme was The State of Surveillance, attempting to capture both potential meanings – the current state of surveillance, but also the role and relation of the state in surveillance (often thought of in terms of surveillance societies). I’d hoped for some discussion of this and found a bit. I think it’s one of those areas that slightly complicates the interdisciplinary interaction that typifies surveillance studies. There’s a strong sociological tendency which, as Jerome Ferret described, often puts the state off to one side, thinks of it as a single entity separate from society, but acting upon it. There are research traditions which tend to focus their attention upon the subjects of surveillance, out of a genuinely well placed concern for the impact of surveillance upon people.  I attempted to do some of my own thinking about the state and surveillance in ‘Surveillance and Identity’, where the state forms part of the subtitle, and is engaged with through governmentality theory. There was a good representation at this conference by political scientists of various types (which is often a mix in itself) and lawyers, who tend to engage with the state in more detail, as a result of the history and traditional focus of their respective fields. Kevin Macnish’s work on authority (and what I see as the inevitable step backwards towards the legitimacy of institutions) also points in a direction of one way that surveillance studies needs to engage with the state – in the role of various institutions that comprise the state in performing legitimate social functions.

2) Discourses of surveillance – another regular interest of mine, that came to mind a couple of times during the conference, particularly in technologies as signs of surveillance, and the role of numbers and statistics in justificatory discourses of surveillance. 

3) Institutional Learning and knowledge formation – This came up a few times too – the process and practices through which institutions (the state, the police, the military and others) make sense of the world and come to believe certain things as truth. Academia is probably implicated in this in some way, but I’m interested in the penumbra of institutional research (it’d be ‘operational research’ in a military context) and especially its relation to security politics. Examples at the conference included Pete Fussy’s work on UK counter-terrorism, and the way that several key cases studies and the ‘lessons learned’ from these shaped future CT policy and strategy. I suspect this is part of any coherent understanding of contemporary governmentality (ways of seeing and making sense of the world).  But I also suspect that governmental discourses play some role in which cases are included for examination, and what lessons are drawn from 

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Spaces of Terror and Risk

The special issue of the journal Space and Culture that I guest edited with Ces Moore and Joel McKim is now out in print as volume 15, issue 2

It includes the follow articles:

  • Introduction - Spaces of Terror and Risk - David Barnard-Wills, Cerwyn Moore & Joel McKim
  • the Time/Space of Preparedness: Anticipating 'the next terrorist attack' - Claudia Aradau & Rens Van Munster
  • Securing Virtual Space: Cyber War, Cyber Terror and Risk - David Barnard-Wills & Debi Ashenden
  • Signifying Security - On the Institutional appeals of Nightclub ID scanning systems - Kevin Haggerty & Camile Tokar
  • The Architecture of Disaster - Teresa Stoppani
  • Cultivating Security: Plants in the Urban Landscape - Erin Despard
  • Sexy Sammie and Red Rosie? From Burning Books to the War on Terror - John Hutnyk
Very happy to see it finally in print, although my hard copy hasn't turned up yet. Congratulations to everybody involved in this.

Cover image expansion

Monday, 21 May 2012

Epistemology of Creep

The concept of surveillance creep is a fairly familiar one. Sometimes also known as function creep, it is the idea that surveillance systems expand to find new uses, and are introduced to more areas of life. A video surveillance system installed to prevent shoplifting, might then be used to prevent theft by staff members, and then used to measure break-times.

I'd like to talk about another sense of the word creep, and its relation to surveillance. This is the sense of creep as in creepy. Either that a person or entity is acting in a creepy, or that there is something creepy about a particular technology. This is creep as in 'a sense of creeping dread' or the feeling of something creeping up your spine - a somewhat diffuse, emotive sense that something is off.

I'm thinking about this because of Harrison Smith (@ambiveillance on Twitter), not because he's creepy, but because he brought an iphone app to my attention. 'Stalker' is an app you can use to hide your photo taking activity from casual observers. Rather than showing the image you're taking, it shows a text messaging menu, and kills any shutter sound your phone might make. An article about it used the word 'creeptastic' in the first line, and it made me think about other ways I've seen this word used. It's worth thinking about in terms of how we perceive privacy intrusions, how we communicate them with others, and how we come to agree on norms of behaviour with regard to information.

