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.


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