Category Archives: state surveillance

Xinjiang: Several Anecdotes (Part Two)

This is my second post to Socionocular on the topic of Xinjiang, a far-western region of China where I lived for 18 months. For a very basic overview on Xinjiang and China’s internet and social media landscape, please see here.

What follows are several anecdotes from my year and a half in China regarding the topic of internet (and other) censorship and the atmosphere of distrust and paranoia it fosters.

In my first year in Ürümqi I regularly attended a weekly English club with a close network of Chinese professionals. We ate in a private dining room at a small mom-and-pop restaurant, and it was an intimate-enough group that sometimes conversations turned political. There were a small few who spoke without hesitation, but without fail somebody would get up to close the door before having their say.

I remember it was during one of these conversations that a relative newcomer to the group asked me out of the blue if I ever called home to Canada.

“No,” I told him, “I just use the internet.”

“Good,” he replied, “Someone might listen, if you called.”

This sort of caught me by surprise, so I probed him: “What, like American spies?”

He shook his head no, but then thought about it. “Maybe them too. But I mean the Chinese police.”

There was also a (in my opinion) completely reasonable belief among many of the foreigners that many of our apartments might be bugged as well. A friend who attended college in China over a decade ago says he was told flat-out that the foreign student dormitory was being recorded, but not monitored. “If something happens,” he was told, “They can go back and review the recordings.”

I visited another friend’s apartment once, and it came up in conversation that he believed his place was definitely bugged. When I asked him how he knew, he said that another foreigner had lived in it before; he had been friends with him and spent a lot of time visiting. One day a young policeman in the neighborhood warned him to be careful what he said when he visited. Despite the ominous warning, he liked the neighborhood and tried to rent an apartment nearby, but was blocked by the police. I know others who were barred from this neighborhood as well. Finally, though, after his friends moved to a new home he contacted their landlord and inquired about their old apartment. He was given permission to move in by the same police who had told him it was impossible before. The popular opinion was that they probably approved it because they wouldn’t need to go through the trouble of re-bugging the place.

Again, it isn’t to say that everyone’s apartment is bugged. But it’s very telling to me that whenever the topic came up, the usual verdict was usually ‘Yeah, could be,’ and never ‘No, stop being paranoid.’

It isn’t just the foreigners who are so concerned, either. In fact, many locals are subject to more immediate, more real, and more invasive surveillance. Early in my stay in Xinjiang I made friends with a university student who offered to show me around the city. We kept in contact and enjoyed chatting from time to time. On our third or fourth meeting he confessed to me that he was a practitioner of an illegal religion. He said he was never worried about telling foreigners this, because foreigners never seemed to care. “But,” he gestured to the students sitting at the table next to ours “If I told you this in Chinese I might get in trouble.” He recommended some reading materials I should look up, and then spent some time laying out his burdens: at college many of his classmates regularly had their phones confiscated and searched. He showed me both of his phones: one for storing his religious materials, and the other one ‘clean’ so he could hand it over to be searched without worry.

For all the presumed monitoring and censorship, the most people I associated with largely got on with their lives without worrying about it too much. It was occasionally a topic of conversation, or a bit of a game (such as conspicuously whispering pro-China slogans into lamps), but it became a more immediate personal concern in the summer of 2015.

I only briefly mentioned the “Great Firewall” before this, partly because its reputation precedes itself. What some people don’t realize, though, is that most of the time it isn’t terribly difficult to circumvent. There are multiple free Virtual Private Network (VPN) options that will allow one to access Facebook and Youtube, and most foreigners I know made use of one or two VPNs regularly. Some Chinese people I knew also made use of VPNs, but others considered them too much of a hassle for too little benefit (I was once told “Why pay go through so much trouble to use the foreign internet? The Chinese internet has everything I want.”). Word started to circulate that China Mobile, one of the larger cellular carriers, was shutting down service to those running VPNs on their phones. One night at a regular foreigner hang-out, a friend told me about his  experience. He had his phone service cut, went to China Mobile to have it reconnected,  but was referred to the Public Security bureau. The PSB  instructed them to delete all “foreign communication apps” including Facebook and Skype, and submit their phones for inspection before they could be re-activated.

It was clear that the network could tell if a phone was making use of a VPN, but the shut-downs seemed random. A little less than half of my friends got shut down, and I myself continued to use my phone without issue for another six or seven months after that. At the end of January 2016, though, my phone service finally stopped without warning or explanation. At first I thought I had just run out of credit, so I sank some money into my account to put myself back in the black. This didn’t work, so I told my company’s foreigner-handler that I had been shut down. She took me to the Public Security Bureau where they asked me to hand over my phone so they could have a look. I had changed my SIM over from my iPhone to the cheap Nokia phone I had bought in my first week in China. They observed that there were no foreign apps and told me my phone would be re-activated in two weeks. The whole visit took less than fifteen minutes.

They must have figured out I was being less than honest, though, because two months later my phone still hadn’t been reactivated. Otherwise they lost the paperwork or some other institutional failure caused a problem. In any case, I gave up on getting my phone service for a time, and satisfied myself with hopping from wifi hotspot to wifi hotspot around the city for a few months.

Though there are others, these anectdotes are roughly representative of my experience in China. I’ve avoided providing too much biographical info, and/or changed a few details where they are inconsequential, to guard against an unlikely situation where post blips on the Chinese radar.

I will conclude in a third and final post to discuss one last anecdote concerning a personal vice of mine, and the lasting echo of censorship that rings even after leaving China.

Flight of the Drones: UAVs and public space

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as ‘drones’ have increased in popularity over the past decades for recreational and commercial purposes. The amount of drone purchases has risen dramatically and it is projected to continually rise in the years to come. And this is due in part of the technology being affordable for purchase, ranging anywhere from $20.00 to $1000.00 depending on the size and capabilities of the quadcopter.

This technology has been showcased in providing vital aerial perspectives for photography, which has begun to be used by real estate agencies and freelance videographers. Other prominent groups within society have begun to incorporate drone use within their repertoire.

Companies such as Amazon seek to use drones for package delivery; law enforcement agencies have begun to see the benefits of using drones, especially when it comes to crime scene photography and search and rescue missions; and now journalists have also begun to use drones in their arsenal for better reporting of events.

The potential benefits of this technology are almost limitless but this can also be said for its potential consequences.

To begin with, it helps to understand what ‘drones’ really are. Fundamentally, the technology is just a platform with propellers, because of this it can be fitted for just about any task and the aerial movement provides advantageous in accomplishing the job.

Since 1911, humanity has witnessed the power and control that comes with air superiority. Left unchallenged and unchecked, control of the skies allows for an unhindered use of drone technology. It will be done by those with the power to do so, allowing for their superiority to be better represented by those subjected to the drone’s presence, all the while being able to operate the device at a safe secure location, often away from the scene.

