How close are we to the dystopian world outlined in 1984? Following on from my colleague bschaefer’s article ‘Volunteering for surveillance: Consumerism, fear of crime, and the loss of privacy’, this article discusses the latest challenges to our consumer privacy rights.

The concept of surveillance raises significant social questions, especially in relation to how far technologies constitute an unacceptable degree of intrusion into our private lives. This week Tesco announced their plans to introduce targeted advertising through facial recognition technologies to all 450 of its UK based petrol stations. The OptimEyes screen, developed by Lord Alan Sugar’s company Amscreen, scans the eyes of customers to determine specified categories of age and gender before running tailored advertisements. Although most of us in advanced western states are already subject to a vast array of data collection fuelled by the desire to obtain our interconnected life experiences information.  This latest attempt to monitor and influence our consumer behaviour automatically sets a number of alarm bells ringing, namely to do with the social issues of surveillance, in particular power relations, spaces, and categorisations. more...

Fingerprint_picture.svgThe announcement by Apple this week regarding the latest version of the IPhone excited consumers worldwide. Along with any new release comes with anticipation over what new features will be included. The latest installment of the IPhone, the 5S, comes with a fingerprint technology called TouchID that replaces the now “antiquated” password with a biometric scan of the phone user’s fingerprint. Security experts are praising this new function as a way to increase protection for consumers and deter criminals from attempting to steal the phones. The use of fingerprint technology for security is nothing new, but the application to cellphones is part of an ever evolving culture of control in the United States, and is an example of the growth in passive surveillance.  The need for improved security in cell phones plays on consumer’s fear of crime. The IPhone 5S may be the first phone to include fingerprint technology and, while as of now it remains optional, the use of biometric data for security purposes will slowly evolve into the industry standard and people will lose their choice to opt out.


Police videotape citizens protesting at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City.  Retrieved from Wikimedia

Police videotape citizens protesting at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City. Retrieved from Wikimedia


Key components of New York Police Department’s controversial stop-and-frisk strategy were recently struck down by a Federal Judge for violating the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.  The controversy surrounding the stop-and-frisk program primarily focused on its racial profiling—over 85 percent of the 4.3 million people stopped since 2003 were minorities. This decision has received considerable attention; however, there was a second component of NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program that was also defeated that received less attention. As part of the stop-and-frisk program, the NYPD made a practice out of permanently recording the person’s name and address in a database that could potentially be used in future investigations. In 2010, New York City passed a law prohibiting the storage of names of individuals whose cases were dismissed, but it took another three years for NYPD to stop this practice after settling a lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) in August of 2013. The NYPD agreed to stop storing the names of people in cases that are dismissed or result in a noncriminal violation. This victory by the NYCLU is a rare win for those who challenged the government’s creation of large databases containing citizens’ personal information. more...

Sea of Phonesby pj.rey

In the ten days following the earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital, Americans used text messaging to donate over $30 million.  Text messaging has been prominent in the news as of late.  Candidate Obama shocked supporters by announcing his vice presidential pick using this new medium.  In 2008, Nielson reported that the average teen sends a whopping 2,272 messages a month.  A new term, “sexting,” entered popular usage following several high profile cases of teens being expelled or even charged with distribution of child pornography.  The Pew Internet and American Life Center reported in 2009 that 15% of teens ages 12-17 received sexually explicit images of people they know.  Texting has proven the most dangerous common distraction to drivers.  The first images of the plane that crash-landed in the Hudson were uploaded to the Web from the cell phone of a passenger on a nearby boat.  The incident was also Twittered by a survivor.  Then, of course, there were the protests to the recent Iranian elections, which used personal mobile communication devices to subvert state-run media.

Each of these incidences share a common theme: traditional practices were supplanted in favor of a new set of behaviors associated with mobile communications.  That’s the what, but as a social theorist, I suggest we also ought to consider the why.  I think Zymgunt Bauman, a remarkably prolific octogenarian sociologist, has a lot to offer us here.  Bauman famously speaks of “liquid modernity” where traditional social structures are melting away and fading ambiguously into one another.  He argues that things which are liquid, flowing, and mobile tend to undo things which are rigid, solid, and stable.

