workshop contents

what even is surveillance?

the dictionary definition of surveillance is:

Close observation, especially of a suspected spy or criminal

take a few minutes to make a drawing of surveillance.

what did you come up with? describe to the group some of the elements in your sketches. maybe they include:

let's incorporate some of the recurring themes in your sketches into the dictionary definition to flesh it out. that'll be our working defintion, and we'll revisit it at the end of the workshop.

the panopticon

many conversations about surveillance begin with the panopticon. imagined by jeremy bentham and popularized by michel foucault in discipline and punish, the panopticon is a circular architectural structure with a central watchpost in the center from which a single guard could theoretically see many of the building's occupants at once.

the watchpost's most important feature: visibility is only one-way; the guard can see out of it, but the building's occupants can't see into the watchpost, so they never actually know for sure whether they're being watched or not.

it's the classic symbol of social control through the threat of surveillance, and foucault uses it as an analytical tool to talk about how power operates in places like prisons, hospitals, and schools.

Source: Wikipedia, "Panopticon"

the hold

many conversations about surveillance begin with the panopticon, but sociologist simone browne argues in her book dark matters: on the surveillance of blackness that we should consider another architecture alongside bentham's panopticon: the hold of the slave ship.

"ships' registers in which African lives were recorded as units of cargo... census categories, estate records, and plantation inventories that catalogued enslaved people as merchandise."
Source: Simone Browne, Dark Matters, p43
Source: Wikipedia, "Brookes (ship)"

guillauté's paper-squeeze

in 1749, a french inventor named jacques-françois guillauté pitched the idea of a complex system of 12-foot paper-filing wheels for keeping tabs on the city of paris. political scientist and legal scholar bernard harcourt describes the invention and how it fits in with guillaté's larger plan for the city:

  1. "divide the city of Paris into twenty-four equal-sized neighborhoods, then subdivide it into districts of twenty houses"
  2. "minutely alphanumerize and label each building, entry hall, floor, stairwell, and door"
  3. "place each district under the supervision of a watchman at a console"
  4. "give each district watchman instantaneous access to the infinite reams of surveillance information" at the tap of his foot

Source: Bernard Harcourt, Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age, p62
Source: Bernard Harcourt, Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age, p63

discussion question💡

what's the relationship of the paper-squeeze to the database?

the mugshot

the last technology we'll talk about is a photographic one with roots in the history of photography and statistics. the mugshot was conceived by alphonse bertillon, a police officer, as a way of documenting criminality that he believed was visible on the body. along with cesare lombroso, an italian doctor, bertillon developed the tools and methodologies that became the foundation of criminology.

through comparisons of mugshots, bodily measurements and fingerprints, they attempted to find what scholar dana seitler describes in her article queer physiognomies: or, how many ways can we do the history of sexuality? as “a noncontradictory sign that would organize and align a series of sexual practices, social behaviors, and medical etiologies within a readable image.” in other words, they were interested in uncovering essential, biological characteristics of deviancy in order to better predict criminality in others.

bernard harcourt situates the history of statistics in the same context. he writes in against prediction: “the proliferation of numbers helped create the categories of the normal, criminal, and pathological in the nineteenth century.”

"Every measurement slowly reveals the workings of the criminal. Careful observation and patience will reveal the truth."—Alphonse Bertillon
Source: Alphonse Bertillon's instructions for "anthropometrical identification", 1896

case: nypd's "demographics unit", 2003-2014

"The goal was to identify the mundane locations where a would-be terrorist could blend into society. Plainclothes detectives looked for 'hot spots' of radicalization that might give the police an early warning about terrorist plots. The squad, which typically consisted of about a dozen members, focused on 28 'ancestries of interest'...

After years of collecting information, however, the police acknowledged that it never generated a lead."

Source: Matt Apuzzo and Joseph Goldstein, The New York Times, "New York Drops Unit That Spied on Muslims"
Source: Josh Begley's "The visual vernacular of NYPD surveillance"
"Those documents, they showed where we live. That's the cafe where I eat. That's where I pray. That's where I buy my groceries. They were able to see their entire lives on those maps. And it completely messed with the psyche of the community."
Source: Linda Sarsour quoted by Tessa Stuart, The Village Voice, "This is What the NYPD's Failed Muslim Surveillance Program Actually Looked Like"

discussion question💡

why do you think this program failed? are there ways it could have been fixed or did the framing of the project and problem themselves prevent this approach from yielding results? what kinds of results might it have yielded if it had been successful, and how would you evaluate whether it was worthwhile? whose input would you need?

case: project SITKA, 2013-?

"the RCMP identified 313 activists across the country who attended protests 'opposing natural resource development, particularly pipeline and shale gas expansion.' Those who attended anti-capitalist protests, and protests regarding missing and murdered indigenous women, were also targeted...

The RCMP then picked out 89 individuals who were found to 'meet the criteria for criminality,' the document states, and created what are described as 'protestor profiles' for each of them. These profiles were 'made available to front-line officers divisional analysts and law enforcement partners' through the RCMP's automated criminal intelligence database."

Source: Jordan Pearson, Vice Motherboard, "The RCMP Used Police Databases and Social Media to Track Aboriginal Protestors"

exercise: surveillance is...

we've spent some time looking at examples of historical surveillance technologies and cases of contemporary surveillance.

let's revisit the definition we came up with at the beginning. does it still work or are there things we should change?