Though it may seem that this technology is relatively new, it has been around since the late 1800s with air balloons being used to as bombs to target enemy cities. Though the technology really got going during World War I by Dr. Elmer Ambrose Sperry who invented the gyroscope, thereby allowing for more precise targeted missile strikes. The technology subsided for a while and was picked up again in the 1950s, this time serving as surveillance and recon for military operations.

As they’ve continued to develop, drones have transformed into hunter-killer devices in wartime settings and are now being operated for police surveillance in domestic areas. However, the lineage of these devices is not so clear cut, as the influence by remotely piloted airplanes by hobbyists has also been attributed to this sudden rise in this technology in a recreational setting.

Now, technology itself is neither good or bad, it is typically taken as neutral. What is important is who is using the technology and for what purpose, coupled with the perception of the drone by the intended target. In this is where the debate and controversy lies. With the constant maneuverability and over encompassing visual surveillance that drones are capable of—questions emerge: who really benefits from this technology when it is in use? Which groups benefit when the police use them? When corporations use them? When journalists use them?

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With the emerging trend of police drones, it will be of no surprise to see security rhetoric being used as a tool to influence the populace into believing that we need drone surveillance as a way to feel safer and for it to be easier to catch the ‘criminal.’ Which was exactly what was done with the implementation of CCTV (closed circuit television) cameras. When in reality, it may be used as a tool of control that will benefit the rich and powerful and will be used on the disenfranchised resulting in particular communities and populations being disproportionately exposed to police surveillance.

In addition to providing a hindrance and an interpretation of a violation of our privacy rights.

Drone technology has the capacity to violate our privacy rights. However, this violation can become obscured by the shaping of public understanding mentioned above. This illusion of security is known as ‘security theater,’ a concept coined by Bruce Schneier as a way to explain the countermeasures that are set in place to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually achieve it.

And what is surprising about all this, is that this is already happening, just on another medium, data collection is routinely gathered on everyone—government and corporate agencies can easily identify your behaviors and whereabouts stored in carefully constructed profiles, all by analyzing the data from your phone or computer.

A drone’s visceral appearance amplifies how we perceive drones and their impact on our privacy. The thought of being watched and the loss of control over surveillance puts individuals in a state of unease. It’s right there, potentially watching you and it may require a lot of effort to do something about it.

The drones are here and their flight has begun. However, it will be important to note who’ll be using the devices and for what purposes. The use of such technologies are often a reflection of its users.

 

Xinjiang: Internet Censorship Laboratory (Part One)

I recently completed eighteen months of living in China’s far-western province of Xinjiang. As part of the coming-home process I contacted Kyle and offered to write a brief account of my experience in the ‘internet censorship laboratory of the world.’ What follows is a whirlwind of thoughts, opinions, and personal anecdotes that I will be the first to admit require much fact-checking and cross-referencing. Please consider them pages torn from my personal journal and shared with readers of Socionocular for their curiosity value.

One random day in mid-2014 three of my soon-to-be coworkers received text messages from the propaganda bureau of Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in far western China. The messages reminded them that foreigners weren’t to be trusted, and that they must not share secrets with outsiders.

Which foreigners were these good Chinese citizens supposed to be wary of? And what secrets did three English teachers possess that could possibly compromise the safety of the nation? When later I asked these questions I betrayed my newcomer status. I would eventually conclude that all foreigners are suspect, especially in Xinjiang, and that the point is not so much to safeguard secrets as much as it’s to maintain the atmosphere of low-grade xenophobia.

The question that possessed my local friends was more pointed: why them? Broadcast text messages signed by the propaganda bureau weren’t uncommon, but this message was specific in its content and its recipients. For one, even though there were numerous foreigners working out of that office, only three of the more than two dozen Chinese staff got this particular message. As they chatted about it over lunch, they tried to work it out. One girl was dating a foreigner; the other was sleeping with one; the third was very close to a foreigner in a chaste, conservative Christian un-relationship that everyone could see through. But other staff had been so close with foreigners before. Besides, who would have been interested but inconspicuous enough to report these various liaisons to the propaganda bureau? And why would they bother?

The conclusion they eventually arrived at was that all three had used their ID cards to buy a SIM card for ‘their’ foreigner. That was the link.

And the phone company and Propaganda Bureau were evidently watching closely enough to notice.

To sign up for social media in China, most popular services require authentication using a mobile phone. In order to get a mobile number, one must register their government ID with the phone company before being given an activated SIM card. If the pieces fit together correctly anonymity is impossible on the Chinese internet. While I have friends who assure me that one can sever a link in this chain elsewhere in China, it’s much more difficult in Xinjiang.

The reason is, I suspect, that the stakes are higher in Xinjiang for the government, and so the fist is a little tighter. Like Tibet, Xinjiang is an autonomous region principally populated by China’s minorities, not the majority-everywhere-else Han. The Uyghurs who lend their name to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are a majority-muslim turkic ethnic group who share neither language nor culture with Beijing. The history of the region is complex, and contested, and supporting the wrong narrative or questioning the ‘right’ one is considered subversion.

20th century Xinjiang has been marked by episodes of pan-turkic, and separatist thought. There were two abortive independent states declared in the past century, both called East Turkestan. Both collapsed quickly. In the 21st century Beijing has bundled separatism with extremism and terrorism, labeling them ‘The Three Evils‘ which must be opposed at every level of society. The official line, packaged with China’s notorious control over the mainstream media has had the result of conflating each of the three evils with each-other.

The result of the party’s stranglehold on most of the news-media in China (if you’re curious, read The Party Line by Doug Young) is that the really interesting stuff is happening online. In China, the internet and social media have become somewhat of a haven for off-message thinking, mostly in the form of jokes. As mentioned, true anonymity is difficult on Chinese social media, but the Chinese language’s rich ability to cast puns has been used as a tool to avoid automated censorship, and make subtle jabs at those in power.

But the government has some surprisingly grassroots-seeming tactics of it’s own, such as its ability to rouse patriots to comment on the internet to support the party (mostly in Chinese, but also in other language). The use of paid government commenters is also an open secret. These paid internet posters are derogatorily called 五毛 (‘wǔmáo’), meaning ‘five mao’ (a unit of currency) because that is supposedly the going rate for one internet post (.5is about $.07 USD).

Ultimately, though, China is also willing to throw the switch completely. Similar to how Egypt did in the wake of protests in early 2011, China took all of Xinjiang offline in 2009 for 10 months in the wake of the Urumqi riots.

I’m sure you can imagine that in this atmosphere it’s impossible to take others at face-value unless you are very close with them. Very often people will claim apathy or ignorance when asked uncomfortable questions, or echo the official line even if they roll their eyes while doing so. Contrary opinions are not shared easily, and paranoia is pervasive.