Firstly, it often occurs with the release of apps.  Stalker's one example, Girls Around Me is another. Often these appear get a bit of tech media attention, get branded creepy, then get pulled from the appstore. These are often apps that leverage some of the inherent surveillance potential of small, portable, internet connected computers, that are location aware, and have cameras and microphones attached to them. Or 'phones' as we archaically insist on still calling them.Secondly, changes to the way that social networks work can come across as potentially creepy when they reveal the amount of information that a network has, leverages that information in new, often unexpected ways, or increases the amount of information it collects.  The release of the newsfeed or Beacon by Facebook fell into this creepy zone in some ways.Thirdly, 'Creep' can occur with individual behaviour. This is less likely to get national or international press attention, but can be quite significant in local contexts. 

Not all privacy violations are 'creepy'. There seems to be the necessity for a human agent in this mix somewhere, to act as the creepy party. Also some types of personal information seem (depending on context) to be more creepy than others.

The 'creepy' critique doesn't make any appeals to the law, rights, or privacy. Rather it seems to be making an emotional appeal to conventions and norms. Creepy behaviour is by definition outside of the norms of accepted behaviour, even if it might not be technically illegal. It is often sexually charged. We shouldn't be too surprised at this emotional register. People make sense of information flows through their contexts, and often are not using the formal legal and political theoretical frames of privacy, personal information, informational self-determination or similar. 'Creepy' is a way to describe something that feels wrong, feels off, is unexpected in a vernacular way. Being a subjective modality, its also more protected from counter-arguments - That behaviour feels creepy to me. Who are you to say it doesn't?

There seems to be something of an association with the stereotype of the socially-maladjusted computer geek in the use of 'creepy'. The suggestion that either the individuals responsible for making apps, or the company rolling out a new poorly-advised social network 'feature' have not thought through the impact of this upon human social relations, or that they might even be incapable of doing so. The image seems to be of a geek wanting to do something, not realising that it is socially censured, and building a technology to let them do it. I wonder how much this narrative personalises something that might be more systematic, or constructs as a psychology pathology something that might instead by driven by economic or institutional imperatives.The critique seems better suited to the censure of individual behaviour than to that of organisations. It also suggests that the norms for the proper use of social networks are settled. They might be more settled that we might expect for something relatively novel, but then again, there's a good argument that we might all be deciding what counts as appropriate behaviour in our own social circles.Regardless there's a strong sense of deviancy that surrounds the language of creep.

However. There's also more than a little hypocrisy to 'creepy'. One example being Facebook 'stalking' - looking at the pages of people you're not really friends with, checking out details of potential romantic partners, or attractive people. It's widely practiced, and in most of the ethnographic work on how people use social networks, many people will admit to doing it, regularly. It could even be argued to be one of the core functions and attractions of sites like Facebook. This can cross the line into creepy, but the boundaries for this happening are flexible. What might be welcome attention from one party, might be creepy stalking from another.

Precisely because of its subjectivity, the creepy critique might have limited force, but what it does benefit from is accessibility and understandability. Some deeper theoretical ways to engage with creep might be contextual integrity ('creepy' being one way of describing what it feels like when the contextual integrity of our information flows are violated in a particular type of way), another angle might be dislocation - when our models of how the world works are found lacking by exposure to some new insight or information. We believe the world to work one way, then realise that it might work another - a way that now includes some additional surveillant practice, and we find it creepy.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

how to avoid facial recognition

From Free Art and Technology I can't academically vouch for this technique.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Surveillance Spottings - Toys and Nature

Spy/Security themed toys - that supposedly actually 'work' - you know, as much as the 'real' versions do
The dullest ever model aircraft kit. Was tempted to buy it and then paint it pink.

A dog with a webcam, from Wired Magazine. For bomd disposal work apparently.

From the Cranfield Prospectus, research on using military radar to track endangered wildlife.
Recently, it's been surveillance toys and surveillance and nature. The surveillance/security toys are not really a new thing (I made a couple of model spitfires as a child, and I think I had some kind of spy kit, with a fingerpint ink pad and magnifying glasses). What has developed is the technology that can be put into a toy today, but more importantly, the real world referent from which the toy is derived has changed and advanced. The model Predator drone is a bit archaic, but also incredibly banal. It's probably going to feature only in the collection enthusiast or completist aircraft modeller (if that, I found it in the bargain bin). You can pick up a toy remote control helicopter with a video camera in it for not very much money, which is using technology not very much different from active, working UAVs.

