Surveillance & Society Alerts
Way back when we published the Report on the Surveillance Society in 2006, one of the things we included in our vignettes of the future surveillance society was that companies would have extended their interests in their workers into their private exercise and dietary habits. And, lo and behold, the Wall Street Journal is reporting today that AT&T, Johnson & Johnson and others are now paying employees to gain access to health and diet data “to lower health-care and insurance costs while also helping workers.” The measures include blood-pressure cuffs and other kinds of 24/7 medical monitoring, with the promise of special health and weight-loss programs for those showing signs of high blood pressure and obesity in particular.
The problem is not so much the authoritarian nightmare of order – that such schemes might become formally compulsory – but more that they will from being simply voluntary experiments to being informally expected or appended to employee performance assessments and reports, just ‘to help’. The ‘helping of workers’ via the monitoring of health and diet then becomes a form of soft control, an insidious organisational blackmail which incorporates private personal decisions into the purview of not just the employer but also the insurance industry which provides the health benefits in employee packages (in the USA at least).
(Thanks to Jenn Barrigar for the link)
It seems that ‘the computer did it’ is becoming as much a cliché in the early twenty-first century as ‘the butler did it’ was 100 years ago. There’s an interesting link by Cory Doctorow on bOING bOING to a blog post by one Pete Ashton about the already infamous ‘Keep Calm and Rape A Lot’ T-Shirts being sold through Amazon’s marketplace.
Only the explanation given is incomplete in important ways. This is not to encourage people to attack Pete who, as his post explains, is not in any way connected to or responsible for the T-shirts or the company that produces them. However the explanation that ‘it was an algorithm that did this and the company didn’t know what was being produced until it was ordered’ is inadequate as an explanation. Here’s why.
1. This was not simply a product of computer generation nor do algorithms just spring fully formed from nature. All algorithms are written by humans (or by other programs, which are in turn produced by humans) and the use of an algorithm does not remove the need to check what the algorithm is (capable of) generating.
2. There was a specific number of verbs included in the algorithm for generating these T-shirt slogans (621 verbs in fact). Even if they were generated by selecting all the 4 or 5 letter words in a dictionary of some sort, it’s not that hard to check a list of 621 verbs for words that will be offensive.
3. There words following the verb were not even as random as this. In fact, they are specifically A LOT, HER, IN, IT, ME, NOT, OFF, ON, OUT and US. Several people have checked this. There are some very interesting words missing, notably HIM. This list is clearly a human selection and its choices reflect, if not deliberately misogynistic choices, at the very least a patriarchal culture.
Algorithms, as cultural products, are always political. They are never neutral even when they appear to be doing entirely unremarkable things. The politics of algorithms may be entirely banal in these cases, but in some, as in this case, the politics of algorithms is accidentally visible. T-shirts may be a minor issue, but what’s much more important is not just to accept the idea that ‘the computer did it’ as an infallible explanation when it comes to rather more consequential things: all the way from insurance and credit rating through police stop-and-search and no-fly lists to assassination by drone. Otherwise, before we know it, the opportunity to question the politics is buried in code and cabling.
EPIC has obtained evidence under the Freedom of Information Act from the US Department of Homeland Security that is has fitted Predator drones with domestic espionage capabilities. The document, Performance Specification for the US Customs and Border Protection Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Version 2.4, dated March 10 2010, includes the following technical requirements: infra-red sensors and communications, plus either synthetic aperture radar (SAR), Ground Moving Target Indicator mode (GMTI – tracking) or signals interception receivers (page 7). The UAV should:
be “capable of tracking an adult human-sized, single moving object” with sufficient accuracy “to allow target designation at the specific ranges.”(page 28)
“be able to maintain constant surveillance and track on a designation geographic point.” (page 28)
The section ‘target marking’ is redacted in EPIC’s version however the CNET website managed to get hold of a non-redacted version, which say that the system “shall be capable of identifying a standing human being at night as likely armed or not,” and specify “signals interception” technology for mobile phone frequencies as well as “direction finding” which will enable the UAS locate them.
And in case people are wondering whether this is just for border patrol, the documents specifically states that it is for collection of ‘Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) data in support of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and CBP missions” (page 1). I hope all you US people know exactly how you can challenge drones flying at 20,000 feet up that might be breaching your 4th Amendment Rights…
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why it is that implanted tracking devices have never really taken off in humans. Just a few years ago, there were all kinds of people laying out rather teleological versions of technological trajectories that led inevitably to mass human implanantation – and not just the US Christian right, who saw RFID as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy.