There is much I haven’t even touched on, some of which has been discussed at length by others (such as the Great Firewall blocking Chinese citizens’ access to many foreign websites). Instead of repeating myself (or others), I’ll conclude this introduction to the situation here. Shortly I will follow up with another post containing a series of anecdotes which touch on this self-censorship and paranoia.

 

The Mythology of Pokémon Go: Surveillance, Big Data, and a Pretty Sweet Game

Pokémon Go is lulling the world in to a humungous augmented distraction. A distraction that is covering up some pretty intense politics. It is almost as if we stepped into Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One—where distraction through virtual reality meets the war between anonymity and surveillance.

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Artist: Dani Diez. You can find more of Dani’s work at www.instagram.com/mrdanidiez/

It has been well publicized that this new app, of which is fueling a Pokemania (a nostalgic resurgence of interest in Pokémon every time a new rendition of the game is released), has some rather arbitrary and invasive access to your mobile phones data—particularly, unhinged access to your Google account and other features of your mobile device.

What is Pokémon Go? This almost seems pointless now, seeing the popularity of the game—but for those of you who have not tuned in to the pokemania. Pokémon was a TV show released in the late 90s, which became dream fuel for a generation of children and young adults. It featured a young boy, Ash Ketchum, who embarked on a Journey to capture Pokémon in a technology known as the “pokeball” through the direction of the Professor (A man who studies Pokémon). After the Pokémon is caught, the young boy (and the thousands of other Pokémon trainers) would aspire to train it to battle other Pokémon.

Shortly after the show caught on, Nintendo released Pokémon Red and Blue for the Gameboy Colour. These games became an absolute hit. I remember walking to school with my eyes glued to my little pixelated screen—traversing over roads and dodging cars while battling with Pokémon and trading them with my other schoolyard peers. The games slogan repeating through my cranial, “Gotta Catch Them All”.

Nintendo continued to release Pokémon games designed for their various game platforms up until present. Each successive game included an obsessive and nostalgic excitement that took over the gaming community. Or anyone who had grown up playing Pokemon Red and Blue, as well as collecting the Pokemon cards.

Pokémon Go is a game that can be played on a mobile smart phone that uses geolocational data and mapping technologies that turn the phone into a lens peering into the Pokémon world.  Through the interface of your mobile device, you can catch Pokémon wandering the “real” world, battle through gyms, and find items that will aid your journey. It augments the world around the user so that everything and everywhere becomes a part of the game.

Just like its predessor, a game known as Ingress, many of the geo features in the game were set up around important places: art exhibits, cultural or historical sites, and parks. Following the maps would lead you through a productive tour of a cities geographical culture.

I want to explore the obsessive and nostalgic excitement through a techno-socio-cultural lens. I will unpack this critique into three parts: (1) the sociology of privacy, (2) Big data and algorithmic surveillance, and (3) the culture of nostalgia and the digital sublime.

Before I continue with this post—I want to assert that it is not an all-in-all terrible, megalomaniac, Big Brother type game. Pokémon Go is enabling new ways for people to engage in the social world. Check out this sociological blog post exploring just that. However, it would be silly to not apply a critical perspective to this.

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Taken from Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/wokemon/?fref=ts

There are some restrictions I’d like to apply to my analysis: (1) Pokémon Go is not an immature or irrelevant activity, millions of people of all ages and cultural backgrounds are playing it—meaning it has a ton of significance. As well as, (2) The people playing Pokémon Go are not zombies or passive consumers, they are very intentional and unpredictable social actors that have the ability to understand their situation.

Sociology of Privacy

One thing that boggles the minds of surveillance studies scholars is how the vast population of people using social media and mobile applications do not care about invasive surveillance embedded in everything they use.

In my own interviews of Facebook users in 2014, many of my participants claimed, “I have nothing to hide”. A pervasive mentality that enables big corporate and governmental entities to gain access and control to large swaths of data. This nonchalant attitude towards surveillance allows for massive ground in the dismantling of our rights to privacy. Though such an attitude is not surprising, as the entire ecosystem of social media is set up to surveil.

David Lyon, in his book “Surveillance After Snowden”, asserts that privacy is generally seen as a natural and democratic right that should be afforded to all citizens—but admits that a problem lay in that informational privacy is not as valued as bodily or territorial privacy. Even if information, data, and metadata are much more revealing than the both bodily and territorial surveillance.

Lyon notes three important points about privacy that are all very relevant to the current epidemic of pokemania: 1) the collecting of information has now been directly connected to risk mitigation and national security, implying that we are not safe unless we are surveilled. 2) Everyone is now a target of mass surveillance, not just the criminal. 3) Data collected through mass surveillance is made to create profiles of people—these may be completely inaccurate depending on the data collected, but you will never know the difference.

I would like to add a fourth. How can the data be used to swing massive profits? The corporation Niantic, creators of Ingress and Pokémon Go, use their privacy policies to legitimate “sharing” (sic: selling) of data with governments and third party groups. Government surveillance is often the focus of criticism. However, capitalist corporations are not often held accountable to ethical practices. Who is selling this data? Who is buying this data? And what is this monetized data being used for?

As Lyon asserts, Privacy is not about individual concerns—it is important socially and politically for a well-balanced democracy. Edward Snowden has been known to say, “It’s not really about surveillance, it’s about democracy”. While we continue to allow powerful groups to chip away at our privacy for entertainment, we literally give up our ability to criticize and challenge injustice.

Snowden reminds us that when we give up our democracy to the control room—there is zero accountability, zero transparency, and decisions are made without any democratic process.

So while we are distracted trying to catch a Snorlax at the park, we are giving away more and more of our lives to mysterious and complicated groups that want nothing but large profits and control. For a much more scathing review of this, see this blog post on surveillance and Pokémon.

Big Data and Algorithms

So what about the data. What is big data? First off, it’s all the craze right now. As data scientists, social scientists, policy makers, and business gurus scramble to understand how to use, abuse, and criticise such a thing. Big data is consistent of two large disciplines—statistics and computer science. It is the collection and analysis of unthinkably large amounts of aggregated data that is collected and analyzed largely by computer software and algorithms.

Boyd and Crawford (2012) offer a much more precise definition. They assert that Big Data is a “cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon” that can be broken into three interconnected features:

  1. Technology – Computer science, large servers, and complicated algorithms.
  2. Analysis – Using large data-sets compiled from technological techniques to create social, political, cultural and legal claims.
  3. Mythology – Widespread belief of the power of Big Data to offer a superior knowledge that carries immense predictive value.

The big problem that remains is how to find, generate, and collect all of this data? In terms of social media and video games much of this has to do with offering a “free” service to consumers who take the role of the “prosumer”. The prosumer is a social actor that both produces and consumes the commodity they are “paying” for.

In terms of social media (like Facebook), while users interact with each other, they are producing affective or emotional data through liking things, sharing things, and discussing things, that are then collected by algorithms and fed back into the system through targeting advertisements. The user is implicit in both the production and consumption of that data.