At the SSN conference at the start of the month, Kevin Haggerty gave a talk on surveillance and nature, and stated that once you started thinking about it, examples practically threw themselves at you. So here are two I've come across recently. The dog is a platform, whilst the bird sensing radar is an example of the complex intersection between surveillance and nature. The military technology is used to understand nature, and contribute to the maintenance of a particular ecological form, but at the same time, the work can flow through to enhance the design of small stealth aircraft.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Review: The Revolution will be Digitised, by Heather Brooke

I've just finished reading 'The Revolution will be Digitised: Dispatches from the information war' by Heather Brooke, and thought it was worth writing a few thoughts about it. I'm very sympathetic to the position adopted in the book, and its not badly written at all, I'm just not sure I learnt anything from it. I'm not sure its a book for me.

I've previously read Brooke's The Silent State, and I learnt a lot from that. Including some often uncomfortable truths about the murky, deliberately obscuring parts of the British legal and political system. It benefited from being written by an author who engaged with those issues on a daily basis, but also had an outsider's perspective on how things could be different. It was also driven by a strong moral perspective on the rights of citizens to information about the activities of government.

I have two main problems with The Revolution will be Digitised. The first is that the personal and novelised narratives are at the centre of the structure. Whilst the book does engage with issues about authority, privacy these feel secondary to the narrative of the movements and activities of a bunch of crusading journalists, hackers and wikileakers. The absence of a real system of references or bibliography particular grates for an academic reader and contributes to this. For some readers, the human perspective on the characters involved in this drama, particular the insight on the character of Julian Assange might be the key point of interest, and there's certainly a lot of that here. There's a certain amount of self promotion that goes along with this type of narrative. The second problem is related, the book's substantive content feels light, and I think this is primarily a result of the time frame of the publication. The book focuses upon events between January and November 2010, being published in August 2011. I think this account would have benefited from waiting, and seeing what else happened with WikiLeaks, the Arab Spring, Anonymous, which receive token mention. Instead, I fear it was rushed to publication because of popular interest in WikiLeaks, the impending publication of accounts by WikiLeaks insiders and Julian Assange himself.

This isn't to completely discard the book. There's a decent perspective on the global nature of privacy-invasive technologies and practices, where countries can attempt to justify their practices through reference to each other's methods, leading to a dangerous race to the bottom. The core political thesis of the book, that there is a brewing 'Information War', between those who see the Internet as an opportunity to reform politics and build something new, and others who see it as a threat to their interests or a tool of social control, certainly has some weight, and is an important topic. The subtitle is very honest, these are dispatches, personal journalistic accounts of a broader political issue. I don't want to devalue a journalist being a journalist, especially one who is trying to maintain the professional standards and style of investigative journalism. There is certainly value in that, but the substantive topics are covered in more detail elsewhere.

There's a website for the book, with additional material including some of the source interviews at

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

'Watch This Space' Surveillance Studies Network conference, Day 2

Day two of the conference saw more parallel sessions, and it looks like I spent more of the time in the 'Internet Theme'. The first panel was Lucas Melgaco (VUB), William Chivers and myself. Lucas spoke about surveillance in educational spaces, both in terms of security motivated surveillance, but also of the surveillance potential built into virtual learning aids such as moodle or blackboard. His over-riding theoretical framework was looking at surveillance in terms of rationalisation, counter-rationality and rationalism. Rationality was the focus upon predictability, calculability, efficiency and control. Rationalism was the reduction of reality to perfect rationality, with a focus upon cause and effect relations and no complexity - often with a focus on fixing one problem or deficit to the exclusion of others. I'd question about how we distinguish rationalisation from other attempts to effect change, but I'd be happy to understand rationalisation as a particular strategy or tactic of governance. Secondly, the concept of rationalism would certainly fit as a form of ideology (in the sense of a reduction of contingency). I'd suggest caution about speaking about general (global) processes of rationalisation, and rather go for specific processes in specific contexts first.  Wil Chivers (Cardiff) is working on conceptualising resistance to surveillance combined with digital research methodologies. He spoke about WikiLeaks as an example of information politics, speaking truth to power, and with an awareness of surveillance (spy files, global intelligence files etc). Wil's argument was that resistance is a networked behaviour, and that whilst the individual level is important (for example in the motivation of WikiLeak's sources to leak material) networks are pivotal, and that it is networks that are amplified by the internet. Wil gave a few examples of the way that social network analysis (using software such as NodeXL) to examine links on twitter around groups such as No2ID. I think there's some potential for conducting social movement and political communication research using tools like this, and it's part of the reason that I'm interested in data visualisation. I'd also be concerned about the way that these visualisation exclude important type of information, and the idiosyncrasies of the way that we learn to read these computer generated network maps (worst case scenario, we only read what we already know, or that generating a graph is not the end of the research process). I'd assume that the best way to make use of this would be as part of multi-method triangulation research design.

