A Culture of Pornography and the Surveillance Society

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)

New Double Issue of Surveillance & Society

I’m very pleased to have got a new double issue of Surveillance & Society out. This one really benefitted from the great work of our new Editorial Assistant, Sarah Cheung, and our new Debates Editor, Laura Huey. It also marked the end of the tenure of Kevin Haggerty as our Book Review Editor, which is sad, but it will mean that we have two new Book Review Editors for the Americas and for Europe (+ the rest of the world): Ben Goold and Chiara Fonio.

Anyway, content…


Katherine Barnard-Wills & David Barnard-Wills – Invisible Surveillance in Visual Art

Tina Girishbhai Patel – Surveillance, Suspicion and Stigma: Brown Bodies in a Terror-Panic Climate

Joshua Reeves – If You See Something, Say Something: Lateral Surveillance and the Recession of Sovereignty

Doug Tewksbury – Crowdsourcing Homeland Security: The Texas Virtual BorderWatch and Participatory Citizenship

Catherine Luther and Ivanka Radovic – Perspectives on Privacy, Information Technology, and Company/Governmental Surveillance in Japan

Christel Backman – Mandatory Criminal Record Checks in Sweden: Scandals and Function Creep

Clemence Due, Kathleen Connellan and Damien W Riggs – Surveillance, Security and Violence in a Mental Health Ward: An Ethnographic Case-Study of a Purpose-Built Unit in Australia

Andrew Manley, Catherine Palmer and Martin Roderick – Disciplinary Power, the Oligopticon and Rhizomatic Surveillance in Elite Sports Academies

Michele (Michal) Rapoport – The Home Under Surveillance: A Tripartite Assemblage

Debate: Privacy Online

featuring Laura Huey, Micheal Vonn, Reg Whitaker, Paul Rosenzweig, danah boyd, Steve T. Margulis, and Gary T. Marx, and Judith Rauhofer

+ reviews of Ball, Haggerty and Lyon’s Handbook of Surveillance Studies, Bruno, Kanashiro and Firmino’s Vigilância e Visibilidade: Espaço, tecnología e identificação and Braverman’s Zooland: The Institution of Captivity

Check it Out!

Oxford taxi cabs will record your every word…

Just when you thought that having just about your every move recorded in the UK was bad enough, Oxford City Council, which runs the city I once called home, has decided that all taxi cabs in the city will record both sound and vision, and these records will be kept for up to 28 days, just in case.

People often ask me ‘where do you draw the line?’. Well, you absolutely draw the line at recording private conversations without a specific justification. Generalized audio surveillance is not just a step over the line, it leaps over the line, lands far beyond it and keeps running.

This is just wrong. No qualification.

It seems that despite having got rid of one government with authoritarian surveillance tendencies, the same impulses are alive and well in local government in Britain. Perhaps the councillors who voted for this would first like to have audio surveillance in their offices, cars and houses, you know: just in case…

The Total Surveillance Society?

Advanced visual surveillance has become prevalent in most developed nations but, being restricted by inconvenient things like democracy and accountability (even if they are not as strong as some would like) and police and local authority funding, such surveillance remains patchy even where it is widespread.

The Chinese state, however, suffers from none of these inconvenient restrictions. Free from democracy, accountability, and with a buoyant economy still largely connected to the Communist Party, it is able to put in place surveillance systems beyond the wildest dreams of the most paranoid western administrators. The target of the new wave of surveillance is internal political unrest, particularly in separatist Tibetan Buddhist and Muslim areas of the massive nation.

Associated Press is reporting official internal announcements about how Urumqi, capital of the Uighur Muslim area of Xinjiang, which saw extensive anti-government protests last year, will be blanketed by surveillance systems. According to the report:

  • 40,000 high-definition surveillance cameras with riot-proof protective shells have already been installed in the region, with 17,000 in Urumqi itself
  • 3,400 buses, 4,400 streets, 270 schools and 100 shopping malls are already covered
  • the aim is for surveillance to be “seamless”, with no blind spots in sensitive areas of the city (and this includes in particular, religious sites)
  • 5,000 new police officers have been recruited

This is part of a wider ‘Safe City’ strategy – in this context, even more of a euphemistic description that the same words would be in the west – that will see 10 million cameras being installed across the country. Ths numbers keep growing all the time: the last time that I reported on this, the estimate was less than 3 million ! IMS Consultants last year estimated that the Chinese video surveillance market was $1.4 billion in 2009, and that this will grow to over $3.5 billion by 2014. China is now the single largest market for video surveillance in the world.