The user is given free access to the social media platform, however, they pay for it through giving the platform a transparent window into their lives that is than monetized and sold for large profits. People’s reactions to this form of surveillance are variant: some people offer scathing criticisms, others don’t give two shits, and some act a little more cautious.

Why is this important for Pokémon Go? Because you trade your data and privacy for access to what Pokémon Go has to offer. It is incredibly clever of think tanks in Niantic—using the nostalgic Pokemania to usher users into consenting to ridiculous surveillance techniques.

It gets worse. As Ashley Feinberg from Gawker identified, the people responsible for Niantic have some shady connections to the international intelligence community. Causing some in the surveillance studies field to fear that Pokémon might just be an international intelligence conspiracy (It sounds crazy—but it makes complete sense).

David Murakami Wood coined to the concept of “vanishing surveillance”. This is a phenomenon, intentional and unintentional, that allows surveillance capacities in devices to fade into the background. Resulting in users not being aware, or at least completely aware, that they are being watched. Pokémon Go, an innocent video game that is enabling new ways of being social in public, becomes an invisible surveillance device that may have international and interpersonal consequences. And it is the Pokémon themselves that allow for the surveillance to vanish from sight and mind.

A Culture of Nostalgia

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So what drives people to consent to all of this? What kinds of cultural patterns allow and shape us to an almost fanatical state when a Pokémon game is released?

The first factor within the culture of Pokémon is its appeal to nostalgia. Jared Miracle, in a blog post on The Geek Anthropologist, talks about the power of nostalgia. It taps into the childhoods of an entire generation—it even moves outside the obscure boundaries of gamer culture into the larger pop cultural context. It wasn’t only geeks that played Pokémon. It was just about everyone. This might provide an explanation to why so many people are wandering around with their cell phones before them (I’ve seen them wandering around Queen’s campus today, while I was also wandering around).

However, it is not all about nostalgia. I believe that the nostalgia plays a role in a bigger process of the digital sublime and the mythologizing of the power of media.

What is a mythology? According to Vincent Mosco, in his book The Digital Sublime, defines myth as, “stories that animate individuals and societies by providing paths to transcendence that lift people out of the banality of everyday life”. This is a form of reality that represent how people see the world from the every-day-life perspective.

Myths are also implicit in power. “’Myth’ is not merely an anthropological term that one might equate with human values. It is also a political term that inflects human values with ideology… Myths sustain themselves when they are embraced by power, as when legitimate figures… tell them and, in doing so, keep them alive”.

These myths, along with nostalgia for Pokémon paraphernalia, generate the digital sublime. A phenomenon that has us go head over heals for new technology. The mythologies that support it can be positive or negative.

Positive mythologies might sound a little like this: “Pokémon Go is allowing us to leave our homes and experience the world! We meet new people and we are empowered by new ways of interacting with each other. Hurrah!”.

Negative Mythologies are also important: “Pokémon Go is creating a generation of zombies. People are wasting their time catching those stupid Pokémon. They are blindly and dangerously wandering around, falling off cliffs, and invading private property. Damn those immature assholes”.

Both of these mythologies cross over each other to colour the experiences of those who play and those who watch.

We need to be careful of generating mythologies about the capacity for games to facilitate freedom, creativity, and sociality. We also need to be careful not to apply to much criticism. Such mythologies not only create a basic, overly simplistic way of understanding gaming, surveillance, and human culture, it also blinds us to nuance and detail that may be important in its broad understanding.

So while people dangerously block a highway to catch rare Pokémon, walk over cliffs because they aren’t paying attention, or disrespectfully attempting to catch Pokémon in Auschwitz, there are also people who are leaving their houses to engage with the world, using Pokémon to fight depression and other mental illnesses, and creating super cool maps of rare Pokémon spots.

Drawing things together—A Political Economy of Pokémon

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Don’t be so paranoid.

Taking a techno-socio-cultural perspective allows us to engage with Pokémon Go with a nuanced understanding of its positive and negative characteristics. It is possible to look at how this media creates a complex ecosystem of social concerns, political controversies, and cultural engagements with nostalgia, mythologizing, and capitalist enterprise.

Pokémon Go is indeed enabling a ton of new ways of interacting and helping people with mental illness get out of their homes to experience the world—however, we can’t forget that it is also an advance technology developed by those who have interest in money and power.

Regardless of the benefits that are emerging from use of this application, there are still important questions about privacy and the collection and use of Big Data.

So Pokemon Go isn’t just enabling new ways of being social with the larger world. It is enabling new ways of engaging with issues of surveillance, neo-liberal capitalism, and social control through the least expected avenues.

After all of these problematics become more and more public—will we still trade off our freedom for entertainment?

The Slender Man, Legends and Cultural Anxieties

Surveillance is being called ubiquitous by most of the leading scholars who study the social, political, and cultural ramifications of surveillance technology. A focus that I have been studying and thinking about is how surveillance is understood by everyday people living everyday lives.

I do this through the lens of Folklore, the study of everyday life. Or the study of the Folk (lay-person). This is obviously problematic—as such a term equates everyday life with peasantry. So for the remainder of this post I will use the term vernacular performance (i.e. everyday performance).

I’ve written about this work in the past. One of the ways that we demonstrate our cultural anxieties and fears is through the collective performance of legend cycles. In this case, I am speaking about the boogieman of the Internet—the Slender Man.

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What is a legend?

Legends are repetitive and variant. Meaning people tell it over and over again, and as it is told and spread it changes form while keeping a central theme. Legends are a performance between storyteller and audience. Meaning that people perform legend cycles. A teller typically recounts a story to a listener or audience. This does include digital legends. Finally, Legends are not constructed by the teller, but by the community. The interaction between the storyteller and the audience constructs the story and allows it to spread. It is a collective process.

The Slender Man is a creature born the performative interactions of a group of users on the forum Something Awful. The Slender Man is a tall, monstrous figure. One that resembles a tall man in a black suit. He has no face, and extraordinarily long arms. He is sometimes depicted with many moving tentacles. All of this, and his many disproportions give it a Lovecraftian appearance. An eldritch monstrosity.

Cultural Monsters

As Tina Marie Boyer (2013) asserts in terms of the Slender Man, “a monster is a cultural construct” (246). And as such, understanding the ‘anatomy’ of a monster sheds light on the problems people face in their day-to-day existence.

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What is the anatomy of the Slender Man? I decided to do some ‘fieldwork’—exploring many of the blogs/vlogs that contributed to its legendary constitution. I found three major themes: Surveillance, Social Control, and Secret Agencies. This returns us to the topic of this blog post: The Slender Man is a vernacular performance that demonstrates our collective anxieties of a culture that is under the constant gaze of massive and complicated networks of surveillance.

