Monthly Archives: April 2007

Weblog for April 16 to April 20 and Remaining Weeks

On your weblog this week, please post one brief entry relating to an issue of surveillance/sousveillance. Your second entry may be on any topic of your choice.

For the week ending April 27:

Write one medium length entry (approximately four or five paragraphs) addressing something related to any of the key concepts we have addressed in the course (networks, community, collaborative production and so on). This entry (which substitutes for the third mini project listed in the course outline) must draw on some required course material and on some other reading or examples.

Finally, for the last week of the term, write two brief entries, each discussing one or more of the student presentations delivered in your section.

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Sousveillance: Watching from Below

We have been talking recently about NITs and their potential use in surveillance, which we defined as:

“Purposeful, routine, systematic and focused attention paid to personal details, for the sake of control, entitlement, management, influence or protection.” (UK Information Commissioner’s Office, A Report on the Surveillance Society, p. 4)

Another useful way to think about surveillance is to consider the French roots of the term, which we can roughly translate as “watching over,” or perhaps, “watching from above.”

The examples we have discussed over the past week or so have focused on the idea of surveillance as “watching from above,” as a practice of monitoring carried out by organizations (whether governments or businesses) and directed primarily at individuals and their behavior. We have also considered how NITs can be used to facilitate surveillance, making it potentially more effective by simplifying the process of gathering, compiling, sorting, and analyzing information.

However, as we have also discussed, this effectiveness does not necessarily meant that a particular instance of surveillance is proper, or that the conclusions drawn from surveillance are necessarily correct. NITs can make the process of doing surveillance more efficient, but they cannot guarantee that societies manage that process to balance the rights of individuals with the needs of communities as a whole. That task still falls to people operating within their social and political environments.

But as we have also seen this term, the benefits of NITs are not felt only (or perhaps even primarily) from the top down. Access to networked computing technologies often gives individual users much more opportunity to gather, compile, and distribute information. In many ways NITs make it possible for individuals to watch the watchers.

To put it another way, one possible response to surveillance and the rise of the surveillance society is to engage in sousveillance, or “watching from below.” Individual users can (and do) use NITs to help them engage in monitoring the actions of organizations engaged in surveillance.

Some examples:

  • The Surveillance Camera Players are a New York-based activist/performance group. As an act of protest, they stage performances in front of city surveillance cameras, provide maps and descriptions of camera locations, and try to draw public attention to the use of excessive surveillance.
  • CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) is an organization that focuses on the ways retail stores invade customers’ privacy through gathering customer data (club cards) and use of RFID technology.
  • Personal video cameras and cell phone cameras give individuals the opportunity to bear witness to events. Particularly when images are digitized for use on the web, the effects can be dramatic. Consider the recent video-phone footage of Sadaam Hussein’s execution. The graphic footage, recorded by witnesses to the execution and distributed on the internet, offered a competing message to the official (silent) footage provided by media outlets and may have had a significant impact on how people reacted to the event.
  • Projects like NewAssignment.net use NITs to encourage distributed reporting, allowing individuals to act as eyes and ears on news projects.
  • People are using websites, weblogs, and online forums to bear witness against authority figures

New Information Technologies can be (and are) used both for surveillance and for sousveillance. Neither watching from above nor watching from below is inherently good or bad. Both have potential benefits for communities and individuals, and both raise significant concerns about the possibility for invasion of privacy, misuse of information, and related issues. We cannot blame technologies for these problems nor can we expect technology to sort them out for us. We need to do that ourselves.

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Surveillance and International Context

During the course we have looked at online tools that make the practice of journalism more accessible to more people: in essence, democratizing the practice of journalism. For many people New Information Technologies are inherently democratic and enhance democracy. Our brief examination of online surveillance may call that into question, as might the following:

A report from Amnesty International, “Undermining Freedom of Expression in China,” criticizes the internet companies Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google for having “facilitated or colluded in the practice of censorship in China.”

  • Yahoo! provided the Chinese government with private, confidential information about its users. “This included personal data that has been used to convict at least two journalists, considered by Amnesty International to be prisoners of conscience.” One of these, journalist Shi Tao, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sending an email in which he summarized the content of oral communication from the Chinese Central Propaganda Department to the newspaper where he worked.
  • Microsoft shut down a user’s weblog based on a request from the Chinese government. It deleted a blog by Chinese journalist Jhao Jing which was housed on MSN Spaces in the United States. It restricts access to its services by users from China, including blocking “attempts to create blogs with words including ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, and ‘freedom of expression’ in the title” and filtering searches for politically sensitive terms.
  • Google launched a self-censored version of its search engine for use by people in China.