I was speaking at this conference about the games design for privacy education research that the VOME project has been working on, talking about the reasons we adopted games as an alternate method of communication and way of allowing people to interact with privacy and online personal information issues, as well as the theoretical framework and the research process.  More information here. There was quite a lot of interest from the audience (including some interest into translating the game into other languages and in getting hold of copies of the game to play with students). I hadn't ever thought about translation possibilities before, although I don't think it would be too hard to do. My concern would be that the game was based upon research conducted in the UK and built accordingly. I would be interested in seeing the reaction to a straight translation in other countries though, and I'd guess that some issues would resonate more strongly than others. I suspect that if one wanted to adjust the game to make it more local then it would be the event deck (where privacy events culled from the news over the last year or so crop up to mess up player plans and introduce some randomness into the game) that would need alteration. The game is Creative Commons though so I'm very happy to see what people do with it.

After the break Val Steeves and Jane Bailey gave a very engaging presentation on 'doing 'girl' online', their research into online presentation of gender. Using the publicly available facebook profiles of Canadian late teens and young women, they produced a 'composite' facebook profile for 'Tiffany'. Tiffany was a very stereotypical sociable young woman, expressing herself through socialisation, her relationship with a boyfriend, and using a familiar range of photographs, including swimwear and 'duckface' photos. Steeves and Bailey used this composite in interviews with young women in the same demographic. Their finding was that whilst young women did not want to 'be' Tiffany, they found they had to continually negotiate between their own online identity and that of the stereotype, to make space to be something different. The degree of 'openness' of the profile was part of this, with a large number of friends or an open profile, being associated with youth and then later on with the potential for slut-shaming. Participants had a sense of facebook as a commotidised space in which (at least in part) they were the commodity - pictures (including the potentially riske) were important in selling a product. In deciding what to depict, they drew upon media representations of women. Participants were also conscious of putting others under surveillance, with two forms of stalking - the 'creepy' and the normal everyday, everybody does it variety. Steeves and Bailey found serious social implications to exercising privacy and sharing controls, and that the openness that results from this is put to the back of the mind, with the social network being actively imaged as a smaller number of people. The exposure that gives status when young is costly and damaging when older, and young women considered the relationship management activity to be heavily gendered. They conjectured that more of girls' social interactions might be captured by facebook because it is a social, communicative media - they suggest that they found that boys deal with their disagreements and conflicts offline. Liisa Makinen spoke about webcam surveillance, involving themes of participation, membership, and uncritical acceptance of self-installed camera surveillance.

In the same panel, Jennifer Whitson presented her paper on the relationship between surveillance and games, particularly the concept of 'gamification' growing in the marketing and business literature. The concept behind gamification is that it takes mechanisms and models from games and applies them to other contexts to take advantage of fun and engagement that games can generate. Jen described this as the 'Mary Poppins' effect. She was rather critical of the gamification movement, which she saw as largely taking things that were tangential to games (scoreboards, points, achievement badges) and using those to quantify achievement and success within institutions, with clear parallels with workplace and educational surveillance practises. I was minded to think about the use of such games, and practises in terms of behaviour change and self or other-directed limitations. A service such as 750words which aims to help you write more is a self-chosen goal (although with some hidden underpinnings in code and architecture as well as the inevitable sell-user-data-to-others social media business model) where as being forced to play a 'game' at work, in which decisions about your employment status, remuneration etc will be evaluated through is clearly other-directed. There's obviously a step behind this, which is 'why do you want or need to write so many words, and why do you want to look like Tiffany?. I'm very sympathetic to Jennifer's perspective on gamification, which might seem a little odd given that I've been working on game design recently, but I can definitely see the difference between a game with a purpose and gamification. One of the primary differences is that the privacy game is explicitly intended to encourage discussion over the value and architecture of privacy, not to just reinforce and assess it.

