The state of surveillance

This is a conference report from the Cyber-surveillance in everyday life workshop that took place 12-15 May 2011 at the University of Toronto.

One of the great things about this international workshop was the conscious inclusion of a variety of different actor besides academic scholars. Hackers, activists, lawyers, advocates and policy folks concerned with the implications of near-ubiquitous surveillance, both online and off made for a great launch pad for discussions. In fact an advocate or activist, rather than someone from the same academic community/perspective consequently commented upon every academic paper presented.

The workshop kicked off with a panel on codes, technologies and technologies of resistance. Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum’s paper addressed the problem of resistance to regimes of everyday surveillance in which refusal to these technologies is not really a practical option. Instead they proposed a tactic of obfuscation as a strategy of last resort. Obfuscation could take the form of actors producing misleading, false or ambiguous data with the intention of confusing the adversary. In my opinion, such a tactic of obfuscation presents a much more interesting or clever way of resisting surveillance technologies than merely leaving or refusing to use it. For instance in the case of Facebook many have argued that the only option is to simply quit and leave, but for most young people this isn’t really a feasible option as they would miss out on too much in terms of their social life (see for instance Alice Marwick’s interesting conference contribution in this regard ). Obfuscation or feeding misleading data to these databases would not only contribute to questioning the authenticity and usefulness of these technologies but also constitute a clever way of employing their own means against them, as obfuscation is a common technique used in software development. As Brunton said: “If data is what they want you can give them enormous amounts, repeat yourself, say different things, fill the possibility space with points”.

It is important to discuss different strategies, tactics and options people have when encountering surveillance technologies especially because for some people surveillance indeed becomes a very real encounter, of which the G8 and G20 summits and activists are always a good example. But the continuum between event activists and everyday life is not very comparable. There was a lot of talk about privacy violation and surveillance technologies, of silent sms sent by the police in order to track someone’s whereabouts, deep packet inspection on the Internet, Google’s search engine query logs, Web cookies, RFID, eye tracking and advertising in public spaces, wire tapping, storage of CCTV recordings. Again, for some these techniques may become very acute while for others having to constantly deal with taking a conscious stance may become a burden in and of itself. Indeed, some of the more radical proposed solutions such as ‘take out the batteries of your mobile phone’, or ‘just stop using digital technologies’ cannot be the answer – or at least not for ordinary people.

So what should be done then? Practices need to be context sensitive. Most delegates seemed to agree on this. What might be an appropriate response in one situation is not necessarily in another situation. For example, not having a mobile phone or Internet and phone wires can have exactly the opposite effect than what one originally intended. As one conference participant mentioned, Bin Laden’s compound stood out because there was no Internet or phone wire. In other words, not being or acting like everyone else is suspicious. Surveillance is not only based on what is there but arguably more importantly on what is missing.

A telling case that deserves attention is that of Andrej Holm and Anne Roth . On the morning of July 31st, 2007, a squad of special police forces raided their apartment. Holm was arrested along with six other men and kept in detention for weeks. The crime? Suspicious behaviour that had led the police to accuse him of being part of a terrorist organization. This suspicious behaviour included conspicuous search terms on Google, usage of the term “gentrification” in his academic articles (a word also used by the terrorist organization) and not always taking his mobile phone along. As Holm and Roth explain in a book chapter on their experiences: “A terrorism accusation in Germany allows extensive surveillance options: phones were tapped, emails read, access to websites registered and evaluated. GPS devices were installed in private cars to exactly monitor their movements. Video cameras pointed to house entrances, and police teams followed the accused to observe their daily life. Portable microphones recorded conversations in bars.” 1 In an article written for the Guardian right after the arrest the prominent sociologists Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen liken the German case to Guantanamo and the war on terror in which nameless fears and irrational reposes get out of hand. It surely casts a rather dark light on academic freedom and free speech.

The other side of the equation as exemplified in a couple of papers on the discourse of surveillance and ordinary people’s reaction to it is that most people do not really care too much. As Arsalan Butt and Richard Smith’s paper title tellingly says, “I might not scratch my ass if I think there might be a camera taping it”. The question is whether we can live with this kind of effect on our behaviour imposed by surveillance technologies or not. People are ok with being surveilled as long as they get some discounts, was another conclusion. No big surprise there I suspect. And here is also the crux with these technologies, it is always a matter of give and take of balancing the positive and the negative. For example, people get to use Facebook for free. In turn they agree to give up their data. People generally think it is ok that CCTV’s are in use, if this may help prevent or solve crime.

Discussions around surveillance often involve a good deal of paranoia.2 Get together a too homogenous group and the risk is it becomes black and white. This conference brought together a quite homogeneous group albeit it did not necessarily set out to do so. Don’t get me wrong, the mix of activists, academic and advocates was great, but at the end of the day everyone was concerned. Why was there not anybody there in favour of surveillance? Why is surveillance almost always framed as if it is a bad thing that involves a breach in privacy? Maybe it is symptomatic of entering a new field from the outside to always get a little bit surprised by the high level of agreement and consent about the topic of concern as if it is a given. There is no denying that in a state of ubiquitous computing, digitalized public spaces, growing use and dissemination of biometric techniques and use of automated detection and recognition software surveillance is not only an important but also a truly necessary topic. But then what? As Colin Bennett, one of the central scholars in the field of surveillance studies, asked in the discussion round after one of the last panels, what is surveillance anyways? Is it still (if it ever was) a useful framework, and why?

This expresses the problem with surveillance studies, or any other prefix to ‘studies’ for that matter. The prefix all to often becomes a given, treated as an ontological fact. I am not saying that one should constantly question what ‘media’ is when engaging in ‘media studies’. Surely something must be taken for granted at some level if we are to proceed at all. However coming from outside, meaning not being overly familiar with the surveillance studies literature, made me realize how unquestioned the term surveillance and more importantly its usefulness went throughout the conference. Of course, as David Harper responded it is perfectly ok to have a hard time defining the social as a sociologists for instance, it is even part of the game. The same should go for surveillance. What could possibly have become an interesting discussion did unfortunately just fade away and I got a nagging feeling it was because surveillance all too often just gets treated as a word rather than a concept. The distinction being that a word describes, refers to something external to itself, while the concept also questions, embedded with fundamental ontological and epistemological concerns. Surveillance as it seems to me is very much used as a word, a buzzword even, describing a state of affair often embedded in a set of concrete technologies rather than questioned as a concept. Instead of always equating surveillance with CCTV one should ask what surveillance really means, how it means, what it is,  how we can use it as a valuable analytical framework, where we draw the boundaries if everything is becoming surveillance and how do we know it is surveillance?

1 Andrej Holm and Anne Roth (2010) ‘Anti-terror Investigations against Social Movements— A Personal Experience of a Preventive Threat’. In  F. Hessdörfer, A. Pabst, P. Ullrich (Ed.) Prevent and Tame. Protest under (Self)Control. Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag. URL:

2 See for instance conference delegate David Harper’s paper Paranoia and public responses to cyber-surveillance. URL:

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