Amnesty International accuses the companies of a “mismatch” between their statements about their own support for freedom of information and their actions.

The OpenNet Initiative is a multi-national project whose “mission is to investigate and challenge state filtration and surveillance practices.” Among other things, it maintains an internet filtering map to show the prevalence of filtering and surveillance in various countries.

Reporters Without Borders has published a Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents.

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Surveillance and Face Recognition

One of the difficulties in using NITs in surveillance is that computers (so far) are not very good at exercising the kind of judgment necessary for interpreting data. They can gather, sort, and process information very effectively, but they can only make “decisions” according to specifically programmed variables.

Face recognition is one example.

Recognizing faces is a difficult task even for humans. But although there are many instances when it would be useful for us to have computers that help us identify someone by examining his or her face, so far this has not been successful.

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Final Steps; Weblog Entry for Week Ending 27 April

As we move toward the end of the term, here is what remains to be done:

  • Weblog entries (continuing until the end of the term)
  • Presentations (be sure you know your presentation date)
  • Final Projects (due no later than class time Monday 23 April)
  • Weblog/Third Mini-Project Assignment (due 27 April to substitute for third mini-project; see below for more information)

A reminder about your weblog assignment for this week (i.e. April 13); one brief entry due related in some way to surveillance or surveillance society.

For two weeks from now (due April 27) the Weblog/Third Mini-Project assignment is as follows:

Write medium length entry (approximately four or five paragraphs) addressing something related to any of the key concepts we have addressed in the course (networks, community, collaborative production and so on). This entry (which substitutes for the third mini project listed in the course outline) must draw on some required course material and on some other reading or examples. We will discuss this further in class.

Please speak with me if you have any questions about assignments.

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Surveillance and NITs

On Monday we discussed surveillance and the surveillance society. Today we will take that discussion a bit further to consider surveillance and some of its connections to New Information Technologies.

In this course we have examined how the features of NITs are things individual users can take advantage of. Digitized, networked, interactive technologies can empower individuals and develop community. We can communicate quickly, widely, and inexpensively using email and digital voice technologies. Weblogs give us inexpensive publishing platforms. Wikis allow for collaboration across distance and time.

But the features of NITs can also easily be used to:

  • Record and monitor what we do with our computers or in any communications we engage in that travel through computers
  • Gather, collate, process and share data about us
  • Efficiently manage physical surveillance systems
    • Data Brokering: Computerized databases are used to store large amounts of information about people. Markets have emerged in which companies buy information in order to collate it and provide complex profiles of individuals.
    • RFID: Radio Frequency Identification Devices are used to store and deliver information that can be retrieved over distance (through radio signals).
    • Keystroke Monitoring Software: Special software can be used to record every keystroke on a computer keyboard.
    • Online Video Surveillance Networks: Online networks allow for easy monitoring and management of video, audio, and other surveillance systems.
  • Some examples:

    In Canada, Michael Geist, a legal scholar who focuses on internet issues, has written about the controversy over the nation’s largest ISP, Bell Sympatico, altering its user agreement to allow for surveillance of subscriber activities online. (Bell Controversy Puts Spotlight on Net Surveillance)

    A Canadian NGO recently published a report showing how “data brokering” makes it possible for private companies to gather and merge information on individuals to create complex personal profiles. (On the Data Trail) The Royal Canadian Mounted Police reportedly used such data in conducting anti-terror investigations. (Where’s Waldo? Spotting the Terrorist Using Data Broker Information)

    Surveillance now is not just for governments and big corporations, however. As the technologies used in surveillance become less expensive, individuals are able to purchase their own surveillance systems. This may give individuals some additional social power, but it presents moral dilemmas if we consider the ways such technologies might be misused. (Surveillance Goes Mainstream)

    Griffid Systems maintains this list of live public webcams.

    The Eyes of Laura is a “web cam and street culture blog,” purportedly run by a (now former) Vancouver, Canada security guard named Laura. But apparently the site is actually an artwork by Canadian artist Janet Cardiff.

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For Those Interested in Extra Credit…

Anyone interested in extra credit for publishing a final project with KIMEP Times should know that remaining story slots are filling up fast. If you want to get something published, it would be a good idea to get it done quickly…

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