Minas Samatas and Mike Zajko shared a panel on telecommunications. Minas spoke about interception scandals in capitalist democracies, suggesting that media scandals only occur when established interests are invoked or challenged (for example when a newspaper hacks into the voicemail of a politician or an actor), rather than the 'real scandal' of the whole telecommunications industry and information capitalism. He spoke about the powerful and celebrities in this context, but I think it's worth broadening that out to some account of symbolic capital in a media environment, being necessary to effect a public debate around an issue. Minas used a phrase, which I'm not sure if it's a 'theory' or not, 'Security Capitalism' which seems particularly evocative and potentially useful. That said, Minas spoke about the dual primary motives of security and profit, when these motives can occasionally be strongly in tension. Another thought that arose from this talk was due to Minas repeatedly saying 'there is no privacy'. Given various countries with a 'reasonable expectation of privacy' element to their law, that's a problematic statement for a field to go around making. I think I'd prefer the phrase 'there is surveillance' - it keeps the mechanical/technical dimension that the speaker is aiming for, and has a normative dimension, but it doesn't reject privacy as a potential legal or social mechanism for responding to that surveillance. Mike Zajko was putting together a theoretical framework around responsibilisation and governmentality, including the extension of state control through intermediaries. He identified two forms, state directed and state leveraged. The first is unfolding of the state into civil society, the other is enfolding of civil society into the formal political sphere. He's trying to capture conventional governance alongside the type of influence that media content companies have exercised over copyright reforms, where the state has been effectively captured by these industries and used to responsibilise other private actors (ISPs, youtube etc).  I did wonder if states have ever really been able to govern without private actors (the example of the British East India or Hudson Bay Trading companies come to mind). I also wondered if all areas of the state were equally liable to capture by external interests (I'm guessing not, and that this would be an empirical question) or if there were different forms of capture operating in different areas. For example, defence might seem less liable to capture, but might be more vulnerable to regulatory capture by specific parties. There's likely a question a technological and knowledge asymmetry in this politics. Mike's work is reminiscent of the book I'm currently reading Imagining Security by Jennifer Wood and Clifford Shearing, which looks at nodal governance in security and policing.

In the final panel session of the day Marie Griffiths and Maria Kutar (University of Salford) spoke about their ongoing research on the day in the digital life project, and attempt to understand exposure to surveillance over a 24 hour period. It's an ambitious project, and they acknowledge the difficulty, especially in capturing those elements of the digital footprint that occur far from the subject (for example in corporate or government databases). The project seems primarily exploratory - how might we do this? is it possible? what are the biases and systematic exclusions. They're generating loads of data (in the GB/TB sense) and managing it is a problem. for me this makes the research almost agit-prop - in demonstrating the difficulties that even a geared up, dedicated research team have in understanding the extent of an individuals' data profile, they demonstrate as a fiction the idea that a normal individual, also living their own life, could understand their data profile in a systematic way, let alone 'manage' it. They're also looking at ways to visualise or illustrate the data they acquire. I asked a question about the concept of the digital identity and the focus upon the 'digitial' when various important components of one's surveillant identity (didn't use the term in the question) are paper based rather than digital (even when they have digital components). Following this, David Philips spoke about his research on the Quantified Self movement - these are people who use all manner of data sources and measuring devices in order to better understanding themselves. This therefore bought up topics of accessible, democratic surveillance infrastructures, and surveillance as a technique of knowledge production. David's theoretical position draws from surveillance, queer theory and infrastructures. His talk gave an interesting overview of the practices and tools, purposes and goals, institutionalisation of the QS movement. The various technologies are used for a range of purposes around self-reflection, sense making, goal reaching, self-knowledge, auto-ethnography, self improvement. David's take on the motivations behind this drew attention to the goal of being a healthy, energetic, productive member of an entrepreneurial economic order (see the parallel between this and gamification, and the pursuit of even seemingly self-directed goals?). There was a preponderance of a-political, really normative endeavors in a 'geeky and nice' way. Externally, David showed how even this self-directed surveillance tied into more complex external practices, for example the intense interest of the healthcare industry in the data produced by QS enthusiasts, the relationship between the service providers and data servers, including hacking the technology. QS seems to fit into a long philosophical tradition of knowing one self as a positive goal but is is very interesting how that fits in with a broader politics. I'm not sure how many of my own personal illusions I'd want shattered though!

