Category Archives: Surveillance

The Janus-Face of the Conservative Government and New Technology: Digital Democracy and the Information State

Two recent stories about the Conservative government’s approach to digital media are worthy of mention and reflection.

Story 1: The federal government wants to be your Facebook friend and connect with you on Twitter. As Treasury Board president and power Tweeter Tony Clement argues, “To use social media, to speak directly to people, to our constituents, to citizens, to communicate rapidly and directly with our employees and the Canadian public is a challenge, but it is big occasion to promote the conversation between citizens and the Canadian government.”

Canadians are spending more of their time online: here we swap recipes, upload pictures, plan parties, gossip, and, yes, even talk about politics and policy. The idea of the federal government connecting in the social mediascape with Canadians seems both legitimate and progressive because it potentially promotes greater transparency and accountability, and invites more Canadians to talk back to their government. As open government advocates argue, there’s no question social technologies can be used in democratically progressive ways, and may help enhance the quality of civic discourse and mitigate the governance gap between politicians and citizens.

Story 2: In a series of legislative moves relating to overhauling the Criminal Code (Bills C-50, C-51, C-52), the Conservative government will require Internet Service Providers to hand over personal information about Canadians to the police without warrant, to retool their networks in ways that enables live monitoring of consumer online activities, and to assist police in the testing of online surveillance capabilities. Despite protest from ordinary Canadians and advocacy groups, lawyers, provincial privacy watchdogs, as well as the federal government’s own appointed privacy and surveillance advocate, Jennifer Stoddart, the Conservatives refuse to even talk about (let alone consider) measures or modifications that would smooth out the most egregious aspects of the legislation.

[On the Conservative’s new copyright legislation (Bill C-11), see my colleague Dwayne Winseck’s recent column in the Globe & Mail. It raises numerous critical observations which point to interesting connections between these areas of legislation and their implications for digital media, surveillance and privacy.]

These stories are illuminating in their own right but far more interesting when taken together because they reveal the Janus-faced nature of digital media as well as government policy as it relates to new technology. Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. With two faces looking in opposite directions, he was at once peering into the past while gazing to the future.

So much public discourse about digital technology reflects the belief–widely shared by academics, journalists, open government advocates, and politicians like Minister Clement (at least publicly)–that given enough connectivity and devices, democracy is inevitable and will flourish. It’s hard not to be taken in by the seductive nature of this claim; indeed there is a case to be made for the relationship between access, information flow and democratization.

At the same time, we can’t consider the democratic potential of digital media without addressing questions of governance and regulation. If we assume that the Internet will only function in the service of democracy, we not only risk operating with what Evgeny Morozov calls a “voluntary intellectual handicap”, we also run the risk undermining our own attempts to create a more robust polity and democracy.

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The media conversation about surveillance: the slowly shifting sands of time

In a recent study, a colleague and I examined the media conversation around public area video surveillance in Canada, analyzing more than 500 articles from 10 Canadian cities, spanning a period of 6 years (1999-2005). We were concerned to know how video surveillance is framed (i.e. what is discussed, what is ignored) and what the coverage might mean for how citizens understand the increasing presence of surveillance technologies and practices in their lives. 

The study will be published later this year or in 2010, but here is a summary of the key findings:

1. The coverage focuses almost exclusively on situational events, failing to engage wider contextual issues relating to the pervasiveness of surveillance. 

2. The media agenda is driven largely by the claims of police and government sources — academics, privacy advocates and community groups (on all sides of the debate), in comparison, exercise very little influence over the definitional parameters of the coverage. 

3. Coverage conflates the monitoring of open, public spaces like city streets with more bounded spaces like shopping malls and banks. This raises important theoretical and political questions about how we understand and use “public” and “private” space.  

4. Despite extensive research which questions the ability of video surveillance cameras to prevent crime, the dominant theme in CCTV news stories is the “deterrence capacity” of surveillance systems. 

5. In the very limited extent to which the problems associated with surveillance are discussed, issues of personal privacy are by far the dominant concern — questions of ethics and efficacy, not to mention costs/benefits, are virtually absent. 



Like policy making and public opinion, news reporting of social issues like surveillance can fluctuate over time, subject to changes in knowledge and in the communication activities of institutional sources. This became apparent in relation to the issue of surveillance recently when the Ottawa Citizen published Our Surveillance Society, a five-part investigation of the expansion of CCTV surveillance systems across Canada; the growing problem of identity theft; the surveillant properties of social networking sites like Facebook; the use of RFID (radio frequency identification devices) by retailers and the implications for personal privacy; and the rise of sousveillance (the inverse of surveillance in which those who are typically the subjects of monitoring initiatives turn the gaze back onto those in control with the use of visualizing technologies (think activist recordings of police brutality at demonstrations, later broadcast online or via news networks)).

