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Surveillance & Society Alerts

New Issue: 12(2) Big Data Surveillance, edited by Mark Andrejevic and Kelly Gates

The Right to Watch?

May 16, 2014

I’ve always defended the right to photograph in public places. However, a number of cases in the last few weeks are highlighting an important new development in this area, a new front in the increasingly confusing information wars. Gary Marx always like to say that surveillance is neither good nor bad but that intent, circumstances, and effects make it so, but a growing number of people and organizations seem to be treating surveillance – or at least watching, and certainly not all watching is surveillance – as a right which supersedes rights to privacy. We’ve seen this in the case of Google Glass – even before it was launched commercially – and more recently with the arguments over the ‘right to be forgotten’ in Europe, with personal privacy being counterposed to freedom of information and actions to protect privacy being compared to censorship. It’s all somewhat reminiscent of Dave Eggers’ novel, The Circle, in which a Facebook-Google-Apple-a-like company completely turns around social values until, as one of the corporate slogans has it, “PRIVACY IS THEFT!”

The latest case is that of the use of drones / micro-UAVs / MAVs in the USA. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), the government body that controls US airspace, is trying to regulate the use of drones and has attempted to fine commercial drone operators who fly surveillance drones without their permission. The case revolves around one Robert Pirker, who used an unlicensed drone to film a promotional video back in 2011. At the moment the FAA is appealing against the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who rule that it could not fine Pirker as it did have jurisdiction over small drones. Now the media has weighted in on Pirker’s side, arguing that the FAA’s stance infringes the first amendment and creates a ‘chilling effect’ on journalism.

I’m really not sure about either argument. On the FAA side, this is partly about a bureaucracy trying to keep control of its regulatory territory as much it is about the object of the regulation – the FAA does not want to be seen to be losing control just as the number of small drones is increasing massively.

On the other side, is this really about the rights of journalists? Pirker was making a commercial film not covering a story, and the effect of the FAA’s ruling being overturned is more likely to open the door to a corporate free-for-all, an absurd PKDickian world of drones as far as the eye can see, with all the attendant crashes and legal battles, could result. Think not? Well, back in the 1900s, people thought there would never be that many cars on the roads either… so it is certainly it is partly about their mandate, i.e. air safety.

The big question here, as with Google Glass and with Search, is whether technological change makes a difference. Is a flying camera just the same as a hand-held camera? Does the greater potential for intrusion, or on the other hand the inability to know that one is being filmed, matter? Does that possibility that ‘the truth’ will be revealed justify any technological method used to obtain it? If not, which ones are acceptable, whereis the line drawn, and who decides and how? In the UK, the ‘public interest’ would be a good basis for deciding, as has been frequently alluded to in the Leveson Inquiry into telephone tapping conducted by Murdoch-owned newspapers, however ‘public interest’ is a much vaguer term in the USA… what is certain is that conflicts around the ‘right to watch’ versus the ‘right to privacy’ and other human rights and social priorities are only going to intensify.

On the ‘Right to Be Forgotten’

May 14, 2014

While Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is arguing today both that there’s really not a lot new to the European Court of Justice decision to order Google to adjust its search results to accommodate the right to privacy for one individual and that it really won’t be a problem because Google already handles loads of copyright removal requests very quickly, the decision has also sparked some really rather silly comments all over the media, usually from the neoliberal and libertarian right, that this is a kind of censorship or that it will open the door to states being able to control search results.

I think it’s vital to remember that there’s really an obvious difference between personal privacy, corporate copyright and state secrecy. I really don’t think it’s helpful in discussion to conflate all these as somehow all giving potential precedent to the other (and I should be clear that Mayer-Schönberger is not doing this, he’s merely pointing out the ease with which Google already accommodates copyright takedown notices to show that it’s not hard or expensive for them to comply with this ruling). State attempts to remove things that it finds inconvenient are not the same as the protection of personal privacy, and neither are the same as copyright. This decision is not a precedent for censorship by governments or control by corporations and we should very strongly guard against any attempts to use it in this way.

Google algorithms already do a whole range of work that we don’t see and to suggest that they are (or were) open, free and neutral and will now be ‘biased’ or ‘censored’ after this decision is only testament to how much we rely on Google to a large extent, unthinkingly. This is where I start to part company with Mayer-Schönberger is in his dismissal of the importance of this case as just being the same as a records deletion request in any other media. It isn’t; it’s much more significant.

You are sill perfectly free to make the effort to consult public records about the successful complainant in the case (or anyone else) in the ways you always have. The case was not brought against those holding or even making the information public. What the case sought to argue, and what the court’s verdict does, is to imply that there are good social reasons to limit the kind of comprehensive and effortless search that Google and other search engines provide, when it comes to the personal history of private individuals – not to allow that one thing that is over and one to continue to define the public perception of a person anywhere in the world and potentially for the rest of their life (and beyond). Something being public is not the same as something being easily and instantaneously available to everyone forever. In essence it provides for a kind of analog of the right of privacy in public places for personal data. And it also recognizes that the existence and potentials of any information technology should not be what defines society, rather social priorities should set limits on how information technologies are used.

Personally, I believe that this is a good thing. However, as the politics of information play out over the next few years, I also have no doubt that it’s something that will be come up again and again in courts across the world…

PS: I first wrote about this back in 2011 here – I think I can still stand behind what I though then!

