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.

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