Yama Farid on Sun, 21 Jul 2002 19:28:54 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> FW: Report From 'Surveillance Beyond Privacy' Forum

 ----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Chris Chesher" <c.chesher@unsw.edu.au>
To: <fibreculture@lists.myspinach.org>
Sent: Thursday, July 18, 2002 11:35 PM
Subject: ::fibreculture:: Report from Surveillance beyond privacy forum

When people shout 'privacy' I usually run for the door, but not because I'm
scared of Orwell's Big Brother. I'm instantly bored into flight by images
like Sandra Bullock having an implausible crisis in the film _The Net_ over
losing her soul to technology; or by the images in Enemy of the State about
the inescapability of high tech surveillance. I just don't think
conspiracies against individual privacy are the issue, at least in the
Australian context. And no technologies I know of are anywhere near as
effective as these images suggest!
But, like most people in the overflowing forum "Surveillance beyond privacy"
at the UTS Law Faculty in the Haymarket in Sydney on Wednesday 17th July, I
wasn't leaving this talk. The forum brought together a really strong
combination of speakers who each developed a perspective that showed how
growing surveillance does matter in quite complex ways.
This excellent event was organised by the newly formed 'surveillance unit'
of CityState (citystate.cat.org.au), UTS Community Law and Legal Research
Centre and SpaceStation Media Lab. If this forum is anything to go by,
people in Melbourne should make the time for the CITY STATE PROGRAM on
Saturday July 20th at Horti Hall.

The keynote speaker was Canadian sociologist Professor David Lyon, author of
Surveillance Society: Monitoring Everyday Life (Open University Press,
2001), and editor of the forthcoming Surveillance as Social Sorting:
Privacy, Risk, and Digital Discrimination. He will soon launch a new online
academic journal: http://www.surveillance-and-society.org. A long time ago I
did read an early book of his, the Electronic Eye, but his more recent work
is much more developed.
Lyon argued that there has been an intensification in applications of
surveillance technologies justified by the events of September 11. These are
not new developments, but extensions of existing applications: biometric
systems, smart cards and closed circuit television systems. In particular,
State & corporate surveillance have converged, as shown in the examples of
images of hijackers captured on bank autoteller cameras, convenience stores,
shopping malls etc.
The expansion of such systems is pushed by technology companies keen to
introduce technological fixes supposedly to prevent future feared events.
However, the effectiveness of most of these systems in preventing such
events is questionable, since any system can ultimately be overcome by a
determined operator. Systems of identity checking are ultimately only as
good as the key documents: birth certificates, which are notoriously easy to
Even the principle of panopticism, by which people supposedly regulate their
behaviour from fear of the possibility of being observed (Bentham through
Foucault), is only of limited effectiveness.
However, even though proliferating systems of generalised surveillance are
not effective at achieving their stated aims (maintaining security,
preventing crime or terrorism) they do have significant social justice
Surveillance maintains a focussed attention on specific population details
to manage & control populations. This is not intrinsically malign, nor
innocent. But privacy is not the solution to surveillance. In fact, privacy
_causes_ surveillance. The desire that people have to lead independent lives
requires increasingly sophisticated systems to establish trust. Most people
accept smart cards or biometric security because it is a convenient way of
exchanging tokens of trust.
If individual privacy is not the issue, it is the way that these systems are
used to perform social sorting: automated systems of discrimination, like
racial profiling. 
Increasingly decisions on access to social spaces is restricted by abstract
data & algorithms used for social sorting, moving away from
labour-intensive, human-centred techniques. The systems becomes more opaque,
and power passes to those who code data or operate cameras.
These shifts demand new political strategies. The categories that are used
in designing database and surveillance systems need to be subject to ethical
scrutiny. All systems are ambiguous, incorporating some fields that perform
care, and others that control subjects. Even marketing databases can
incorporate categories of suspicion or of seduction.
The politics of information will become an increasingly significant terrain
of struggle. Public discourse should re-emphasise embodied experiences &
social relationships, and the dignity of persons.  There should be certainly
be attention to fair information principles around informed consent. In
general, though, there are social justice questions, since computers tend to
reinforce existing inequalities of gender.
Lyon concluded by arguing that the onus of responsibility should fall not on
individuals to protect themselves, but on those implementing systems. Any
organization that processes personal data should be accountable.