The closing plenary of the conference was a talk by Kevin Haggerty (co-written with Dan Trottier) on Surveillance and/of Nature - monitoring beyond the human. This was interesting, and an attempt to outline the scope of an area we tend to miss in surveillance studies -the surveillance of the non-human. I can see why this is important, but I can also see why I personally tend towards surveillance of the human - it's a disciplinary and professional, political/social thing for me - that's what I'm drawn to research first. From the perspective of a broader field, its important though, and especially for theoretical completeness. The early part of the talk situated the rest, and also acknowledge the constructed and contested concept of 'nature' which reminded my of the classes on ecological politics I took with Mathew Humphrey at Nottingham. For Haggerty 'nature' is culturally important because it sits on one side of a whole load of (unstable) dichotomies (culture, science, society, technology) and its characterisation has important material consequences. Kevin drew out four areas where surveillance intersects with nature. The first of these was the area of learning, dominating and conserving, often associated with science, where visibility regimes and new ways of seeing are part of the process. Part of these processes are making nature/animals/environments more amenable to governance, but also implicated is the relationship between science and entertainment that finds its expression in the nature documentary. There are drives for knowledge for conservation, but as part of this, an extension of 'man's domination over nature' and the maintenance of animal populations etc at ideal thresholds for humans. Secondly, there are animal agents of surveillance, where the gaze of animals is instrumentalised and incorporated in different governmental agendas. Thirdly, directing and capitalising upon sensing abilities that animals have developed that humans have not, generally by training an animal to signal when it senses something, or by learning animal signals. Amber Marks has written about this sort of activity in her book 'Headspace'. The final intersection is biomimicry, the growing area (or idea) in science of drawing examples from nature. The literature here often has a environmental, progressive tone, but heavy involvement with military-industry. There are also potentials in bio-mimicry for resistance to surveillance, drawing upon camouflage and crypsis techniques. Haggerty concluded that surveillance of/and nature should be on our agenda, perhaps causing a change in our definitions of surveillance, including things that other disciplines would happily call surveillance, and push further back into the social construction of nature and technology - by looking at the ideational phases of technology developments - which I took to mean the ways that problems and concepts of what is necessary or desirable are developed. 

Overall, an interesting and useful conference. I'm left thinking about surveillance in general, and the next steps for the privacy games project, but also about the politics of surveillance, in terms of self/other directed activities and structures, although this is clearly a contingent distinction that will definitely break down in many places.

Friday, 6 April 2012

'Watch This Space' Surveillance Studies Network Conference and doctoral workshop (day 1)

This week saw the 5th biannual Surveillance Studies Network conference in Sheffield.  Before the conference, the Living in Surveillance Societies programme was hosting a workshop for doctoral students and I’d volunteered to help out if I could.
The doctoral school was a really good idea, and a good thing to have before the main conference.  There were a couple of group exercise led by Niccola Green and Kirstie Ball about the formulation of research questions (drawing upon some of the vignettes in the Report on the Surveillance Society), accounting for the harms caused by surveillance,  a discussion about access issues in surveillance research and the round table sessions with the doctoral students about their research projects.  Apparently the list of access issues will be circulated by Clive Norris shortly, and I’ll hope to post that here too.  Kevin Haggerty hosted a session on writing discipline which made the argument that part of the job of being an academic is being a professional author, and that we should pay an appropriate amount of attention to that activity. 

During the round table I got to hear about work being done on post-Orwellian narratives in English fiction, data protection law and it’s applicability to new types of data, street surveillance in Utrecht and Rotterdam, government technologies of categorisation and classification, and surveillance issues in the videogaming industry.
When I was doing my own PhD I really benefitted from participating in both the ESRC ‘Everyday life of Surveillance’ seminar series and also from the surveillance studies summer school at Queens University. It’s important for PhD students to be part of a research community, not to slog through their work in isolation, and gain experience from more established researchers.  So I’m glad to see that sort of activity continuing.  I think there is a similar workshop associated with the LISS conference on the State of Surveillance in Barcelona.

The conference proper opened on Tuesday morning with a talk from Eric Metcalfe, former director of policy at Justice, who gave a very, very thorough overview of UK law relating to the regulation of surveillance, interception, privacy, regulation of the intelligence services and human rights. This was against the background of the revival of communication data retention plans under the name of the Communications Capabilties Development Plan. His talk took in a number of case studies, the roles of the various commissioners, the interaction between Europe and the UK legal system. His assessment of the future was that we should anticipate four blocks of players in the politics of privacy and surveillance, and watch their interactions. These were the coalition of celebrities and politicians using the levenson inquiry as a tool against media intrusion and police failings, the home office representing the interests of the police and intelligence agencies, media organisations with a strong interest in free expression but also under intense commercial competition, and internet companies keep to promote free expression, but having private and commercial interests in personal data. 

As ever with this size of conference you have to make some choices about which panels to attend, but I chose to go and listen to Dean Wilson talk about his ongoing research into the UK border agency and local intelligence teams, including their media depiction in reality tv. Dean was followed by Eleanor Lockley talking about a hacking incident that disrupted an attempt to provide the Karen refugee community in Burma with citizen journalism and social media training. The group had a communal blog which was subverted by an attacker, who used the information and stories posted by the participants to write hostile personal attacks on them from compromised user accounts. The result of this extended persecution, potentially far across geographical borders was that most of the participants, especially those with limited internet access pulled out of the programme. 

