I am doing a bit of work on the ‘vanishing of surveillance’ right now – looking at the decreasing size of sensors, the hiding of surveillance platforms through biomimetics, and so on.

So I was very interested in news reported on Boing Boing today about a pinhead-sized camera with no conventional lens etc. that is mainly designed for applications that do not require detail. The inventors are talking about medical applications, but once again, the agency funding this is DARPA, the US Defense Department’s research organisation.

Tokyo Brandscaping and the SuiPo system

Brandscaping is a term used in marketing to describe the metaphorical landscape of brands (either for a particular brand, company or sector), however it is also being used by some researchers, including me, to describe the way in which brands are being infiltrated into urban landscapes, with the ultimate aim of being ‘inhabitable’ perhaps even 24/7 (see for example Disney’s move into urban development with Celebration in Florida).

Contemporary brandscaping makes use of new ambient intelligence, pervasive or ubiquitous computing technologies (‘ubicomp’) and ubiquitous wireless communications to create a landscape in which the consumer is targeted with specific messages directing them to certain consumption patterns. Such communication cans of course be two-way and provide corporations with valuable and very personal data on consumption patterns. As I’ve argued in many presentations over the last few years, ubicomp is necessarily also ubiquitous surveillance (what I call ‘ubisurv’ – hence the name of this blog!) because to work it requires locatability and addressability. Japan, and Tokyo in particular, has been the site for a number of cutting edge experiments in this regard, including the ‘Tokyo Ubiquitous Technology Project’ which embedded 1000 RFID tags which can communicate with RFID-enabled keitai (mobile phones) in upscale Ginza as well as several other pilot schemes around Ueno Park and Shinjuku.

TUTP is not all about marketing surveillance however, part of the scheme has involved ‘Universal Design’ (UD) principles, with one experiment to embed chips in the yellow tactile tiles designed to help guide sight- and mobility-impaired people around the city so that useful access information could be passed through specially-enabled walking sticks. I’m very interested in such experiments as they indicate an alternative direction for ubicomp environments which are about genuinely enabling people who are currently disabled by social and architectural norms, and creating a richer sensory landscape. They show that both surveillance and ‘scary’ technology like RFID chips can be humanised.

Unfortunately in our consumer-capitalist world (and Tokyo is the exemplary city of hyper-consumption), marketing and building brandscapes tends to take priority over enabling the excluded and the disadvantaged. But there are different ways of doing this too, which can be more or less intrusive and consensual. The other day I was talking about the growth in functionality of the Suica smart travel card system. Suica-enabled keitai can now, be used buying all sorts of things and since 2006 there have been a growing number of ‘SuiPo’ (short for ‘Suica Poster’) sites, Suica-enabled advertising hoardings that will, on demand send information to your mobile e-mail address with on particular advertising in which you are interested if you pass your Suica card or phone over a scanner placed next to the poster (see photos below)

The difference between SuiPo and the Ginza RFID scheme however is that it with SuiPo is that it is the consumer who makes the choice whether to activate any particular poster’s additional information system. In this sense it is a development of the i-Mode system in which many keitai can read information from special barcodes embdedded in magazine advertisements. It doesn’t automatically call your phone every time you pass an enabled poster, once you have signed up. Not as high-tech but slightly more consensual. However this will, of course, lead to the accumulation of a lot of data on consumption interests. This potentially generates a massive consumer surveillance tool, because it can be linked up travel patterns (your registered Suica card sends information back on where you go – I was wrong about the absolute differences between London’s Oyster and Tokyo’s Suica systems the other day) and information about consumption.

So will this potential become reality? The page on privacy and data protection on the SuiPo website (as usual the link is hidden away at the bottom of the front page!), is pretty standard stuff except for the legitimate purposes for which the data can be used once you sign up. They are, for those who don’t read Japanese, for:

  1. Sending the specific requested information to you;
  2. Improving services;
  3. Data processing and analysis;
  4. JR East’s promotional marketing; and
  5. JR East customer questionnaires.

Purposes 2 and 3 pretty much allow JR to do anything it likes with the data once you have signed up, and there is no statement as to what can or cannot be done with data once it has been ‘mined’ – analysed and transformed into more useful to the company or other organisations (corporate or state) which might want to buy or access such knowledge. ‘Ubisurv’ indeed…

In a society of ubiquitous telecoms surveillance, not having a mobile phone is now suspicious

Contemporary social sorting techniques look for abnormality, but the norms are increasingly defined by reference to the methods of sorting themselves. Thus not wanting to be under mass surveillance makes you suspicious and a subject of targeted surveillance; research into, or resistance or opposition to surveillance also makes you a suspect…

There is a really good article by David Mery in The Register, which provides a nice summary of the current situation regarding the mass surveillance of mobile telecommunications in the EU and the UK specifically.

One particularly interesting point he makes is that the combination of the ubiquity of the mobile phone – there are more phones than people across most of Europe now – with the routine nature of mass state surveillance of telecommunications traffic and mobile phone location, means that not carrying a mobile phone is now grounds for suspicions. One item in the ridiculous German anti-terrorism case against the academic, Andrej Holm, was “the fact that he – allegedly intentionally – did not take his mobile phone with him to a meeting is considered as ‘conspiratorial behavior.'” In te similarly ridiculous arrest of a load of back-to-the-land communards at Tarnac in France, their lack of mobile phones was also considered to be suspicious and evidence of ‘clandestinity.’

This is a key indication of living in a ubiquitous surveillance society – when the norms of surveillance practice start to be seen by the state (or indeed people) as a more general societal norm, and nonconformity is grounds for suspicion. The surveillance society is a self-referential, self-reinforcing one. Contemporary social sorting techniques look for abnormality, but the norms are increasingly defined by the methods of sorting themselves. Thus not wanting to be under mass surveillance makes you suspicious and a subject of targeted surveillance; research into, or resistance or opposition to surveillance also makes you a suspect (as the current London Met poster campaign also shows). The normalisation of surveillance potentially makes suspicious anything that we do that makes state surveillance of more difficult. It is no longer a case of a passive ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’, but that not volunteering to be under surveillance makes us ‘abnormal’.

This seriously affects our civil liberties, but it has the potential to affect something more fundamental too – our autonomy, that is the ability to define ourselves as indviduals. Contemporary surveillance societies have started to impose categorisations and indentifications onto people that have nothing to do with how we feel about our identities. These categorisations not only stand for us in specific negotiations with the state (as they always have done in the past), they appear increasingly designed to erase identity (or even the potential for the self-construction of identity) and replace it with an identificatiton, by reinscribing the state categorisation, derived from surveillance, back onto the person and their behaviour.