Surveillance

The Slender Man is known to watch its prey. It is rarely confrontational, though it seems to relish in making its presence known. One scene that sticks out to me is from the YouTube series Marble Hornets—the main protagonist, after becoming increasingly paranoid of the faceless man in a business suit following him began to leave his camera running while he slept—only to discover that the slender man watches from a crack in his door while he sleeps. The Slender Man watches, seemingly from everywhere—but even when it is seen, the Slender Man has no eyes to watch from. It is as if it sees everything from nowhere. The Slender Man appears and vanishes, seemingly at will, haunting victims with little to no motive. The Slender Man represents the phenomenon of ubiquitous surveillance in the virtual world. A world where anonymity and pseudonymity are quickly disappearing. A world where only the experts understand what to surveil and how to read the data such surveillance produces. And a world haunted by faceless watchers.

Social Control

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The Slender Man also represent themes of social control. The most obvious instance of this is the ‘proxies’, otherwise known as the ‘hallowed’. These are people who have been overcome by the Slender Man’s will. In many instances, the Slender Man legend telling ends in the main protagonists going mad and disappearing. They are either killed by the Slender Man (or its minions), disappear from time and space and sometimes memory, or are turned into a proxy. This means, they lose their minds and begin to do the bidding of the Slender Man. In the blog ‘Lost Within the Green Sky’, the main protagonist Danny describes it as a form of indoctrination that slowly drains the will from its victims. Even as a proxy, once their usefulness dries up – they are often killed. This theme is not surprising as it emerges from a cultural context that is known for its pervasive ability to control through silent software mediators.

Secret Agencies

The Slender Man is also known as The Operator (signified by a circle with an X through it). This name, along with the black suit it wears, makes the Slender Man a clear reference of Secret Agents. Those organizations who haunt the Internet, forcing those who wish to remain anonymous into the depths of TOR browsers and VPN applications. The Slender Man is representative of the NSA, FBI, CIA, CSIS, KGB and other notorious spy agencies operating with little oversight and behind a secretive veil. They are just as faceless as the Slender Man. And just as cryptic. Few understand the significance of their presence. And those who come under its haunting gaze have quite a lot to fear.

More Research

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Folklore is a small branch of the social sciences.  There are few people who work beneath its flag. And fewer of those people study contemporary, digital folklore. However, this does not diminish its importance. Folklore offers us a lens to peer into how everyday people interpret the world through vernacular expression. It is an essential dimension to the surveillance studies canon. An understanding of how people interpret surveillance is essential if we are ever going to take action to educate people about its dangers.

Snowden visits campus via live feed: NSA whistleblower addresses a packed Grant Hall

 

Queen’s International Affairs Association’s (QIAA) hosted a video conference with Edward Snowden on Thursday in Grant Hall.
Queen’s International Affairs Association’s (QIAA) hosted a video conference with Edward Snowden on Thursday in Grant Hall. Photo: Arwin Chan

Originally appeared in the Queen’s Journal on November 13th, 2015.

“I am just a citizen.  I was the mechanism of disclosure. It’s not up to me to say what the future should be — it’s up to you,” NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden told a packed house in Grant Hall.

Snowden — a polarizing figure globally — was invited as the keynote speaker for Queen’s Model United Nations Invitational (QMUNi) for the Queen’s International Affairs Association’s (QIAA).

As the talk commenced at 6:30 p.m., Snowden was met with applause.

The buzz surrounding Snowden’s Google Hangout talk on Thursday at Grant Hall started early, as crowds started lined up to enter the Grant Hall. The building quickly hit capacity.

Snowden began with a discussion of his motivations to disclose countless NSA confidential documents. He told the audience that he once believed wholeheartedly that mass surveillance was for the public good.

He came from a “federal family”, he said, with relations to both politics and military.  He said once he reached the peak of his career in government intelligence — when he received the highest security clearance — he saw the depth of the problem.

After that realization came the release of classified documents to journalists in 2013, his defection from the NSA and his indefinite stay in Russia.

“Progress often begins as an outright challenge to the law. Progress in many cases is illegal,” he said.

However, he has made himself into more than just a whistleblower. Snowden has continued to push for and encourage discussion about mass surveillance.

“Justice has to be seen to be done,” he said.

“I don’t live in Russia, I live on the Internet,” he said at another point during the talk.

When asked about Bill C-51 — the controversial terror bill in Canada — Snowden said “terrorism is often the public justification, but it’s not the actual motivation” for the bill.

He continued to say that if you strip the bill of the word “terrorism”, you can see the extent to which the bill makes fundamental changes that affect civil rights.

Snowden’s talk was intended to encourage discussion about mass surveillance. QIAA had initially contacted Snowden’s lawyer and publishers, who handle Snowden’s public affairs, and after a long process of back-and-forth negotiations they secured Snowden as a keynote speaker.

Dr. David Lyon, director of the Surveillance Studies Center and author of the recent publication Surveillance After Snowden, acted as the moderator for the talk.

David Lyon, right, mediated Thursday night’s question and answer period with Edward Snowden. (Photo by Arwin Chan)

There were mixed opinions among audience members about Edward Snowden and his mass disclosures of National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence documents to journalists in 2013.

Some students, like Mackenzie Schroeder, Nurs ’17, say Snowden’s actions were gutsy, but had good intentions.

Another guest, Akif Hasni, a PhD student in political studies, said he thought Snowden’s actions were important, despite the problems associated with publishing that information.

Other guests at the event didn’t completely agree with Snowden’s whistleblowing.

“It’s a dangerous thing to tell newspapers about. The thing about guys like Edward Snowden is that no one is going to know if what he did was good, while the action itself may be,” Sam Kary, ArtSci ’15, said.

Kary referred to John Oliver’s Snowden interview, where Oliver highlighted damages to national security caused by careless redacting of leaked documents by The New York Times.

The failure to properly redact leaked documents revealed the name of an NSA agent along with information on how the US government was targeting al-Qaeda operatives in Mosul in 2010.

— With files from Kate Meagher 

Palestine

Spaces of Exterminability: Israel-Palestine, Precarity and the Capital-Nation-State

Palestine

In the last few days I had the pleasure of attending a series of talks hosted by the Surveillance Studies Center at Queen’s University. It was the most inspiring and emotionally stirring talks I’ve ever seen. Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevokian from the faculty of Law-Institute of Criminology and the School of Social Work and Public Welfare at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem spoke passionately, in an academic manner about surveillance issues. More particularly, she was speaking, from what she had called a new lens of analysis, through the perspective of children effected by militarized surveillance in East Jerusalem. From this standpoint she expanded her discourse on settler-colonial violence and the racialized, systemic and systematic extermination of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israel state. I would like to state before I get into my own analysis of these talks that I am no expert on the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, I was stirred to write something about it as the issues are incredibly real, terrifying, and in need of visibility in the Western world.