I think there are many reasons, including negative public reaction (implants really are a step too far, even for the ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ crowd) and the fact that a lot of the promotion of human RFID implants was actually the PR work of one very loud company (Verichip) and did not actually have a lot of basis in either social reality or market research. But the other major reason is to do with other technological developments, particularly in wearable computing and sensor networks. In most cases, implants solve a problem that doesn’t exist (the idea that people want to remove a tracking device that might be there for very good – although I am not saying, indisputably good – reasons, usually medical ones). And where there are no good reasons, there’s probably no case for tracking at all.
So devices like this – temporary, printed or stick-on and removable – are far more what is likely to become the solution to any actual problem of tracking or monitoring for medical reasons. And the relative ease with which it can be removed by the wearer does at least mean that there is some room for negotiation and consent at more than just one point in the process. Of course, such removable, wearable tracking are still not somehow free of ethical and political considerations – and some may argue that the very appearance of consent actually hints at the generation of a greater conformity and self-surveillance, but the issues are of a slightly different nature to those raised by implanted devices.
I’ve written here in the past about British blacklisting organisations that compile lists of ‘troublemakers’ (mainly union activists) and sell them to building firms and share them with police. This has led to people being unable to get jobs and all kinds of hassle. In theory, the notorious Economic League which started this activity back in the 1920s is now disbanded but their mantle was taken up by a number of other private bodies, including the Consulting Association, which was the subject of an unusual raid by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) back in 2009.
Now it seems that in the era of transnational information sharing for ‘security’, such lists have found their way to the US Homeland Security complex. According to a report in the London Evening Standard, his certainly seems to be the case for major British mainstream environmental campaigner, John Stewart, formerly of the anti-road building lobby, Alarm UK and now of the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (HACAN).
If such private politically motivated lists are now circulating internationally and being treated as reasonable grounds for refusing entry to other countries, it makes a mockery of the fact that they have already been found to be in breach of British and European laws, and it is likely that such data will continue to circulate entirely decontextualized from the circumstances and motivation of their collection. So an illegal anti-democratic trawling operation to stop legitimate political activity becomes the basis for security decisions to err… safeguard democracy. It would be funny if it wasn’t already so common and will continue to be so as security relies increasingly on risk assessments derived from the indiscriminate mashing together of information into ‘big data’.
The student newspaper here at Queen’s carried a disturbing story this week – a hidden camera disguised in a towel hook was found in a women’s washroom*. Apparently a search was carried out and nothing else was found. I would be very surprised if this was something unique and isolated. Voyeuristic footage is a staple of both private perversion and Internet pornography, and I suspect that this is much more common than we realise. I remember at my old university in the UK a private landlord being prosecuted for having virtually his whole house, which he rented out to female students, wired up like this. Cameras are now so small (and getting smaller), and readily available disguised from shops that deal in equipment (largely intended for industrial espionage and spying on nannies, spouses etc.) and can of course now be wirelessly connected, so could be almost anywhere and everywhere.
We’re also immersed in a culture of pornography: it is what spurred the immense growth of the Internet in the 90s (a subject that remains to be given a proper historical analysis), and it is changing the nature of sexuality, especially in teen boys, in ways we’re only just beginning to understand. I’d hesitate to make any sweeping generalizations, but it would seem that if one puts together the kind of normalization of pornographic understandings of bodies, desire and sex with the rape culture alleged to pertain at Queen’s (as the same paper detailed the week before) and a surveillance society, you end up with not the hopes of an empowering exhibitionism put forward by more utopian feminist thinkers on surveillance like Hille Koskela, but something infinitely more seedy and alienated.
Perhaps if Nineteen Eighty-Four was written today, then O’Brien’s answer to Winston Smith on what the future would look like would not be “a boot stamping on a human head, forever” but “a man masturbating over a mobile phone, forever”. I’m not sure which is worse…
*As a note, the newspaper described it as a ‘co-ed’ washroom, a term so archaic, it made me wonder how much of the culture that engenders such behaviour is down to the continued underlying patriarchal belief that women being in education on an equal footing with men is still unusual, provocative and somehow so exciting to men that they cannot control themselves. And of course ‘co-eds’ is exactly how online porn sites that publish this kind of voyeuristic footage would describe the unwitting participants.
(Thanks to Aliya Kassam for the story)