The next session was a plenary on surveillance and the Olympics, kicking off with Minas Samatas talking about the Greek experience, and corruption amongst the Olympic security sector. The Olympic games were seen as a security show case to demonstrate technological capability of private sector security providers (even when they provide expensive system that do not work).  Phil Boyle gave a very interesting paper about planning for the worst, risk and uncertainty. Whilst actually impossible (there could always be something worse), the idea of planning for the worst is invoked to demonstate that something serious is being done about potentially catastrophic risks. This looked at a number of ‘fantasy documents’ depicting plans, statements, goals and outlines of security capacity, as well as the role of ‘managers of unease’, a concept borrowed from Didier Bigo. Boyle also spoke about demonstration projects, those security drills performed in full view of the media to almost ritually demonstrate security and consequence management activity.  Isabella Sankey from Liberty spoke about the threat from the Olympics to human rights and freedoms due to new legislation and the maximum use of existing over-broad policing powers.   

Another panel saw a pair of papers on social media and policing, both formal and informal. Dan Trottier spoke about the Vancouver hockey riots and the subsequent public attempts to present, name and shame rioters on Facebook. This was activity not solicited by the police, and was in part an attempt to bring criminals to the attention of the police. Dan was sceptical about the effectiveness fo the evidential admissibility of much of this material.  He extended the metaphor of ‘little sisters’ (as opposed to Big Brothers) by suggesting that some posters on the vigilante groups were vindictive without reason and selective in their accounts. Kristene Unsworth spoke about her ongoing research into the use of social media by law enforcement, the tensions between police perception that it would be foolish not to make use of social media information, and that citizens probably want to be talked with, rather than talked at on social media. Lonneke Van der Velden spoke about her analysis of alternative (non facebook) social networks, specifically decentralised networks, asking what privacy consists of for those platforms. The impression I got was that whilst ‘Diaspora’ had one of those US/California ‘libertarian’ ideologies, N-1 was distinctly more autonomist/anarchist in its politics, emphasising technological and community engagement to get the system working. 

The final session of the day saw Christel Backman talking about a research project on social housing in Gothenberg, and the relationships between care, control and discipline in one particular project.  Harrison Smith gave a presentation on geo-locative social networks such as Grindr, looking at presentation , the mixed roles of voyeur and exhibitionism, the filtering of desire, and the commodification of personal information. He also spoke about the Girls Around Me iphone app that had received a lot of negative press over the weekend.

Last thing before the conference dinner was a wine reception to celebrate the launch of the Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies (link), which looks a rather impressive tome. Giving a speech about the book, Kirstie Ball identified the core themes of governance, media, resistance in relation to surveillance, which certainly resonates with me.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Invisible Robota

Saw this video today, It draws attention to the way that automation and computers (in this case 'robots') sit in for something a person might have done - a fairly neat way of representing something that isn't there.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Securing Virtual Space:

This week sees the online publication of a couple of articles from the special issue of Space and Culture that I co-edited with Cerwyn Moore and Joel McKim, presumably either the other articles will be published online too fairly soon, or at the same time as the print publication.

One of those is the paper I co-wrote with Debi Ashenden, 'Securing Virtual Space: Cyber War, Cyber Terror and Risk' . Quite pleased with this one and very glad to finally see it published.

Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions report

The House of Lords and House of Commons Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions was published yesterday, and I had the chance to read through it today. It's accessible here. This is an interesting report for me because I'm ambiguous about a lot of it. I'm generally working on ways of increasing privacy, but I also support freedom of expression. I think this report does what it sets out to do, but is hamstrung by its limited working brief and some core assumptions. A few observations.

This is not a general committee on privacy. It's a committee on privacy and injunctions. It is focused upon the interaction between privacy and freedom of expression - primarily in terms of publication in the press and the extent to which new forms of social media are a type of publication (a large part of the report is about the future of press regulation). 'Privacy' as I understand it, covers a much greater range of issue than are examined in this report. The problem arises if this report is read as a general, and sufficient account of privacy within the British parliamentary and legal sectors.

