The Data Revolution

10309475_556761331111976_7897627149443974030_nI’m far from the only academic studying smart cities and big data-driven urbanism. One of the people who’s most inspired my work (in many ways) over the years, is Rob Kitchin – sometimes I even spell his name right! Rob has this fantastic new book, The Data Revolution, coming out in September from Sage, and very helpfully he has put the bibliography, and a lot of other stuff, online. This is the way scholarship should be. Too many of us still guard our ‘secret’ sources and keep our work-in-progress close to our chests. But if we want people to read what we do, think and take action, then more open scholarship is the way to go.

$100 to anyone who can find a ‘privacy-compliant camera’ in Canada

Actually, the headline (from the Toronto Metro free paper) is a little misleading as what my friend and colleague Andrew Clement is actually betting on here is that no-one can find a video surveillance system in Canada that is fully compliant with Canadian privacy law. Which of course may of may not be the same as ‘privacy’ in any other terms. But it’s an interesting challenge – that is largely to do with signage. Prof Clement and his team at the iSchool at UofT have been monitoring the way in which video surveillance systems in Canada are signed for quite some time. As their website, (which is also where you can try to claim your $100…) says

“Signs should at a minimum clearly tell you:

  • who is operating the camera
  • who you can contact if you have questions
  • the purpose(s) of the surveillance”

The signs should also in themselves be clearly visible, not hidden away somewhere. There’s more detailed information about requirments here.

So, who’s going to take up this bet?

(Thanks to Matthias Vermeulen for the story and Aaron Martin for noticing the difference between privacy and privacy law.)

Surveillant Landscapes

There is a fascinating little piece on Bldg Blog about ‘security geotextiles’ and other actual and speculative surveillance systems that are built in to, underlie or encompass whole landscapes. The argument seems to support what I have been writing and speaking about recently on ‘vanishing surveillance’ (I’ll be speaking about it again in Copenhagen a the first Negotiating (In)visibilities conference in February): the way in which, as surveillance spreads and becomes more intense, moving towards ubiquitous, pervasive or ambient surveillance, that its material manifestations have a tendency to disappear.

There is a standards kind of alarmism that the piece starts with and the assumption that such things are malevolent does strike one as an initial impression, perhaps not surprising given that the piece is inspired by yet another security tech developement – this time a concealed perimeter surveillance system from Israeli firm, GMax. Perhaps if it had begun with urban ubiquitous sensory systems in a universal design context, it might have taken a very different direction. However, what’s particularly interesting about the piece is that it doesn’t stop there, but highlights the possibilities for resistance and subversion using the very same ubiquitous technologies.

But whether hegemonic or subversive, the overall trajectory that post outlines of a move towards a machine-readable world, indeed a world reconfigured for machines, is pretty much indisputable…

A buried and ultimately invisible magnetic passive perimeter security system, from Israeli security company, G-Max.

(Thanks to Torin Monahan for alerting me to this)

The Internet Must Be Defended!

As I am just putting the finishing touches on a new issue of Surveillance & Society, on surveillance and empowerment, the furore over the Wikileaks website and it’s publication of secret cables from US diplomatic sources has been growing. Over the last few days, Julian Assange, the public face of the website and one of its founders has been arrested in London on supposedly unrelated charges as US right-wing critics call for his head, the site’s domain name has been withdrawn, Amazon has kicked the organization off its US cloud computing service, one of Assange’s bank accounts has been seized, and major companies involved in money transfer, Paypal, Visa and Mastercard, have all stopped serving Wikileaks claiming that Wikileaks had breached their terms of service.

At the same time, hundreds of mirror sites for Wikileaks have been set up around the world, and the leaks show no sign of slowing down. The revelations themselves are frequently mundane or confirm what informed analysts knew already, but it is not the content of these particular leaks that is important, it is the point at which they come in the struggle over information rights and the long-term future of the Internet.

The journal which I manage is presaged on open-access to knowledge. I support institutional transparency and accountability at the same time as I defend personal privacy. It is vital not to get the two mixed up. In the case of Wikileaks, the revelation of secret information is not a breach of anyone’s personal privacy, rather it is a massively important development in our ability to hold states to account in the information age. It is about equalization, democratization and the potential creation of a global polity to hold the already globalized economy and political elites accountable.

John Naughton, writing on The Guardian website, argues that western states who claim openness is part of freedom and democracy cannot have it both ways. We should, he says, ‘live with the Wikileakable world’. It is this view we accept, not the ambivalence of people like digital critic, Clay Shirky, who, despite being a long-term advocate of openness seemingly so long as the openness of the Internet remained safely confined to areas like economic innovation, cannot bring himself to defend this openness when its genuinely political potential is beginning to be realised.

The alternative to openness is closure, as Naughton argues. The Internet, created by the US military but long freed from their control, is now under thread of being recaptured, renationalized, sterilized and controlled. With multiple attacks on the net from everything from capitalist states’ redefinition of intellectual property and copyrights, through increasingly comprehensive surveillance of Internet traffic by almost all states, to totalitarian states’ censorship of sites, and now the two becoming increasingly indistinguishable over the case of Wikileaks, now is the time for all who support an open and liberatory Internet to stand up.

Over 30 years ago, between 1975 and 1976 at the Collège de France, Michel Foucault gave a powerful series of lectures entitled Society Must Be Defended. With so much that is social vested in these electronic chains of connection and communication, we must now argue clearly and forcefully that, nation-states and what they want be damned, “The Internet Must Be Defended!”

“To destroy invisible government”

There was a really interesting piece posted this week on the blog, zunguzungu, which analyzes an early essay written by Wikileaks frontman, Julian Assange. The essay which is available on Cryptome (pdf) – itself a precursor of Wikileaks – is a very well-crafted and argued piece which reveals Assange as a radical idealist for a new transparent society, whose aim is ultimately to destroy the need for Wikileaks itself by making secretive government impossible. Very worth reading.