The Tools of Personal Surveillance

There’s always something interesting on BoingBoing, and it was via that site that I came across this story in Salon magazine about one woman’s decision to track down the man who had robbed her. Now, most of the commentary about this has focussed on her commitment and determination and the usual stuff about how the police let criminals prospers etc. However, what interested me was the techniques and technologies that she was able to employ to find this guy: basically not only did she use a whole lot of techniques and technologies that not so long ago would have been the preserve of the intelligence services, police or private investigators, but also the thief in question was also an inveterate social networker and was about as careless with his online personae as most of us are. Of course, what it also shows is that it takes an awful lot of effort to do this, and this kind of obsessive hunt takes over lives, so it would not be a practical option: individual surveillance is not a substitute for the power of the state. It’s a fascinating read…

Helmet cams – self-protection or surveillance?

I am a cyclist, and for a while now I have been thinking about the increasing numbers of my fellow cyclists in the UK who are filming their everyday rides to work, and often posting the results online on sites like youtube. This has become more obvious as something particular since i have moved to Canada where very few cyclists seem to do this. There are more and more discussions on online cycling forums and even dedicated areas for swapping videos, tips and camera stories. This practice seems to have started amongst mountain-bikers and other extreme sports enthusiasts, but the use of handlebar or helmet-mounted cameras on ordinary commuting rides has a very different purpose. For most it appears to originate in a desire for self-protection. Cyclists are more aware than most of bad driving and how vulnerable you can feel when people cocooned in large mobile chunks of metal and glass are doing stupid things around you at high speed.

But as a surveillance studies specialist as well as a cyclist, I have more mixed feelings. We’ve been studying the way in which surveillance has come to be perhaps the primary way in which the state organises itself, and how crucial it as become to capital, to the organisation of labour and materials. We have also identified the way in which increasingly ubiquitous surveillance affects social relations, how it is implicated both as a reaction to, and as a driver of, the decline of social assurance, of trust. We’ve talked about the dehumanising effects of surveillance: the loss of dignity, privacy, of how memory and the mollifying effects of forgetting are replaced by constant recording. We have predicted the decreasing size and cost of surveillance devices, of their growing mobility, independence and even ‘democratization’ (or at least wider spread), and seen those predictions happen at even greater speed than most had anticipated.

The surveillance society has spawned reactions: there has been anti-surveillance (smashing of cameras, protests, mapping of paths of least surveillance etc.), situationalism and play, there has been ‘sousveillance’ with activists turning the gaze back on the watchers, and there has been guerilla and vigilante surveillance, with groups citizens using the increasingly cheap surveillance equipment for their own personal and political ends from the Texas Minutemen watching the US border for illegal immigrants to my cyclist friends.

My real concern, I suppose, is whether the use of surveillance by ordinary people is some kind of empowering self-protection, or whether it is simply another step further into a surveillance society. The answer, I think, is that it is both. Certainly the cyclists don’t see it as the latter, but people, even the most intelligent, rarely see themselves as part of a trend that many would regard as negative. Some do recognise the connection but have no problem with it. The same ‘nothing to hide. nothing to fear’ rhetoric is trotted out, but usually by people who are too naive to understand the implications of what they are saying, too self-centered to realise that it isn’t just about them, or too boring to be able to even imagine what they might ever do anything interesting enough to come to the attention of anyone watching. The use of helmet cams does however, have an in inherent and implied politics: it does make it very difficult to construct any coherent politics of state CCTV if you are yourself involved in surveillance on an everyday basis. How can you complain about the number of cameras in your high street, when you make videos of drivers who have annoyed you and put them online?

I’ll be posting more about this as I think of it.

The rise of personal surveillance

Personal surveillance is only going to get harder to regulate as things like ‘smart dust’ and micro-UAVs come down in price and are more easily available…

CBS News in the USA is reporting on the rise of stalking and in particular the use of more powerful, smaller and cheaper surveillance devices: embedded hidden cameras, GPS trackers and so on. They discuss in particular the case of Michael Strahan, a sportsman who seems to be obsessed with keeping watch on family and friends. But the bigger pictures is that stalking is something that apparently affects around 3.4 million US citizens. That’s more than one in a hundred, an astonishing figure if it’s anywhere near ‘right’.

Stalking and personal surveillance are an integral part of the culture of any state in which order in ensured through surveillance. We are creating unhealthy societies in which personal relationships between people are increasingly characterised by the same fear and distrust as states have of their people.

Smart Dust chips (Dust Networks)
Smart Dust chips (Dust Networks)

ravenThis is only going to get harder to regulate as things like ‘smart dust’ and micro-UAVs come down in price and are more easily available. And already surveillance equipment like head-mounted cameras for cyclists, is marketed as ‘toys’… regulation is only half the answer. The other half has to be in working out how to shift away from this mistrustful, fearful, risk-obsessed culture. Part of this has to be down to government: the more that surveillance is part of every solution they come up with to any problem, the worse the social malaise will become.