Will the Global South overtake the North in transparency?

At a time when liberal democracies in the Global North seem increasingly paranoid and cutting down both on personal freedoms and government accountability, could nations from the Global South seize the moment to become the new pace-setters on open government?

There are plenty of good examples from Latin American, but it’s in Africa that the real changes are occurring. Yes, that’s the same Africa often stereotyped as the home of endless war, corruption, military coups and dictators. Kenya, in fact, which the pessimists were portraying as being on the brink of collapse and authoritarianism after election violence a few years ago. But now, Kenya is pushing forward with massive changes in the way its government operates with an increasing tendency towards open information and other accountability initiatives, as a Guardian story is reporting.

Cynics will argue that this is just pandering to a new urban middle class, with only 26% of Kenyans having home Internet access. However, like many countries in Africa, the communications revolution us predominantly mobile and almost 65% of Kenyans have mobile telephones and will be able to access mobile versions of the new sites.

Towards Open-Circuit Television

The era of Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) surveillance may be coming to an end. Surprised? Unfortunately, this does not mean that we are likely to see less surveillance, and cameras being torn down any time soon – quite the contrary. Instead a number of developments are pointing the way to the emergence of more Open-Circuit Television (OCTV) surveillance. These developments include technological ones, like wireless networking, the move to store data via ‘cloud’ computing, participatory locative computing technologies like CityWare, and the increasing affordability and availability of personal surveillance devices (for example, these plug and play mini-cameras unveiled at DemoFall 09). However they also include changes in the way that video surveillance is monitored and by whom.

Back in 2007, a pilot scheme in Shoreditch in London, which enabled residents to watch CCTV cameras on a special TV channel, was canned. However the project had proved to be incredibly popular amongst residents. Now The Daily Telegraph reports that an entrepreneur in Devon, Tony Morgan has set up a company, Internet Eyes, which is marketing what is calls an ‘event notification system’. They plan to broadcast surveillance footage from paying customers on the Internet, with the idea that the public will work as monitors. They won’t just be doing this for nothing however: the whole thing is set up like a game, where ‘players’ gain points for spotting suspected crimes (three if it is an actual crime) and lost points for false alarms. To back this up, there are monthly prizes (paid for out of the subscriptions of the organisations whose cameras are being monitored) of up to 1000 GBP (about $1600 US). Their website claims that a provisional launch is scheduled for November.

Mark Andrejevic has been arguing, most recently in iSpy, that those who watch Reality TV are engaging in a form of labour, now we see the idea transferred directly to video surveillance in ‘real reality’ (a phrase which will make Bill Bogard laugh, at least – he’s been arguing that simulation and surveillance are increasingly interconnected, for years). This idea might seem absurd, indeed ‘unreal’ but it is an unsurprising outcome of the culture of voyeurism that has been engendered by that combination of ever-present CCTV on the streets and Reality TV shows that came together so neatly in Britain from the early 1990s. It certainly raises a shudder too, at the thought of idiots and racists with time on their hands using this kind of things to reinforce prejudices and create trouble.

But is it really so bad? At the moment, UK residents are asked to trust in the ‘professionalism’ of an almost entirely self-regulating private security industry or the police. Neither have a particularly good record on race-relations for a start. Why is it intrinsically worse, if there are to be cameras at all (which I am certainly not arguing that there should be) to have cameras that are entirely open to public scrutiny? Is this any different from watching public webcams? Wouldn’t it actually be an improvement if this went further? If say, the CCTV cameras in police stations were open to public view? Would it make others, including the powerful, more accountable like a kind of institutionalised sousveillance?

In Ken Macleod‘s recent novel, The Execution Channel, the title refers to an anonymous but pervasive broadcast that shows the insides of torture chambers and prison cells, which functions as a device of moral conscience (at least for literary purposes) but also a Ballardian commentary on the pervasive blandness of what used to be the most outrageous atrocity. Accountability is in the end as far from this project as it is from Internet Eyes. Set up like a game, it will be treated like a game. It strips out any consequence or content from reality and leaves just the surfaces. What is ‘seen’ is simply the most superficial – and seen by the most suspicious. Participatory internet surveillance is Unreality TV. In any case, I don’t think it will either be successful in terms of crime-control (other such participatory surveillance schemes, like that on the Texas-Mexico border, have so-far proved to be failures) or useful in social terms, and may also be illegal without significant safeguards and controls anyway.

And there is nothing to stop multiple people signing up with multiple aliases and just messing the system up… not that I’d suggest anything like that, of course.

(Thank-you to Aaron Martin for badgering me with multiple posts pointing in this direction! Sometimes it just takes a little time to think about what is going on here…)

Behind the scenes at Surveillance & Society

pkpI’ve been keeping quiet about this on the blog so far because it’s too close to me and probably of little interest to anyone who’s reading this, but what’s been occupying just about all my so-called spare time, and driving me crazy, for the last few months has been finally getting Surveillance & Society converted to a new website which runs on the really rather excellent Open Journal System, run by the Public Knowledge Project.

If it’s so excellent, why has it been driving me crazy? Well, being a piece of Open Source software, there’s a lot that is down to the user in terms of trouble-shooting and fixing unexpected problems. And unfortunately, despite being someone who often researches software, and computer systems, I am not massively geeky (ok, so my Geek Quotient is probably higher than some but that’s mostly down to teenage role-playing activities!). I originally taught myself HTML to design the original site, but using OJS has meant that I have had to develop a familiarity with CSS, XML and PHP. If I’d known how simple it was at the beginning it probably would have only taken me a few days, but I had periods of utter despair just looking at the site every so often over days and then weeks, and wondering why the <bleep> it wasn’t working… by the end I was just wondering how I could have been quite so stupid.opensource_logo

Well, there’s still lots to do but the site works. That makes me happy. And, more importantly it confirms both my and Surveillance & Society‘s commitment to open flows – Open Source, Open Access and the Creative Commons. The latest issue has even been produced entirely on a Linux-driven netbook from here in Brazil using Open Office (ok, maybe I am getting just a tiny bit geeky!). There is still a perception especially amongst those who buy into the corporate model of publishing that online journals are just pale imitations or easier to get published in, but Surveillance & Society is no weak online version of anything else, it is a proper academic journal with proper academic standards. Of course it is free to publish in and free to access. We aren’t going to go down the route of pay-to-view or pay-to-publish. Knowledge should be free. The downside is that our organisation has been literally amateurish and our ability to keep to deadlines has depended way too much upon my timetable and state of mind: the new issue was the result of another overnighter – I havenĀ“t slept for 36 hours…

cclogocircleWhat has kept the journal just about going until this new website was developed has been time given mainly by me, but also by the other members of the Editorial Board and our Editorial Assistant, oh and also Nilz, and the techs from all-inkl.de and the OJS Support Forum who have really been very patient! It is sometimes like an extra full-time job for which I don’t get paid… hopefully now, with a site that is at least partly automated and to which many people can contribute, that will no longer be the case. Surveillance & Society will finally be able to stick to a timetable, and I will be a lot less stressed.

But to do this we need some income and the main way we get this is by membership and donations. If you are interested in surveillance studies and want to support us, you can join Surveillance Studies Network or give us whatever you want – we’re a registered charity that owns Surveillance & Society and works to develop Surveillance Studies worldwide. That, and the income from reprints of articles in books, is about the only income we have.