Tag 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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Back to the blog

After several months away it’s time to get back to blogging – it’s not that I’ve been lazy or disengaged, just distracted by other things. Here’s a summary of what I’ve been up to since (gulp) my last post in February.

In late May, I was the conference program co-chair of the Association for Nonprofit and Social Economy Research (ANSER), which met during the 2009 Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities. The build-up to the meeting was particularly intense with more than 200 conference participants from academia and the voluntary sector — we had Canadians, Americans and conference participants from as far away as Australia. The keynote address was delivered by Michael Edwards, formerly of the Ford Foundation and now with progressive think tank Demos in New York City. I also hosted an event to celebrate the publication of my latest book, Surveillance: Power, Problems and Politics (UBC Press, 2009), which I co-edited with my long-time friend and collaborator Sean Hier from the sociology department at University of Victoria.

I spent most of my summer enjoying holidays with family in beautiful British Columbia and at our cottage in Algonquin Park. Vancouver was especially nice in late July where the temperature stayed consistently in the low 30s and the sun was always shining (quite in contrast to the misery of Ottawa, where it rained the entire time we were away).

I did get some writing finished this summer, including the final touches on a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Communication on public relations, co-edited with Graham Knight from the communication studies and multimedia department at McMaster University. This project was a long time coming, starting way back in 2008. See the  TOC here and check out the editorial and research paper I contributed. I am very pleased with how this issue turned out – lots of excellent contributions by scholars and media professionals from Canada and abroad on such timely issues as risk communication, journalist/PR relations, political campaigning, PR education, professionalism and nation branding, among many others. Post your comments below or send me a note if you have a chance to read any of the articles or reviews.

Toward the end of August I did a little bit of consulting, working with some local public health and housing advocates to help them deal with a particularly thorny NIMBY problem. My involvement in this case piqued my interest in further exploring the literature on communication ethics, deliberative democracy and theories of “public consultation”. It was clear from this experience that communities, politicians and social service providers all operate with different understandings of what consultation really entails and how it can be achieved. All cities (large, medium, even small) face important challenges in dealing with poverty, homelessness, addictions, mental illness and other structural social problems. These are not, as C. Wright Mills describes them, problems of the individual milieu – they are structural issues that require both structural and community solutions. Yet too often the stakeholders in these debates speak around or, more to the point, shout over one another – it becomes a battle geared toward winning rather than achieving mutual understanding. Communication researchers can play an important role in identifying the means and ways in which power relations operate in and through the language community stakeholders use to frame understanding of these issues, and in facilitating a process by which they can, at minimum, agree on the terms of their engagement if not on the outcomes.

It’s already October and I can’t believe the fall term is a month old. I was appointed to be the supervisor of undergraduate studies in our program and for the final weeks of August and the first few weeks of September I was very busy dealing daily with student registration issues, attending recruiting events to entice the country’s best and brightest to come to Carleton, and in getting my own course (MCOM 5204: Media, Culture and Policy) up and running. It’s a graduate level seminar that introduces students to key issues in the study of communication and public health policy (our substantive focus): theories of public policy; media advocacy; impacts of ‘new’ media on the medical and health professions and on health promotion; audience segmentation; risk and crisis communication; framing; and program evaluation. So far it’s going very well – I have a group of 8 really engaged MA and PhD students and we are “collaborating” again this year with the city of Ottawa’s public health department on some of their current and emergent issues.

I have also been actively promoting From Homeless to Home, a film I co-produced about homelessness in Ottawa, first to a meeting of academics, then a coalition of housing and other service providers, and later to the Homelessness Partnering Secretariat, a division within the federal government. I understand the film will be screened by Cinema Politica in Montreal sometime in November. When I know the details, I’ll post them here.

In December I’ll be attending the UN Climate Change Conference to examine how environmental activists and NGOs are using traditional and ‘new’ media to campaign for a new international deal to confront the problem of global warming. This is part of a larger project which you can read about on the blog’s Projects Page. I’ve never been to the Scandinavian countries so intend to take a little time for tourism and site-seeing while I’m there. Anyone with “must do” recommendations for my time there, please leave me a reply below! I’m also getting ready to head off to Atlanta at the end of October where I’ll be participating in a crisis and emergency-risk communication training session at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I was just awarded a small amount of funding to look at how public health agencies in Canada and the U.S. engage the nonprofit sector in emergency planning and response, particularly their means and methods of ‘consultation’. The trip to CDC will be informing some of that research (again, see the Projects Page for more details).

On a personal note, I love this time of year. The colours have turned very quickly and the green of summer has given way to beautiful hues of gold and red. We were recently at the cottage where my family convenes every Thanksgiving and had a stunning drive through Algonquin Park. The smell and sound of falling foliage always puts me at peace. I’m gearing up for a last outing of cycling this coming weekend in Prince Edward County with some good friends. It’s our last grasp of a season we know has already passed us by. I realize that winter is not far off. The episodic flecks of snow encountered this past weekend appear to have followed me home, even if they made only a brief appearance this afternoon. Writing now in my home office, with the dogs at my feet and a steaming cup of coffee, I don’t seem to mind.

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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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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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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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FLICKr and Counter-Surveillance: Resistance or Reification?

Cory Doctorow posts on Boing Boing that two civil society organizations – The Open Rights Group and No2ID – are calling for British citizens to snap pictures of moments or things in their daily lives which capture the expanding nature of the surveillance society. The pics are to then be uploaded to a Flickr site.

Here’s an excerpt from The Open Rights Group’s website:

On 11 October, No2ID and the Open Rights Group will make a live collage of the images you’ve taken in a prominent location in London (to be confirmed), to celebrate Freedom Not Fear Day 2008.

Freedom not Fear is an international day of action for democracy, free speech, human rights and civil liberties, and events to celebrate these central tenets of a just society will be taking place all over the world.

Here’s how you can help:

  1. Spot something that embodies the UK’s wholesale transformation into the surveillance society/database state. Subjects might include your local CCTV camera(s), or fingerprinting equipment in your child’s school library
  2. Snap it
  3. Upload it to Flickr and tag it “FNFBigPicture” – please use an Attribution Creative Commons license* (this will allow them to have the pictures reproduced in news coverage)
  4. That’s it!

The rationale behind the project is to raise awareness about surveillance creep in our daily lives and presumably to call for more active forms of resistance. Yet it may also serve as a powerful tool of reification, the notion that in looking at objects we forget about the human relations that necessitated their emergence. Reification is problematic because when we objectify relations among subjects, we render the latter passive and determined, while investing the object(s) with mysterious formational powers. The danger of reification will likely be addressed for those who attend the event if we rightly assume that the groups behind it will talk about more than just the photographs but use them as a launching site for wider critical discussion. Yet for the millions more who are likely to experience this project only via Flickr it may have rather unintended consequences.  

Surveillance involves a complex configuration of political, economic, cultural and social practices with human relations behind them. The introduction of more CCTV cameras in public areas, wiretapping by the state, data mining by ISPs to detect suspicious behaviour or consumer preferences, data mining by pharmacists to protect us from adverse drug affects, or my use of Google alerts to help monitor the 24/7 news environment: all of these technologies and practices stem from the actions and decisions of human beings; without unpacking the dynamics in these social relations we risk intensifying the forms of alienation that have been generated by the ever-presence of surveillance in our lives.

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