Although the series contains some minor factual inaccuracies and (in the case of CCTV surveillance) a rather thin discussion about what is actually happening in Canada, it offers a very important contribution to the media and public conversations about surveillance.  The series explores many of the problematic issues relating to increased surveillance in daily life, from what it signifies about the changing nature of trust, to the regulatory and legislative challenges associated with balancing individual liberties and collective security, to the dialectic between care and control that is inherent in modern surveillance systems. As our research demonstrated, these issues are rarely raised, let alone explored in detail.

An open and honest discussion about CCTV and other forms of surveillance in Canada is long overdue. The optimist in me is hopeful that the Citizen’s series will spark the kind of interest and energy that are required to mobilize stakeholders into beginning such a conversation. The realist recognizes that the barn doors have been wide open for a very long time…

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Healthy Cities, Governable Subjects

Ever wonder what it would be like to live in a city where everyone was healthy, wealthy and wise? A city where there were no Big Macs, where everyone rode their bicycles to work and people just seemed to be in better spirits? If you are looking for such a utopia, Manchester England may be your Xanadu.

The newswires were abuzz yesterday with reports that Britain’s National Health Service has cooperated with local authorities in Manchester to provide incentives to citizens to eat more fruit, spend more time at the gym, engage in more preventative health measures and just lead a more productive and healthy lifestyle. Manchester is hoping to fight the fat with a reward system that will operate, for all intents and purposes, like a retail loyalty card program. But rather than earning credit for opening their wallets only, citizens will earn points for spending their hard earned dollars on fresh fruits and veggies and their leisure time doing pilates.

According to a report in the Associated Press, Manchester residents will be able to “swipe their rewards cards and earn points every time they buy fruits and vegetables, use a community swimming pool, attend a medical screening or work out with a personal trainer. Points can be redeemed for athletic equipment, donations to school athletic departments and personal training sessions with local athletes.”

It’s a public health craze that appears to be gaining traction in the UK. Tower Hamlets, the third most deprived London borough, will be undergoing an extreme makeover of its own — according to a report by the BBC, almost £10 million of government and local money has been earmarked for a “Healthy Cities” initiative that will turn the community into a place where people will find it easier to exercise and choose healthy food: walking and cycling routes will be extended, food co-ops will be established and fast food outlets will be enlisted in a campaign to offer more healthy meals on their menus.

With below average life expectancy, low exercise rates and unhealthy eating habits, the people of Tower Hamlets are thought to be at the centre of what the local primary care trust calls an “obesity epidemic.”

Beyond Manchester and Tower Hamlets, towns in other countries have tried similar programs. Varallo, a small town in northern Italy, offered cash rewards for residents who lost weight and kept it off for 12 months. Some U.S. companies wanting to keep health care costs down have also established reward programs for their staff through what HR types would call value-added employee assistance programs. For example, the Michigan-based Freedom One Financial Group sent 21 employees who met weight-loss goals on a four-day Caribbean cruise in 2005.

What does all of this tell us about the politics of public health today?

In The Politics of Health in the Eighteenth Century, Michel Foucault accounts for the emergence of a medical services market, the professionalization of medical practitioners, the development of benevolent associations and learned societies concerned with the observation of social conditions and innovation in medical techniques, among other things. While the state plays a variety of roles in relation to these developments, he argues, the ways in which health and sickness became matters of problematization ‘beyond the state’ contribute to an awareness of them as elements of population management.

Central to the politics of health in this period is the emergence of concern for the well-being of the population as an essential objective of political power – this is a view of power that concerns itself not with the capacity to dominate and repress but to produce things, to manage conduct and coordinate new ways of thinking and behaving. This shift towards policing the social body that Foucault argues was peculiar to the 18th century was related to the broader consequences of the industrial period’s demographic transition, in which an urgent need arose to rapidly integrate increasing numbers of people into the apparatus of production and to control them closely. It was these forces, he argues, that made the notion of “population” appear not just as a theoretical concept, but “as an object of surveillance, of analysis, of intervention, of initiatives aimed at modification.”

The cases of Manchester and Tower Hamlets, Varalla, and many others illustrate not only Foucault’s argument that the exercise of power is concerned increasingly with managing and channeling human conduct (rather than dominating or repressing it) but it also show that while non-governmental bodies play a key role in contemporary health politics, the state also plays a fundamental role in terms of ensuring that “the state of health of a population as a general objective.” Whether this is a good thing, a bad thing or something more dangerous remains to be determined.

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iWatch: The Power of Surveillance in your Pocket

War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.

