Surveillance is not a simple or straightforward subject matter
The pivotal factor that makes surveillance either malevolent or comforting is the dynamic of power, and the intentions behind the use (or abuse) of power.
There are many forms of surveillance that most people would welcome
For example: the alert attention of life guards at swimming locations, hospital intensive care nurses or school playground monitors. The ships at sea would be in danger without the watch full eyes of lighthouse keepers, coast guard crews, life boat stations and ‘officers of the watch’. Safety officers on the dock side and building sites look out for hazards that could crush stevedores and injure construction workers. Fire tower crews in forest fire regions save lives with their eagle eyes, and in WWII the air raid wardens attempted to keep our parents and grandparents safe from bombers. But, these positions require a well meaning and kindly use of power in order to function effectively. The inevitable outcome of the abuse of power-over, or negligent lack of care, is trauma or death.
Even in compassionate circumstances, being ‘watched’ can still be awkward and uncomfortable
I spent a considerable percentage of my childhood within the care and constant vigilant view of the nurse’s station in ward 7a at Yorkhill Children’s Hospital (Glasgow). The caring and attentive surveillance of the nurses saved my life many times over. Having said this, it was still awkward and uncomfortable to be watched, even in protective circumstances. The response to the discomfort of being under observation can play out in unexpected ways. Children are prone to mischief, and they will test the boundaries of surveillance. When I was 4 years old, I tested the boundaries of the nurses when I flooded the ward 7a bathrooms, twice. The flooding that crept across the shiny linoleum floor was a mesmerising installation. (This photo was taken with permission, the day after the children’s wards were closed).
Photo credit: Danny Owens
In some places in the world, being ‘the watched’ has become accepted (mostly)
“China’s facial recognition technology is among the most advanced in the world, capable of identifying a person from a database of more than two billion people in a matter of seconds.” This technology has been integrated into all sorts of routine activities such as paying for a meal at a fast food restaurant or boarding a flight without a ticket.
Listen to the full story on the CBC Radio programme Spark episode “Facial recognition technology is tracking billions in China. Could it happen here?”
Policing borders with biometric “Artificial Intelligence”
According to an article in The Guardian on December 10th, 2020, “the EU [is] funding research into [a] virtual mindreader through a project called iBorderCtrl, for potential use in policing Europe’s borders.” […] MEP Patrick Breyer, “[a] member of the European parliament’s civil liberties committee […] realised that iBorderCtrl’s ethical and privacy implications were immense. He feared that if such technology […] was available to those in charge of policing borders, then people of colour, women, elderly people, children and people with disabilities could be more likely than others to be falsely reported as liars.” Read more about the ethical implications of “iBorderCtrl” here.
Even though it is the E.U that is testing this particular “iBorderCtrl” A.I surveillance tech, the UK, U.S, Australia etc… will likely follow shortly. The U.S have already introduced intense forms of biometric surveillance technology at some of its border control points. At least there is a way of challenging the E.U through the European court of justice. In terms of surveillance the UK and the U.S law making procedures are on rather shoogly ethical pegs these days. In the UK for example, the laws that are supposed to protect social media users from invasive surveillance are now incredibly lax. Since the advent of Brexit : “Facebook will move UK users to US terms, avoiding EU privacy laws” […] “Privacy advocates fear the UK may move to an even looser data privacy regime, especially as it pursues a trade deal with the United States, which offers far fewer protections. Some also worry that UK Facebook users could more easily be subject to surveillance by US intelligence agencies or data requests from law enforcement.”
Border surveillance inside the U.S – “The Border Between America and America”
In the South West of the United States, there are border check points that are nowhere near where they actually should be. Some check points block main roads as much as 100 miles away from the U.S/Mexico border. This disruption to daily life hugely angers local people. They get stopped and questioned on their way to and from work, when they cross through. Some of the locals have figured out creative ways to resist this absurd surveillance folly. To find out how, listen to “The Border Between America and America”, Act Two of Episode 540, This American Life. There is a text transcript of the whole episode at this link.
“Social sorting” surveillance at the U.S border
I used to live in Canada, near the border, and I traveled to the U.S on numerous occasions. Like most people I know, who travel regularly from Canada into the U.S, I have numerous stories about my experiences at the border.
What follows are two contrasting personal anecdotes that illustrate different kinds of “social sorting” in border surveillance.
In 1996, I was invited to be the best man at my friend’s wedding in San Francisco. I only planned on staying for the long weekend, and because I am a frugal sort, I decided to take the cheaper flight from Seattle. What I didn’t account for was that this meant catching a bus from Vancouver to Seattle airport, and things could go wrong at the U.S border. I never took this journey again, because a misunderstanding almost left me stranded and I nearly missed my plane. The bus only stops for an allocated time period and those who are delayed by border guards can get left behind. The particular problem that the border guard had with me was that he was utterly confused about where to ‘place’ me in relation to my passport. He couldn’t fathom that I could have a Canadian passport, be born in Switzerland and have a Scottish accent.
The border guard exclaimed – “But where do your parents live?!”
I answered – “Scotland, that’s where I grew up.”
The border guard, perplexed – “How can you live in Canada if your parents live in Scotland?!”
The situation seemed hopeless until I took out my employer’s business card and asked him to call her. After a bit of a wait, that phone call eventually settled the matter. I made it on the bus just as the doors were closing (but the bus driver was really angry at me for making him late). This experience illustrates that border surveillance was flawed long before the introduction of faulty A.I.
Brazen male gaze
7 years later at the Peace Arch crossing, I had an equally surreal experience but in a completely contrasting scenario. I was travelling with my friend to Seattle in her car; a 4×4 with big wheels, tinted windows and official ‘search & rescue’ plates. The June morning was hot, and we were both wearing T-shirts that revealed our tattoos. I had expected that we would be questioned by the border guard, but I didn’t expect him to lean into the car and proceed to chat up my friend. I was apparently invisible to him, even though I was right there in the front. My friend was in shock at his very forward manner, but she deflected well and the guard got bored. I don’t even remember if he checked our passports. His brazen male gaze demonstrated a different kind of surveillance “social sorting” in terms of both class and gender.