This is a complicated and nuanced conflict to which I have no expertise or experience—with that said, after (or before) reading this response to Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian’s talk please Google this topic thoroughly. In this response, I will talk about the work Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian is conducting and then I will add a few thoughts that have been burning inside me which will extend her work and theoretical orientation. Also, if you are more interested. She’s published a book recently, check it out here. I only ask that we don’t engage in polarizing this conflict—as Dr. Lyon had mentioned in one of our lectures—it is a very complex conflict that includes the life worlds of so many millions of people. In what I talk about, and what Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian very aptly asserted, these are systemic processes and social structures. Not necessarily the crimes of individual people.

Dr. David Lyon, director of the Surveillance Studies Center, gave an introduction to Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian at the beginning of the first event. Notably, he added a very important thread of information that served as a backdrop for the talk. Dr. Lyon reminded the audience that most of the world’s surveillance technology comes out of Israel. He further asserted, that the testing of these technologies occurs on Palestinians in East Jerusalem. A terrifying notion. However, an important point of to bear in mind as we sift through this incredibly heavy, dense discourse.

Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian (2015) began her talk with an assertion that the conflict between settler-colonialists and the Israel government and the Palestinian natives is not an event, but rather a structure and a process. It is a very real structure that uses the power of the state to discipline, control and torture the very real bodies and life-worlds of Palestinian people. This process is conducted through militarized surveillance (that which sorts, categorizes and regulates people for the purpose of control) which exposes Palestinian people to disproportionate amounts of violence and oppression. Further, as mentioned above, she studies this phenomenon through the lens of children impacted by this systemic and systematic violence. She then expands from children to the lives of Palestinian people in general.

Like many other colonial-indigenous relations, Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian illustrates how this process of violence and surveillance is becoming an atmosphere of constant disappearance—where indigenous people, objects, and culture are devastatingly impacted. She describes three main fundamental issues with settler-colonialism: Colonialism is not an event but a structure; settlers indigenize themselves, removing the natives from their home; and the structure of settler-colonialism is based on the “logic of elimination”—cultural, historical and physical. This is empirically demonstrated by Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian by way of illustrating how the Israel government uses bureaucratic measures to demolish homes, exposing Palestinian families to disproportionate homelessness and loss of citizenship. Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian introduces a concept she calls exterminable spaces. This can be understood as both actual geographies in East Jerusalem and metaphorically referring to the disappearance (extermination) of social and cultural life-worlds. I will return to this concept to discuss it in light of Judith Butler’s discussion on citizenship and illegal immigrants shortly. Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian uses this concept to understand the experiences of Palestinian children, she says, “Children are heavily racialized and mediated by racialized bureaucracies in these exterminable spaces”. The life-worlds, the everyday experiences of these children become saturated in fear. Fear of the settlers, fear of the police, and fear of the military. Back dropped with constant militarized surveillance and enforcement of brutal punishments.

There was much in this talk that I do not have the space to discuss (which you can explore through her book)—however, I would like to mention one more important point that she explored in her talk. The legal status of children (and adults). Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian explains a fundamental point—children do not receive the status of citizen or permanent residence automatically. These children must apply for it under particularly narrow conditions. As a direct result of this, there are over 10 000 unregistered children. Because they have no papers or places to belong, they are exposed to disproportionate rates of state violence and arrest. As well as homelessness. They are directly placed into exterminable space.

This is where I would like to break off from Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian and expand on two points in particular that were on my mind as I listened to her theory and her story. The first a political economic discussion of Kojin Karatani’s (2014) “capital-nation-state” trinity as it relates to the state and corporate violence against the Palestinian nation. The second is Judith Butler’s concept of precarity as it relates to the illegal ‘other’ in the “capital-nation-state”.  I feel that these two theories provide an interesting insight into the situation occurring in Israel.

Karatani (2014) takes on the task of reinterpreting the ebbs and flows of the model of world history Karl Marx devised in his work on Capital. Instead of a focus on the mode of production (as Marx bases his entire approach on), he instead approaches world history from modes of exchange. In doing this, Karatani levels out the field for the concepts of capital, nation, and state. Marx had assumed that nation and state emerged from capital (mode of production)—however, Karatani argues that capital, nation, and state are tied into trinity. The three primary modes of exchange, throughout all of history, had been linked together in some way or form to produce social relations.  This removes the privilege afforded to capital as the preconceived superior mode of exchange.

The capital-nation-state trinity is incredibly important, in my opinion, to understanding the friction between Israel and Palestine. Capital is the process and flow of money to make more money (Harvey 2010:40). State is a sort of rationalized, legal body with a “monopoly on violence” (as Weber would say) (Frankel 2001).  Nation is a community, or a group of human beings who share common historical and cultural practices (Connor 2001). It is important to note that sometimes, as Connor discusses, nation and state become conflated as nation-state. There is an important distinction because more times than not there are several nations under one state—and usually one nation dominating that state. This typically has terrible consequences to every other nation not associated with the priorities of the nation-state.  In the case of Israel and Palestine, the state is under the control of the Judaist nation.  Further, the interests of private corporations developing surveillance technology are enabled and encouraged by this state to test on the people of Palestine.  So there is a connection between state (those who monopolize violence), nation (the Zionist belief that Jerusalem is a city and land for the Judaist people), and capital (the production and commodity exchange of surveillance technology). This makes up the capital-nation-state apparatus. But in order for this to exist—a group(s) must be excluded. In this case, it is the Palestinian people.

Judith Butler (2009) talks about her concept of precarity and performativity in the contexts of gender and citizenship.  This theory, augmented with the work of Karatani offers some interesting insights.  Butler describes precarity as,

“…(Precarity) designates that politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become deferentially exposed to injury, violence, and death. Such populations are at heightened risk of disease, poverty, starvation, displacement, and of exposure to violence without protection. Precarity also characterizes that politically induced condition of maximized vulnerability and exposure for populations exposed to arbitrary state violence and to other forms of aggression that are not enacted by states and against which states do not offer adequate protection” (ii).

I feel that precarity is an important concept in light of Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian’s “spaces of exterminability” which throw the life-worlds of real human beings into disproportionate exposure to violence at the hands of state and settler. Butler continues to discuss the issue of who is and who is not considered a subject, in other words, a person (iii).  The nation-state has the power, through bureaucracy and the monopoly on violence, to impose citizenship.  In this way, the nation-state is able to regulate and sort desirable people from undesirable people.