In the discourse about surveillance, the Big Brother trope is king.  Popular culture provides us with recognizable scripts in which to locate our own anxieties and uncertainties about the present, even though the reality of everyday life is often more complex and paradoxical than can be explained by way of simple metaphors. Ongoing revelations about state-sponsored surveillance of the citizenry also signify that top-down relations of watching and monitoring are alive and well. Think of the Bush administration’s wiretapping of American citizens (see James Bamford’s excellent piece in The Atlantic, “Big Brother is Listening”), or recent reports that the British government is seeking to expand its surveillance capabilities to include monitoring of personal telephone, Internet use and email, all in the name of the global war on terror. 

Despite the popularity with which we link discussions about surveillance to Orwellian nightmares, the practices and technologies that enable us to watch and be watched are diverse. Individualized modes of surveillance have been around for some time and have become ubiquitous: computer cookies, GPS in our cars, dietary regimes linked to online weight management services, and Health Watch initiatives in certain drug store chains are just a few examples of surveillance systems that do not immediately correspond with the notion that the powerful few are keeping watch over powerless who are many.

Despite the proliferation of personalized monitoring schemes, surveillance has arguably never been so chic. Thanks to enabling software developed by the Australian technology company, Zylotech, and the always creative and clever folks at Apple, you can now become your own private Ministry of Truth. While the U.S. and British cases noted above reveal that vertical relations of surveillance remain firmly entrenched, lateral surveillance now has a new look and feel. With the ‘One-Touch’ Smart G camera technology, Zylotech offers consumers secure surveillance of their personal property via their iPhone

According to Zylotech CEO, Nicholas Sikiotis, the product (which will retail for approximately $700) allows users to enable their iPhone to monitor geographical spaces (e.g. personal property) in real time. Using a “one-touch” icon request via the phone’s main menu, users can receive instant camera or pre-determined video snapshots of their homes or businesses – ever wonder if the mail carrier is snooping or if the nasty neighbour’s dog is treating your hibiscus like a fire hydrant? Now you can see with just a slide and click.

It’s true that personalized surveillance systems (particularly for home monitoring) is not new, and the Zylotech invention isn’t the creepiest example of how we are all becoming approximations of Big Brother. This article from the Chicago Sun Times reports that a Chicago man recently became the first to willingly link up his private home surveillance network to the city’s 911 emergency center after city officials publicly offered citizens the chance to participate in a creating “a panoramic view of disaster scenes.” 

Nevertheless, the Zylotech enhanced iPhone may very well be the first example of a consumer product that combines the power of entertainment, immediate access to people and information and the capacity to monitor and watch. It’s time we flip Orwell on his head and take up Mark Crispin Miller’s argument, now 20 years old: “as you watch, there is no Big Brother out there watching you. Big Brother is you, watching.”

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China’s PR Problem

China’s efforts to improve its image overseas continues to suffer setbacks. Two news stories yesterday threaten to confirm the picture that many in the West have of the People’s Republic as a country where citizens exercise little political and intellectual freedom, let alone freedom over reproductive rights.

First, Reuters reports that the city government in Shijiazhuang, home to the Sanlu Group whose contaminated milk sparked what is now a worldwide recall, sat on a report from the company confirming the poisoning while Beijing hosted the Olympics. More troubling, even, is the revelation that Sanlu executives requested assistance from government officials to help “manage” media coverage of the crisis: “Please can the government increase control and coordination of the media, to create a good environment for the recall of the company’s products,” the People’s Daily cited the letter from Sanlu as saying. 

Then there was the report in the New York Times that Canadian researchers at The Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary think tank based at the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto that conducts research on new technology and global civic politics, had revealed a massive China-based Internet surveillance program involving the monitoring of Skype conversations.

The researchers reported this week that a cluster of computers in China were found to contain more than a million censored messages. The surveillance system would apparently track text messages sent by customers of Tom-Skype, a joint venture between a Chinese wireless operator and eBay, the Web auctioneer that owns Skype, an online phone and text messaging service. The researchers report that the computer networks hadn’t been properly configured, meaning that they were able to decipher the text messages and reconstruct a list of restricted words (Falun Gong, Taiwan independence, the Chinese Communist Party, democracy, earthquake and milk powder, among others) that set off the monitoring software. While the Times report indicates that it is unclear who was operating the surveillance system, the researchers suggest that it was likely a wireless firm based in China and “cooperating”  with the police.

University of Toronto political scientist Ronald J. Diebert wasn’t mincing words when he described the Skype operation as a conspiracy theorist’s “worst nightmare … It’s ‘X-Files’ without the aliens.”