Mobile communication networks increasingly provide concrete examples supporting Bauman’s theory and Haiti is only the latest instance.  The cell phone has made transferring money more immediate, more flexible, and simpler than even the credit card.  People need only reach into their pockets for a device which is already profoundly integrated into their lives and dial a few numbers.  Within seconds, the transaction is complete and money has flowed from one node in the network to another.  The power of such fluid networks is that, with minimal cost in time and money (most were $10 contributions) to individuals, enormous resources can be mobilized.  The political implications of this new fluid and hyper-networked reality should not be lost on us.

Square-eye “Mobile giving to help Haiti exceeds $30 million” by Suzanne Choney

Square-eye “Teaching and Learning Guide for: Social Implications of Mobile Telephony: The Rise of Personal Communication Society” by Scott W. Campbell and Yong Jin Park

Users logged into Facebook this week to find various messages from the company telling them of changes in the way they will share their information. While the company frames all of this as putting users in “control” of their own data, it strikes me that this is more about empowering the company than the users. Users are given more opportunity to share more information with more people, creating more of the data that Facebook profits from.

Whether you care if Facebook profits from all of this or not, it is important to identify the rhetorical strategy: to accumulate more data that Facebook ultimately controls and owns by telling its users that they are increasingly in control.

As CEO Mark Zuckerberg states that you have more control of your data, he is simultaneously allowing you to share more by changing the defaults that users rarely deviate from. Now more information such as as your name, profile picture, gender, networks, friend list, and any pages you are a fan of are publicly available to anyone on the Internet rather than just with your friends. See: Facebook’s Privacy Upgrade Recommends I Be Less Private. Further, Zuckerberg is not mentioning that he still owns this data and is poised to profit from it.

Unlike other posts on this topic, this is not an argument that Facebook dupes us into sharing too much. The mass exhibitionism and voyeurism in our current moment runs much too deep –often contrary to capitalist goals. Instead, one should simply read Facebook’s insidious message of “empowerment” with a skeptical eye.

Finally, we can describe this strategy as an outcome of the new more weightless prosumer capitalism. Prosumer because we simultaneously consume and produce nearly all of the content on Facebook. Weightless (as I’ve previously argued for, using Bauman’s terms) because we-the-laborers are unpaid and are given the product for free. Thus, capitalism is hardly distinguishable as such, increasingly hidden by the rhetoric of user-empowerment. Facebook is letting our mass exhibitionism spread, lubricating social interactions as well as they can, and cashing in on the data we supposedly “control”. ~nathan

The New Facebook Privacy Settings: A How-To

Secrecy and New Religious Movements: Concealment, Surveillance, and Privacy in a New Age of Information

by kiddingthecity

What happens if some people decided to take control, in different ways, of their own images taken in public space by the millions of CCTV, by becoming conscientious actors and protagonists of the never ending film of the city (in London, there are more that half million of CCTV, 1 every 14 citizens)? What if some people started reclaiming, under the Data Protection Act, their own ‘performances’? To the extent, for instance, of making a music video, or an art installation? Or even a youth community project in alternative media practices thanks to ‘video sniffing’, that is, the hacking of loose digital videos from unencrypted cameras and their remixing. With a bit of poetry, we might even think to drifting through the policed city following the unpredictable waves of ethereal signals (a la Surrealists).2421296979_44ec253fd7

Media commentators are quick at condemning the increasing practice as illegal, but this is at very least a gray area: who does my picture, captured in public space, belong to? Whatever the techniques, it seems clear to me that what is at stake here is the narrative of CCTV as uncomplicated and self-evident. On the other hand, media and criminologists (alongside the expanding industry of the digital surveillance systems) make no mistake on the goals of this unprecedented mapping coverage of the urban population: the ideological and politicized program of urban restructuring must go on in the name of a “safer” public space.