Notably, Butler incorporates the work of Hannah Arendt who says that the nation-state structurally excludes and produces stateless persons (vi). But she also notes that those stateless people are able to resist their forced lack of personhood (vi). In other words, exercising personhood and the right to have rights is a sort of performance that can be conducted with or without citizenship.  When those who are not citizens engage in the performativity of personhood–their situation is much more precarious (vi).  However, in the case of Israel and East Jerusalem, there is a utilization of state violence to systemically and systematically remove and harm entire ethnic groups. Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian asserts that the state military and police use techniques such as technologies of surveillance and security check points to control the mobility of Palestinians and “fragment” their ability to form cohesive communities. This separates family, friend and community from each other because the ability to travel (or exercise mobility) requires citizenship and permits which are easily revoked and heavily regulated. The Palestinians are not only rendered nonpersons and thrown into exterminable space, but they are also a stateless nation with very little chance of challenging the current regime or engaging meaningfully with the capital-nation-state.

I found this method of understanding the conflict very engaging. However, more important than any academic discourse on this incredibly terrible but very interesting topic is what can we do about it. I asked Dr. Shalhoub-Kevokian in the conclusion of her last talk about how someone who is so far removed from such conflicts (most Canadians) could practically help the situation. She replied with two things. The first, which was followed by chuckling from the audience, is to elect a new government. The Harper regime has been very unhelpful and mostly unproductive and problematic when approaching this conflict (I will leave qualifying this for another blog on another day). The second was to amplify the message that emerges from her academics and her politics. Before I explain this, I would like to remind you that this is not a conflict to be polarized. There are likely structural causes to the violence that is occurring in this country. We can’t play the ethnic blaming game. But we can raise the public alarms about the role of the Israel State in this very subtle form of genocide. So I implore you: blog, discuss, debate, disseminate, analyze, speak out, and for the love of god, VOTE.


Sources:

Butler, Judith. 2009. “Prefromativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics.” Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana 4(3):i-xiii.

Connor, Walker. 2011. “nation-state.” Pp. 417-418 in The Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by G. Ritzer and J.M. Ryan. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Frankel, Boris. 2011. “state.” Pp. 609-611 in The Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by G. Ritzer and J.M. Ryan. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Karatani, Kojin. 2014. The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange. Durham and London: Duke University Press. .

Shalhoub-Kevokian, Nadera. 2015. “Militarized Surveillance and Palestinian Childhood”. Surveillance Studies Centre Seminar Series. Queen’s University. Lecture.

Shalhoub-Kevokian, Nadera. 2015. “Security Theology, Surveillance and the Politics of Fear”. Surveillance Studies Centre Seminar Series. Queen’s University. Lecture.

Surveillance Studies Centre Seminar Series Presents…

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If you are in Kingston, ON or have a way to get here, this is definitly a seminar that is worth checking out.

Info below from the Surveillance Studies Centre event page:

http://www.sscqueens.org/news/ssc-special-guest-speaker-nadera-shalhoub-kevorkian


 

‘Militarized Surveillance and Palestinian Childhood’

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 12:30-2:00pm

Jeffrey 234

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian

“Through an examination of the trapped condition of colonized childhood in historic Palestine, the presentation conceptualizes Palestinian childhood within a settler colonial framework and considers the particular and distinctly territorialized, spatial, and biopolitical relationships between state criminality and Palestinian childhood. The talk traces the ongoing targeting of Palestinian childhood through different geographical spaces and historical periods. Considering the fragmentation of Palestinian geographies— via borders, checkpoints, walls, settler violence and other militarized restrictions of movement — a spatio-temporal emphasis is key to understanding how the targeting of children and the maintenance of various punitive measures within spaces of exterminability serves colonial interests.

About the speaker: Professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian is a longtime anti-violence, native Palestinian feminist activist and the director of the Gender Studies Program at Mada al-Carmel, the Arab Center for Applied Social Research in Haifa. Her research focuses on law, society and crimes of abuse of power. She studies the crime of femicide and other forms of gendered violence, crimes of abuse of power in settler colonial contexts, surveillance, securitization and social control, and trauma and recovery in militarized and colonized zones. Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s most recent books are: Security Theology, Surveillance and the Politics of Fear, Cambridge University Press, April 2015 and Militarization and Violence Against Women in Conflict Zones in the Middle East: The Palestinian Case Study, Cambridge University Press, 2010. She has published articles in multi-disciplinary fields including British Journal of Criminology, International Review of Victimology, Feminism and Psychology, Middle East Law and Governance, International Journal of Lifelong Education, American Behavioral Scientist Journal, Social Service Review, Violence Against Women, Journal of Feminist Family Therapy: An International Forum, Social Identities, Social Science and Medicine, Signs, Law & Society Review, and more. As a resident of the old city of Jerusalem, Shalhoub-Kevorkian works to end the inscription of power over Palestinian children’s lives, spaces of death, and women’s birthing bodies and lives.

Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian has been brought to Queen’s through the Principal’s Development Fund International Visitors Program.

This talk is co-presented by Sociology, Faculty of Law, Global Development Studies, and Gender Studies


 

Ready Player One: An Exploration of Anonymity and Surveillance

Let’s talk about anonymity. I had just finished a book recently, a really interesting and socially relevant science fiction called Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. This book is centered on a technology called OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) which is an immense virtual reality video game. It is comprised of a pastiche (collage) of all of history’s Western pop culture in one seemingly infinite digital space. In other words, this virtual world is a large mash up of Star Wars, Star Trek, Disc World and just about every movie or imaginary world you can conceive of. Very po-mo, I know. What is truly interesting about this world, however, is that its creators—two computer engineers from Gregarious Simulations Systems (GSS)—made the entire world centered on anonymity and Internet freedom. They also provide the game for free to all users. Though there are internal costs and hardware costs in order to use OSASIS fully. It is almost utopic. However, the surrounding physical world has faded away due to neglect and capitalistic exploit and has become frighteningly decadent. So there is a sharp contrast between the utopian paradise of OASIS and the dystopian wasteland of the actual world. As well as the inevitably interconnectivity of these two worlds that make you question if OASIS is actually the utopia it claims to be.

ReadyPlayerOne RD 1 finals 2

Book Cover Art — Ernest Cline

The concept of anonymity in our society (across many societies) is becoming increasingly important. Even more important is the question of whether or not access to such a social status as anonymity is even possible anymore due to the complex issues of surveillance. The ability to surf the cyberweb as anonymous beings is a skill in computer literacy that is lacking in our educational systems. This is incredibly important because so much of our interaction is now on the Internet and connected mobile devices. Our interactions are thus transparent to various groups with the power or capital to spy on us.

What is anonymity? Gary T. Marx (1999) defines anonymity through a series of features. He writes, “To be fully anonymous means that a person cannot be identified according to any of the seven dimensions of identity knowledge”. These features include: access to legal name, access to a person’s physical address, access to symbolic sets (SIN or biometric data), access to other symbols that may not directly link to legal name and address, distinctive behavioral patterns or appearance (tattoos), social categorization (race, gender, sex and sexuality), and possession of knowledge or artifacts linked with a particular group. It is important to note that pseudonymity and anonymity are two different things. Pseudonyms can be traced back to particular social patterns, groups and other symbols or data that can betray a person’s identity.