Privacy is still an individual value in this report, it's a possession of individuals and something that facilitates individual gains or projects. Whilst there can be a public interest in publication (that might violate privacy) the public interest in a level of social privacy is absent. More broadly, the shadow of liberal political philosophy floats over this report, looking at the balancing of Privacy 'enabling individuals to formulate ideas without public scrutiny' and freedom of expression 'essential for discovering new truths and thus enabling social progress' (p.9). It's very J.S. Mill in this respect.

It actually acknowledges the press as a power block, which sometimes speaks for vested interests and that claims for freedom of expression. However, there's no account of the monopolisation of the press, the ongoing reduction in diversity of different publishers, and the decrease in investigative journalism (except as something that might happen as a consequence of restrictions on newspaper commerciality). This is important because its these public function that legitimate the power that can be exercised through the press (and hence some of its privacy violation in the public interest).

The idea of a continuum of privacy expectations comes up again. This is the idea that some people choose to make a sort of Faustian bargain with the media, 'using' the media for their own gain. This appears to give them a reduced expectation or right to privacy. The report concludes that this doesn't remove all their interest in privacy, but is a relevant factor to be considered in legal proceedings. 

The issue of access to privacy being limited by access to the legal profession (and basically cash) is an important one, and the report suggests that cost free routes for privacy protection should be built into the new press regulation arrangements. However, the report is fairly accepting of the idea that injunctions are not a particular effective or accessible tool for most people.

The part that got the media attention is where the report finds google's argument against censoring search results to prevent injuncted material coming up unconvincing. They suggest that there should be more pressure here, and float the possibility of legislation in this direction. Some of the later discussion around the way that people with an injunction keep having to deal with separate web sites and jurisdictions suggests a model of the Internet as a single entity, which is somewhat flawed.

Generally, this report presents privacy invasions as something that happens rather rapidly, at once, in a significant event and is then made public widely and loudly. As such it is not a great perspective from which to deal with slow, creeping, accumulative forms of privacy invasion such as data-mining and social sorting. This sort of activity doesn't involve the media, and it doesn't make a difference if you're a celebrity of not. There's one single mention of data protection, and no mention of ICO in here. Its again a reflection of the way that the discourse on privacy in the UK is utterly dominated by the conflicts between the media and celebrities. It's skewed away from ordinary privacy concerns and might be best understood as an inter-elite disagreement.

[otherwise, sorry for the absence of posts here recently]

Friday, 17 February 2012

Artists workshop on human interaction with privacy and identity technology

You are invited to an afternoon of creative and narrative exercises aimed at unraveling stories of humans interacting with technology, specifically technologies of privacy, online identity and personal information. The aim is to trigger a discussion with researchers and experts in a more informal and intuitive way than traditional academic discussion. The findings of the workshop will help designers Austin Houldsworth ( and David Benqué ( in their research towards speculative design projects as part of the 'envisioning'  part of the VOME project.

The workshop will be held on the 9th of March, from 1.30 to 5pm,  at the Royal College of Art, London

There is no fee for participation but places are limited. Please contact to confirm a place.

No artistic ability required.

The Visualisation and Other Methods of Expression project (VOME) is a three-year research project, funded by EPSRC, ESRC and the Technology Strategy Board, to explore how people engage with concepts of information privacy and consent in on-line interactions. As You can find out more about the VOME (‘Visualisation and Other Methods of Expression’) project at

You can read an account of a previous event here 

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Robot Readable World

Robot readable world from Timo on Vimeo.

Apparently this is an 'experiment in found machine vision footage' by Timo Arnall Go look at the original page on vimeo to see all the sources.

Quick and dirty reaction? What you can see here are visualisations systems of meaning. How a particular form of meaning (what is important, what should be tracked, what can be disregarded, what is never-seen-in-the-first-place) is built up from computer processes. No system of meaning can encompass every detail of the world, so they have to be selective. Our systems of meaning limit what we can see. There's no perception with some cognition.

I don't know how similar this is to human vision, obviously we don't have glowing boxes around human faces (at least I don't). But we do have some similar biological/cognitive tricks, such as lateral inhibition. I also don't know if these visual traces are the result of programmed or evolutionary algorithms.

It might be my imagination, but there's something like a child's drawing to some of these images. You know how a child draws 'a house' as a red box with a blue roof, with smoke coming from the chimney, even when they live in a flat with central heating? The red box moving down the street? That's a 'car'.

Finally, I do wonder how many of these technologies use this sort of aesthetic visualisation because this is how surveillance systems have been depicted on film and tv for years now. Compare the above, with Mark Coleran's showreel (which I love).

Coleran Reel 2008.06 HD from Mark Coleran on Vimeo.