Thirty years after 1984: Who’s looking at you?

12 August 2014

I was sitting and talking with a friend about surveillance and thinking through some of this article, when it occurred to us how surveillance is now ubiquitous and creepy. What’s creepy is that it feels vaguely menacing without a clearly defined threat. As we were discussing what makes us suspicious of surveillance, a man we both know but are not friendly with walked in and spoke to a few people, and then addressed us each by name to say hello. However, we both knew that he had behaved very strangely and even gone so far as to put things in my apartment when I was not there. He yelled insults at us when no one else was around. Presenting yourself one way in front of people whose respect you want and then behaving very differently when they are not watching is creepy. I was glad that other people were around when this creep walked in. Surveillance is creepy in a similar way.

Surveillance is often promoted as part of security and protection from an unspecified threat, but an actual threat is the abuse of surveillance technology. Abuses of authority are almost guaranteed without great efforts to check abuses. However, surveillance is often discussed as a secret. In the United States, government requests to spy on individuals are judged by a secret court in a secret process. The watchers do not want anyone to know who is being watched. And everyone is being watched, some on expanding watchlists, but everyone on camera. If you live in a large city or a world capital like London or New York, you are seen by surveillance cameras hundreds, if not thousands, of times each day.

Smile woman, you are being watched

Surveillance cameras abound, but an even greater number of images obtained from these cameras are posted on social media. Surveillance cameras were intended to protect property, but their functions have changed. Surveillance cameras were formerly monitored typically by young men, many of whom watched girls during their admittedly dull shifts. In addition to watching girls, sometimes cameras are used to watch men who might misbehave, recently written about as “deviance control” in Saudi Arabia. While most mall surveillance cameras are installed to prevent theft, they are being used to police activities unrelated to theft, and more related to private behaviour like romancing, and also to promote prayer. Security guards enforcing morality, and working with the police to do so, is quite different from preventing shoplifting.

In much of the world, real-time camera watchers have been nearly replaced by recording, rendering cameras as a source of information and evidence for criminal cases, rather than part of active surveillance. However, the pictures we take and post online receive different scrutiny. At the end of May, it was reported that the NSA is collecting millions of images of people’s faces from the web. This takes on a still more sinister tone when combined with location and other data. For example, sex workers in Amsterdam’s red light areas have signs saying “no photos”, but these signs are often ignored, including by people who claim to want to help the sex workers. These pictures are not only objectifying in the moment they are taken but may lead to the women’s identification by neighbors and government officials alike. Women are the people who work in these red light areas and more likely than men to suffer adverse consequences of such identification. This is an extreme example but it affects enough people to be of note. In this case, we see private citizens using media not with the intent to inform the state but inadvertently colluding with the state as the NSA is collecting private photos, specifically faces. The companies that provide platforms for such images and other information are inadvertently and sometimes intentionally colluding with United States’ surveillance of everyone.

Old problems in a new location

Even if it is not routine to identify an individual from surveillance footage, any individual’s gender is relatively easy to identify. Companies collect data about their users, and many companies use this to market or target advertising, like the ads you see on social media. The content of your webmail or social media posts influences the advertisements you see on those platforms. Your gender influences what ads are targeted at you. The profit motive is clear, both for advertisers wanting to sell things and for social media platforms that want to sell advertising.

The motive for surveillance is more complex, rooted in control and influenced by the biases of the surveyors. For example, information about women has been examined by people who want to look at women. This type of unofficial use of recorded information extends far beyond online activity and surveillance activity. Any records could be accessed for unintended reasons. In one well-documented case, a female police officer in Minnesota found that other officers were using the database of driver’s licenses to see her picture. People who have access to information will use that access beyond the stated intent of stored information of any sort, in a social media platform, surveillance footage, or bureaucratic databases of any sort. These are old problems manifesting in a new location.

There are seemingly infinite pictures to search online, increasing every moment. Pictures we take ourselves and make public may be stored and scrutinized by people we don’t intend to see them. That is creepy enough, but in the context of the hubbub around Facebook’s Messenger mobile app, for one example, it’s not only pictures but contacts and the call log that can be accessed. The camera on one’s laptop can be co-opted by law enforcement or the sort of person who enjoys spying on women. Why would this not be possible using other devices with cameras? Considering this, it is possible to imagine pictures that we do not know are being taken, are also being collected and saved for a photo database. Just as still pictures are being collected for analysis, security camera recordings may be treated similarly. Gait-recognition technology is experimental but is being used to identify specific individual people by the way they walk, from a distance. This may be used in airports and railway stations, but so far it is unclear how it will be used.

What is clear is that combining the ability to identify individual people by their walk with omnipresent security cameras recording everyone who passes will render security camera recordings a desirable source of data for agencies like police and the NSA. Technologies that were intended to protect property or to share information with friends are being used for government surveillance, morality policing, and more. Collecting information of any sort from people without consent and in great secrecy is inherently creepy. Watching others without their consent is creepy, even before Edward Snowden revealed that young men working for the NSA share the nude pictures they intercept among themselves. Women are aware that pictures are able to be shared, but surveillance cameras in a city may take your photo hundreds, if not thousands, of times each day. Today, this mountain of data may be overwhelming, but as data storage and search capacity increase, these will be able to be searched.

If you are the target, you also have the solution

Women are sometimes taught to protect themselves from assault, not only physically but also by avoiding dangers. For example, when a male acquaintance realized he’d had an unknown passenger in the backseat of his car, a woman asked, “How is that even possible?” because she was taught to check the back seat every time she got into any car, including her own car. Her informal survey of women at their workplace indicated that all the women had been taught to do this and do so every time they get in a car. Women are less frequently taught about protecting themselves online or using mobile phones. I don’t know if men learn this but we should all be aware of how data is used and be able to judge what we accept and how to protect ourselves from breaches we do not consent to. While online security is for everyone, women and girls are frequent targets of malicious attacks online and they suffer greater consequences from online attacks than men. For these reasons, online security is of particular importance for women.

While abuse is certain, the best precautions we can take are to decide what exactly we share online and to be aware of new technology networks, surveillance and how it could be used, if only to decide how to respond to it. The vision of an open, grassroots internet rather than today’s centralized, corporate social media platforms. Take Back the Tech! and Security in a Box are great starting points to learn about security precautions and to encourage productive responses to online violence.

Image by kakhun wart used under Creative Commons license

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