This sort of internet utopia, even with the (in)famous TOR browser (anon internet browser), does not exist (nor may it ever exist). Even in the OSASIS anonymity is an illusion as characters build fame and notoriety through the use of pseudonyms. As is even demonstrated in the story of Ready Player One—the characters physical locations and identities are betrayed by their psuedonyms and online behavior.

Ernest Cline’s story tackles very important cultural friction that is currently occurring over the Internet. It is a digitized civil war that is taking place between Internet Service Providers, Multi-national Corporations, and National Security Intelligence groups and hackers/hactivists, open-source coders, computer scientists, and activists. The Internet is not a neutral place. Though, the original ideological projections of the Internet devised this digital “space” to be one of the free sharing of information, knowledge and communication. It has been carved up with imaginary corporate and state boarders. And these boarders are likely to be very opaque, intersect, converge and are difficult to discern. And as the surveillance report in Transparent Lives illuminates,

“…In twenty-first-century Canada, surveillance is expanding steadily as personal data flow, in unprecedented ways, between private and public bodies. The blurring between these agencies may be illustrated in many ways, but the effect of driving more surveillance is common to each case. Public and private bodies have different mandates and different modes of accountability, and personal data become vulnerable to misuse and abuse as the data streams flow in new directions.”

Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada – Trend 3

 

This is especially true when data flows over national boarders where our state laws can no longer protect the data of Canadians.

To sum up my point: we live in an era of mass and mysterious surveillance and it is incredibly problematic that we (including myself) lack the computer literacy to traverse the Internet anonymously. This is an incredibly large societal issue in the Western world (and abroad) as many of us conduct most of our work and social life over the Internet. Cline’s novel, among other things, really speaks to this issue of anonymity and surveillance. The Internet provides us with various “spaces” where we can practice sociality outside of the regular contexts of capitalistic and individualistic life.

I would like to also note that there are many places to learn computer science and coding for free:

  1. https://www.bento.io
  2. https://www.edx.org/course/introduction-computer-science-harvardx-cs50x
  3. http://www.catb.org/esr/faqs/hacker-howto.html
  4. https://anoninsiders.net/how-to-join-anonymous-1527/
  5. https://anonintelgroup.wordpress.com/2015/09/10/how-to-join-anonymous/

There are many other resources over the Internet that you will be able to explore through a Google search: including free courses and video games that teach code as you play. I am incredibly new to this world as well. If you have more sources you would like to share, please feel free to comment below. The way forward in preventing the full carving up of the Internet is to learn to become computer literate so we (those who traverse cyberspace) are able to build and protect safe and open-source spaces.


Sources:

Bennett, Colin J., Kevin D. Haggerty, David Lyon, and Valerie Steeves, eds. Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. Au Press: Athabasca University, 2014.  Web. 24 Aug. 2015.

Cline, Ernest.  Ready Player One. Random House, 2011. Print.

Marx, Gary T., What’s in a Name? Some Reflections on the Sociology of Anonymity.  The Information Society, 1999.  Web. Sept 17. 2015.

 

Digital binary code on computer screen, pen pointing out "we're watching you" surveillance breach in red characters.

Colombian “Shadow State”: The blending of public and private sectors in mass surveillance

Digital binary code on computer screen, pen pointing out "we're watching you" surveillance breach in red characters.
Adobe stock image

The deployment of surveillance in the 21st century digital (shit-show) of a society we live in carries some especially decentralized features. We can no longer look at the state as a central apparatus from where surveillance emerges and is conducted. And we also can’t assume that surveillance has shifted to a new center in the private industry. This “blurring of sectors” is one of the main trends in Canadian (and certainly, global) surveillance reported by Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. Read this particular chapter of the report for free here. This is an interesting meditation on these important, and really complex, issues in light of the development of a “total” surveillance program in Colombia.

According to a report released by Privacy International –the Colombian state has, over the past few decades, constructed a vast surveillance net that borders on total surveillance. An apparatus that has, in fact, been used on political opponents, leftist Guerrillas, and activists in the past. This is what Vice News refers to as the “Shadow State”. A story that is shaping up to look like some sort of dystopian sci-fi. This could also be a case study in the dangers of unimpeded surveillance for state or private interest.

Let’s look at a quick recap of its development (according to Vice News)! In the 1990s, the Colombian state invested in a surveillance system called “Esperanza”. In sociology, there is this concept called surveillance creep which essentially means that once surveillance system is set up, it continues to grow and eventually take on tasks that were never its initial intention (Lyon 52). In the case of Esperanza, it was expanded over the next few decades until a new program was developed. PUMA was developed in 2007, and through surveillance creep was later upgraded to super-PUMA through a multimillion dollar investment. These systems now have the capacity to track and log phone calls and conversations to government servers to create profiles on all citizens. Much of this work is done without warrant or heed to the established laws governing intelligence agencies or state surveillance. For a much more detailed description of the story—visit the VICE article.

What I found interesting was the focus of the article on the centrality of the state government in the construction and implementation of their “shadow state”. They do discuss the private industry in the article. However, not mentioned is that there is likely to be a thin veil of separation between the involved capitalists and the state.

   “Surveillance is big money,” explained Rice. “If you sell people guns, they may come back for more guns someday, but if you sell surveillance, you immediately start providing customer support, IT services, and upgrades.”

VICE News.

To only focus on the use of surveillance to reproduce and safe guard state power is to ignore many of the other contributing factors and risky slopes that exist in these situations. One being, that a collection of private interest corporations are cashing in big time on the suffering and repression of an entire nation. Of course, this cash grab is obscured and made opaque by discourses of terrorism and crime. So not only is the state as a result becoming more powerful through draconian and cloak and dagger strategies—but a slurry of private corporation is also filling its coffers.

According to the VICE news article:

“The dozens of documents reviewed by Privacy International show that the Israeli companies Verint Systems and NICE Systems have been especially crucial in building Colombia’s electronic spying capabilities. Both have helped steadily expand the country’s “network” surveillance system, which uses a series of probes to latch on to Internet servers and collect data from 3G phone networks.”

These private corporations, I would speculate, also have access to the collected data in aggregate of an entire country’s population. The Transparent Lives report writes,

“The blurring between these agencies may be illustrated in many ways, but the effect of driving more surveillance is common to each case. Public and private bodies have different mandates and different modes of accountability, and personal data become vulnerable to misuse and abuse as the data streams flow in new directions.”

So even though abuse from the Colombian state is actually terrifying—there is at least, even if they are not always followed, a set of governing laws. Which is sometimes not the case of a private industry that is mandated to swing large profits. But the likely case seems that there is probably quite a lot of overlap between these surveillance corporations and the state interests.

It is increasingly important to see surveillance as a process that transcends traditional boundaries between public and private sectors. As these sectors, in an age of global capitalism are beginning to merge in many complicated ways.