Paula Abood's talk highlighted what is at stake in a changing climate that
increasingly makes surveillance politically palatable. But the impact of
this surveillance falls disproportionately on non-white populations.
Racial profiling is nothing new in Australia. Indigenous racial profiling is
a cornerstone of Australian nation. Even in the late 19th century, Syrian
and Lebanese immigrants were subject to tests as to whether they were
'acceptable persons' for citizenship.
Since September 11, though, says Abood, the hysteria and fear around race
(as seen in Tampa, the Federal anti-terrorism Bill, media coverage or
ethnically linked crime etc) has increased, and has justified overpolicing
and morally condoned targeted surveillance of particular groups.

David Sutton's talk changed tack somewhat to address the mechanisms by which
different modes of surveillance operate to create 'data phantoms' --
incorporeal traces in data systems that are abstracted from bodies, but can
have real effects. 
The most visible surveillance systems operate through constant monitoring,
such as security cameras. But a more economical mode of surveillance is data
surveillance. This records points of access & authentication. For example,
when a customer uses an autoteller, a bank system will activate a node of
access with a particular level of privileges. In this transaction, the
physical presence of the customer becomes irrelevant.
During every transaction, details of this access are recorded, and these
join with other events to produce 'data phantoms'. These can be agglomerated
to identify trends or cross-matched with other databases. The result is that
everyone who uses such systems is followed by a virtual shadow: a real but
incorporeal doppelganger. These operate without bodies, but can have real
effects. For example, systems of credit reporting or criminal history can be
used to approve or deny. This is increasingly the preferred mode of
operation for corporations and governments.
This dynamic presents no real problems for liberal notions of privacy. It
doesn't require any violation of the 'bubble' of privacy. Since the subject
provides information voluntarily, for convenience sake, the dangerous
environment that it creates is invisible to the privacy discourse.
However, such systems provide a potential for discrimination. It also makes
possible new types of crime, such as identity theft.

Stutt's talk showed that the politics of a new development such as DNA
testing are closely related to the materiality of current technologies.
For example, DNA testing for identifying criminals is actually not as
infallible as many suspect, since only a small proportion of the DNA is used
in the test. DNA screening is currently more effective as a mode of coercion
through scientific intimidation than as a technology.
The questions of DNA testing relate not only to individuals, but to groups,
since related family and ethnic groups tend to have closer DNA matches. This
seems to reinforce Abood's points about racial profiling.
The lack of security on DNA databases will make genetic information
increasingly insecure. Controversies over paternity are unlikely to remain
unresolved. There is a possible genetic record of most of the population
available, since all births for three decades have been recorded with a
blood sample on 'Guthrie' cards.
The practice of DNA research has also seen new forms of political action.
For example, when the Australian company AutoGen attempted to buy the gene
pool of the population of Tonga, popular resistance ultimately closed this
project down. 
The active discussion that followed from an engaged audience suggests that
there is some real interest in the intersections of politics and new
technology. The activities of the 'Surveillance unit" are certainly parallel
to those of fibreculture.
It is a relief that debates around surveillance are not reiterating the same
tedious paranoia about intrusions on the individual, but becoming more
nuanced and complicated readings of technological and social change.
I've been to quite a few seminars and conferences recently, and this was
quite a stand-out. 

-------------------------------------- -
Dr Chris Chesher                        
Lecturer, School of Media and Communications       
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
University of New South Wales            
UNSW Sydney 2052                        
Work phone 61 2 9385 6814
Messages:  61 2 9385 6811
Fax:      61 2 9385 6812
Email: c.chesher@unsw.edu.au


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