Smart Roads

May 13, 2014
Solar road tiles lit up with LEDs

Solar road tiles lit up with LEDs

A small start-up called Solar Roadways is seeking funding to commercialize what looks like a revolutionary idea – smart roads made of glass that generate power, can be programed with all the usual information that roads have now (and more) and which stay clear in winter (though micro-heating elements). It’s one of those inventions that looks amazing but of courses raises a lot of questions: what is the EROI (energy return on investment – i.e. will they actually use more energy to construct and maintain than they generate)? What is the longer-term lifespan of the elements? And does the ‘two-way communication’ capacity of these roads mean that all roads would also be automated surveillance devices – and is that a problem?


Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada

May 7, 2014

The New Transparency project is coming to an end, and we are launching our major final report, Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada / Vivre à nu: La surveillance au Canada, in Ottawa on Thursday 8th May (which is also my birthday!). The report is being published as a book by Athabasca University Press, so it is available in all formats including a free-t0-download PDF. We want as many people in Canada (and elsewhere) to read it as possible.

The launch will be covered by the Canadian press and was already blogged in the Ottawa Citizen a few days ago.

A website with resources and summaries will be here very soon, and there is also a promotional video / trailer here in Youtube.


Hot Air on the Surveillance Industry from the UK

November 20, 2013

Privacy International has produced a much-needed survey of the state of the surveillance industry, following its other excellent report on the use of development aid to push surveillance technologies on developing countries. The British government’s response, voiced by the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls, Sir John Stanley,  has been a typically limp one, largely concerned with the possibility of such systems being sold to ‘authoritarian regimes’ yet blustered and talked of ‘grey areas’ when it came to Britain’s responsibility for this trade.

But this is all way too little too late. I warned of the danger of the increased technological capabilities and decreasing costs of ‘surveillance-in-a-box’ systems as far back as 2008 (see my post here which refers to that). Instead of taking horizon-scanning and pre-emptive action to limit this, Britain, the USA and many other states have encouraged this trade with state aid – as they have with military and security industries more broadly – and, not least, encouraged the use of surveillance on a global scale themselves. Their own extensive breaches of human rights through programs like PRISM and TEMPEST give them no real moral high ground to talk about what authoritarian regimes might do, when they are already pursuing the same actions.

Public Safety and Surveillance in Kinshicho

November 19, 2013

I paid a daylong visit to Kinshicho, where the latest Tokyo Metropolitan Police ‘supa bohan kamera’ (super security camera) video surveillance system was installed earlier this year, the first for a while (see here). The system is in the area to the south of the train station. It’s a curious place, a bit of a no-place or a neighbourhood in transition. A lot of the guides emphasize that Kinshicho is somewhat ‘dangerous’ but this is a bit of an overstatement even for Japan – it’s got nothing on Kabukicho – and certainly if you’re used to cities in countries with rather higher crime rates. Parts of it were certainly seedy and not places I’d hang about out of choice, particularly at night and especially if I was female, and its reputation for ‘gaijin bars’ (where Eastern European and Russian hostesses work) was certainly justified by the look of things. However most of it was just a shabby and forgotten place squashed in between railway, expressway and river. It’s also clear that, as I speculated earlier, the place is being gentrified, with huge, expensive-looking apartment blocks dotting the area and dominating the streets where they have sprung up, expensive shopping around the railway station, and the Sky Tree Tower is visible from almost everywhere.

The police video surveillance system itself was spread rather sparsely around the area. There was certainly not the blanket, all-angles coverage that there is in Kabukicho (there are only 17 cameras as opposed to 55). But sometimes the choices of camera location didn’t seem to accord with what I would have judged to be the most ‘dangerous’ spots. Something I will have to ask the TMP about later when I talk with them. Along with the new CCTV system, I noticed a strong police patrol-car presence and the police officers in the koban (police box) outside the railway station looked significantly younger and fitter than the average koban police, a sure sign that the police at least think that there is a threat here. However, in the absence of any actual crime, I witnessed officers harassing an elderly homeless woman who had been pushing her bike, loaded with everything she had, along a backstreet. They made her open up various bundles for no justified reason I could tell. I surreptitiously took a a few pictures without them noticing me. There were also a number of private security personnel and not just around station and new shop developments, as well as a lot of non-police cameras, some part of local government / shopkeepers’ association systems but quite a few just private. Again, compared to Kabukicho, the numbers of other cameras was small, and certainly not every car park and pachinko parlour was equipped.

I’m going to visiting again a few more times, and at least once at night, to make sure I’ve got a better feel for things. In the meantime, here are just a few of the (over one hundred) pictures I took.

SSN 2014 Barcelona

November 19, 2013



Thursday 24th – Saturday 26th April 2014

Contemporary surveillance is characterised by ambiguities and asymmetries. Surveillance results from different desires and rationales: control, governance, security, profit, efficiency but also care, empowerment, resistance and play.

Furthermore it can have both positive and negative outcomes for individuals and these may lead to intended or unintended consequences. Surveillance is never neutral. Surveillance is always about power and that power is increasingly asymmetric. Surveillance practices are also changing and as ‘smart’ surveillance systems proliferate utilising and generating ‘Big Data’ new forms of ambiguity and asymmetry arise. In this context the conference wishes to explore the key themes.

Check our registration guidelines and fees.

Please contact the conference organisers with any questions:


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