Square-eye Mike Raco on gentrification ( free pdf)


Square-eye Hille Koskela on video-surveillance ( free pdf)

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by kiddingthecity

It sounds more and more likely that the Police have something to do with the death of a newsagent at the rally in the City of London. Many witnesses have come forward and most importantly there is The Picture: the evidence, the forensic clue, the probatio, the real stuff judges love and on which the surveillance culture of the streets in this country has been built upon. Mr Tomlinson is on the floor, surrounded by police officers, his hands near his head as he had been struck on the head. He looks dazed in the photograph as if suffering from concussion. Besides, at the same time that the man collapsed, police had begun an unprovoked assault upon a crowd that wanted to go home after being penned without facilities for over 7 hours, and it seems more than likely to me that Mr Tomlinson may have received some kind of push or blow. The police instead claim that the man was a passer-by who suffered a sudden heart attack, and that they tried to intervene in order to save him, despite the launch of ‘missiles’ from the protesters.

policing Ouch, you have been framed!

I understand that photos and videos can deceive, and that they rarely hold the truth. On the other hand, inevitably, they carry some sort of attachment to the real: the man was there, the police were armed in anti-riot gear, and they were pushing demonstrators back at that time. Suspicion, at very least, is a legitimate stance.

But this post is not about what happened at Bishopsgate on Wednesday evening. Nor it is a discussion about the meanings of documentary photography. Instead, it hopes to show how awful is the pretension in place in the UK since 16th February 2009: to take a photo of a policeman or police woman without their permission is a new offence, section 58A of the Terrorism Act 2000, inserted by section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008.

The one above is a beautiful example of just why the Police and Politicians want it to be a criminal offence to photograph and video police on the street.

In addition, throughout the day of the anticapitalist demonstrations, police photographers pointed camcorders and cameras with powerful zoom lenses at us: the CCTV-man was protected and instructed by two officers around him all the time. This was a clear attempt to intimidate people and the implied threat being that you were being watched (remember the Panopticon?), and that your attendance was itself a criminal act worthy of surveillance.


Visual Research Ethics at the Crossroad (paper)

square-eye3Video-surveillance and changing nature of urban space


by paulabowles

A group of university lecturers and students have recently handed a petition to the British Government, in order to protest against forthcoming immigration reform. As part of these new rules, UK universities will be required to obtain a licence before they can enrol students from outside the EU. Furthermore, the universities will also be expected to sponsor these overseas students for the period of their study.

Although, the government insist these plans were subject to a period of consultation with Universities UK, as well as other organisations within higher education, these reforms have been met with resistance. As part of the sponsorship of international students, lecturers will have a duty to report on individuals’ attendance in class. Although, the Home Office is quick to point to the universities duty of care to all of its students, such a pronouncement has angered some. Ian Grigg-Spall of the National Critical Lawyers Group insists that there are dangers in requiring teachers to take on the role of ‘quasi immigration officers.’ Moreover, he states that such action would be ‘a breach of our university autonomy and…a breach of academic freedom. This is a slippery slope, this is a dangerous slope.’

Whether or not, academic autonomy and freedom are seen as more important issues than illegal immigration remains to be seen. Arguably, now may be a good time to revisit Foucault’s ‘Panopticism.’


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square-eye24‘Surveillance’ by David Lyon

128px-f_iconsvgBy nathan jurgenson

Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook founder and CEO) said recently at the 2008 Web 2.0 Summit:

“I would expect that next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and [the] next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before.”

The Web 2.0 summit discusses the user-generated web, and of sociological interest here is that when people are given tools to share information about themselves online, they do, often in intimate detail. The massive popularity of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook highlight this trend, where millions of users display themselves in what might seem like unnecessary detail. Sites like Flickr and YouTube are updated endlessly with photos and videos illuminating users’ everyday lives. Blogging often takes the form of an online diary or journal, but one that is broadcasted to an almost infinite audience. The increasingly popular micro-blogging tool Twitter allows users to publish constant updates of everything they are doing in granular detail. The iPhone application Loopt does this as well, and also maps where the users are at all times. This is not to even detail a whole additional set of popular self-exhibitionism tools described by The Quantified Self project.

How do we interpret this mass exhibitionism online? Do we celebrate it as the free performance of creative individuality? What else is at play? We can follow the dollars and acknowledge that ‘we’ are, collectively, unpaid workers in building an endlessly detailed database, a digital gold mine of information (note here that Facebook alone is valued at $15 billion dollars as of 2007, precisely due to the data that users donate to the site). ~nathan

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Social Movements and New Media