As the political winds blow with change, this is looking really bad for the Chinese government’s ongoing public relations and diplomacy efforts, and could pose a challenge to U.S.-based multinational corporations which have been aggressively seeking ways to access the world’s largest emerging consumer market. In a 2003 article in Public Relations Review, Juyan Zhang and Glen T. Cameron chronicled an international public relations campaign by the Chinese government in the United States “aimed at “presenting a genuine, brand new image of China before the American people.” In their article, Zhang and Cameron discuss the objectives, strategies, sponsors and timeframe of the campaign and show that image building has become increasingly important as China seeks to re-frame the picture of itself in the American psyche as a “colorless land of fear and forced abortions.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The 2008 Olympics were supposed to open China to the West (at least if you believe the rhetoric of those who defended having the Games in Beijing), and the Games are considered by many observers to have been nothing short of a PR success for China. What both the tainted milk and Skype stories reveal is that bad news is like a virus: it travels and infects quickly.  China may have depleted whatever cultural capital it accrued in the bank of global public opinion. The important strategic question now is whether it’s time to give up on ambitions to turn China into a new kind of democracy, or to turn the screws of diplomacy ever tighter.

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Watching You Work

The American Management Association released earlier this year its annual Electronic Monitoring and Surveillance Survey. From using webcams to enabling spyware, the study found (surprise!) that more employers are monitoring the workplace practices of their staff.

There are lots of reasons employers say they need to play Big Brother, some of which are outlined in this online news story. The most significant reason is to ensure standards of productivity. As we do more of banking, socializing, shopping and other daily activities online, we apparently spend less of our working hours actually doing what we are paid to do. The implementation of a workplace surveillance program (assuming its well advertised to employees) is designed not so much to catch them in the act but to deter them from taking advantage of their employer.

Another reason employers conduct surveillance of their employees is to protect the company from potential litigation. If enough employees use their office computers to view porn, as one example, this can create a virtual organizational fingerprint that could leave the company vulnerable to charges of fostering a “hostile work environment.”

Heathfield also outlines reasons why companies may not want to monitor their employees as they work. For starters, a very small number of individuals actual violate company policies about shopping at work, emailing friends, or searching online job sites – and even fewer still are likely to be foolish or stupid enough to download or stream porn in their cubicles. Many companies may also not want to create an environment based on suspicion but one that fosters and encourages trust. No doubt this would enhance the productivity problem as well, since workers who feel trusted are likely to be motivated to perform well in their jobs. 

What about employee rights?

Canadian research by Simon Kiss and Vincent Mosco demonstrates that in this country, unions have been slow to take up the issue of workplace surveillance. In a content analysis of collective agreements, they showed that the lack of attention to privacy protection reflected in some respects the hierarchy of trade union and worker bargaining priorities (i.e., salaries, health care, and other benefits were more important than privacy rights). They do note, however, that electronic surveillance has become a significant priority in the information and communication technology sectors, the fastest growing areas of the labour movement.

As a final note, it goes without saying that workplace surveillance is not new. The electronic practices outlined above and in the related links merely extend efforts by employers that have deep historical roots. In a fascinating article, Susan Hansen discusses the history of employee assistance programs (EAPs) in the U.S., focusing on the Ford Motor Company’s scientific and moral management practices from the early 20th century through to the present day. Through EAPs, employers provide their workers with a range of benefits, normally in conjunction with a broader health plan designed to help employees deal with everyday problems that might affect their performance in the workplace. EAPs assist employees with substance abuse problems, emotional distress, financial management difficulties, child-rearing advice and even health and fitness programming. They intervene to help correct current problems while enabling employers and employees to identify behavioural risks and their possible impacts on efficiency.

What is different about EAPs is that they do not entail “direct interference” by management but achieve surveillance objectives through a “projective assessment” of individualized factors in order to warrant heightened monitoring of employees’ personal and emotional problems. For Hansen, surveillance is more than just a form of domination and control; it is also a caring technology that helps to steer behaviour in a way that maximizes autonomy in the name of much wider organizational goals.

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Terror x Fear = Business Opportunity

The 2001 Super Bowl in Tampa, FLA is an important moment in the history of surveillance. Using a software program called FaceIt™ (developed by the Visionics Corporation), local police strategically placed video surveillance cameras in key locations to scan the faces of thousands of ticket holders entering the stadium. No arrests were made but the program identified 19 wanted suspects by matching biometric readings of spectators’ facial images with previously stored images of convicted felons. Following the ‘success’ of this experiment, the Tampa police installed a 36-camera system equipped with FaceIt™ software in the city’s nightlife district. The publicity generated by this public-private partnership was a boon to Visionics and the biometrics industry more widely. Government departments and agencies around the world started to invest millions of taxpayer dollars into the development of biometric surveillance for counter-terrorism and intelligence purposes.

According to a report in today’s Economic Times (the business publication of the India Times – think the equivalent to the Financial Post), the surveillance economy in India is booming. “After the recent serial bombings across the country, security has taken centre stage,” the report argues. “And helping corporates and government agencies alike for increasing the security systems at their installations, are emerging Indian companies operating in the security equipment space. The market for products like surveillance systems, CCTVs, interception devices, explosive detectors, door frame metal detectors and access control systems has seen a surge in demand.”


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