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)

US school spies on kids at school… and at home

There’s a really disturbing story on Boingboing concerning a US school in a wealthy suburb that issued laptops to students whose webcams could be covertly switched on by school administrators, wherever the kids were. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the school saw nothing wrong in using these cameras to spy on kids at home, and even issuing a disciplinary notice to one child who was apparently deemed to be guilty of ‘improper behaviour.’ Not surprisingly the school is now subject to a class action lawsuit.

School surveillance is a particularly under-studied issue, although recently, there has been the excellent new book edited by Torin Monahan and there will be a double issue of Surveillance & Society on surveillance and children coming out in March / April. It seems that because children either do not have adult rights (or their rights are not seen as important in the same way), states, school authorities and individual Heads and Administrators have all taken the opportunity to experiment with ever more  intrusive surveillance measures. Many of these were once justified with reference to concerns over truancy and attendance, or security and violence (the metal detectors in many urban US high schools, for example), and then there was health (used to justify the automated monitoring of what kids ate at meal times). But increasingly more petty and market-based issues have emerged: corporate data-collection and compliance with minor rules and regulations. All seemingly without any regard for the developing sense of autonomy, privacy or sociality of children.

Of course, the increasing use of surveillance in schools also serves an educative function in a surveillance society: essentially it indoctrinates children as to what is the ‘new normal’, what should be their expectations of privacy (and other rights) in a world increasingly organised on the principles of surveillance. However it’s good to see the lawsuit in this case and that some things still have the power to raise people from their apathy. But this is a school in a wealthy area with educated parents who understand and have access to the law – what would be the outcome in a school in a marginalized area?

Virtual surveillance fail

this Open-Circuit TV (OCTV) is also about ´responsibilizing´citizens, trying to turn ordinary people into civic spies. Luckily, whilst people love to watch, they generally refuse to behave as agents of surveillance

The US-Mexican border has been a pretty good barometer of the levels of paranoia, waste and stupidity around immigration and surveillance for quite some time now. Now the El Paso Times of Texas reports on the stupendous failure of one massive initiative that was supposed to spread the burden of watching the border by installing webcams (and associated infrastructure) for US citizens to watch online and report anything suspicious.

Around $2 Million US was sunk into the program, yet it had few tangible outcomes. The figures, released under the Texas Public Information Act show that despite 1,894,288 hits on the website, there have been just 3 arrests out of a projected 1200, and only 8 incidents reported in total out of a projected 50,000.

What made me laugh was the comment from the office of Governor Rick Perry, who initiated the scheme, that the only problem was the way in which the scheme´s success had been assessed – there is a quote from a spokesperson that is a classic of government evasion: apparently, ¨the progress reports need to be adjusted to come in line with the strategy¨!

The only sensible comment on the whole debacle comes from Scott Stewart, a surveillance and security expert from Stratfor, who notes as all surveillance experts already know, that cameras are not that effective at deterring or stopping crime, and blames our naive faith in technological solutions that ¨can provide us with a false sense of security¨.

This isn´t just about whether cameras work though.

Of course there are wider issues about the fairness of US relations with Mexico which, under NAFTA, effectively mean that the US uses Mexico as a source of cheap labour and land for manufacturing and the free flow of goods, but does not permit the free flow of people. However for studies of surveillance, it is also about whether encouraging virtual voyeurism is either socially desirable or effective in reducing crime. In terms of effectiveness, of course Bruce Schneier has been arguing for quite a while that most security schemes are inefficient and counterproductive and there was an excellent paper by John Mueller of Ohio State University exploding the statistical myths around security measures in the War on Terror.

But this Open-Circuit Television (OCTV) – not the the usual Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) we are used to in malls and big cities – is also about ´responsibilizing´citizens, trying to turn ordinary people into civic spies. Luckily, whilst people love to watch, they generally refuse to behave as states would want and do not willingly become agents of surveillance – as this scheme and the experiment in the London borough of Shoreditch with such participatory surveillance schemes, which was similarly successful amongst viewers but achieved no measurable result and was shelved, show.

Note: Hille Koskela of the University of Helsinki, who works mainly on webcams, has been following the Texas border watch scheme and will be presenting a paper on it at our Surveillance, Security and Social Control in Latin America sumposium here in Curitiba in March… I look forward to hearing her analysis.