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Surveillance

posted by:Leslie Regan Shade // 11:59 PM // December 13, 2005 // ID TRAIL MIX

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This semester in an Issues in Information Society fourth year undergraduate class at Concordia University’s Department of Communication Studies, one of the assignments I gave students was for them to create a project detailing ‘Surveillance in Everyday Life’: “Students are asked to provide a portfolio of their everyday interactions and how they are impacted by surveillance. Be as creative as possible! This can include photo documentation, monitoring of public discourses on surveillance issues, fiction, a play, podcasting, the creation of a CDROM or….”

Readings by Foucault, Lyon, and O’Harrow Jr., on privacy and surveillance were meant to stimulate the students and add to the other scholars we had been studying: Bell, Castells, Mosco, Huws, Schiller, Black, etc., many in the Frank Webster reader (the course syllabus details the readings). Surveillance was one among many issues we were looking at; other issues included historical and theoretical perspectives on the information society, the digital divide, labor issues, gender issues, ICTD, and the World Summit on the Information Society.

Surveillance Walks
Many of the students presented an analysis of their routine interactions going from their homes to classes to work. They talked about (or documented via photos) the presence of surveillance cameras in their apartment hallways, in Montreal metros, in their corner deppaneur, in hallways in the downtown campus. Many of them were dissuaded from taking photos of surveillance cameras by policeman and security guards.

Wrote one student:

About a block away from my house there was a speed trap set up. The sign was obvious to drivers, what was less obvious was the cop sitting about a block away. I started to photograph the speed monitor, thinking that this is an interesting surveillance issue. For one thing, drivers always slow down when they realize they are being monitored, just as I act differently when I am aware of the presence of a camera. It is also an interesting issue considering that the Quebec government is reassessing the possibility of installing traffic cameras that would automatically issue tickets to cars running red lights. I was thinking about all this when the cop got out of his car and started gesturing for me to put the camera down and go away. I complied; I don't think my constitution would fare well in prison (not even in a holding cell). I am still not clear on why I was not allowed to take these photos but I can think of three possible reasons:
1. I was photographing evidence of cars speeding (including their license plates).
2. I might have been bringing too much attention to the speed trap. Perhaps the cop felt that I was giving cars a heads up that something was going on, thus hindering the ticketing process.
3. The cop, like me, does not like to have his picture taken.

Moving along to the Provigo grocery store, the student wrote that

I took a couple of photos of the eye-in-the-sky. I was being discrete thus I was more than a little surprised when less than two minutes after the first photo I was approached by an employee and asked to stop. Honestly, I only thought those systems were monitored in Vegas. I expected that these cameras were only connected to VCRs, and perhaps they are, I don't know if it was someone from upstairs or an employee on the floor who noticed me. In any case I was asked to stop. The double standard always shocks me – the business can monitor the consumer, but the consumer can not monitor the business. I promptly left, but not before snapping a couple of shots of the stickers that are used to gauge height in the instance of a robbery.

On the Job Surveillance
Another student chronicled her workaday life at the ‘Evil Outpost’ Starbucks, where staff interact (often unknowingly and certainly without their consent) to surveillance practices:

Surveillance begins when I walk into the café: a camera pointed on the floor picks up the presence of anyone walking towards the espresso bar. Next, I walk into the office to hang up my coat and put on my apron. I have now gone past security check number two: the second behind-bar video camera. This surveillance camera is touted as there for protecting staff from robbery or violent customers – it is really there to monitor our behaviour. For example, I was told recently that our manager watched the feed from the camera “only in certain instances.” When I enquired as to what these instances were, I was told that it happened mainly when a customer came in to complain. Our manager could then review the video and “correct the problem”. This got me to thinking: we recently dealt with a serious complaint while I was working – did he “review our performance” then?
Once ready to start working, I go to the cash register – one of two computers located at the centre of the bar and clock-in using my personal employee number. The computer takes note of the hour and minute that I arrive. The same is true for when I leave. Starbucks employees are paid to the minute – not the hour. My last paycheck was for 27 hours and 37 minutes. This is efficient use of money on the part of Starbucks, but it leaves little latitude for the employee. There is no room to arrive late or leave early (or vice versa) without being monitored by the company. To that end, unpaid breaks are also billed to the minute – longer breaks mean less money for the employee. In fact, taking the optional “30-minute unpaid break” is highly discouraged. Of the twelve-or-so employees at outpost 90, only 1 or 2 take their unpaid breaks, most prefer to be paid.
Then comes surveillance of merchandise. Every item is either sold or marked out – this is only good business and good inventory. The same is true for the fairly decent “comps” Starbucks employees get. There is, however, a limit to the amount any one employee can take. Here is a list of the benefits to working at Starbucks:
- 3 free MEZZO drinks per shift. These drinks must be kept out of sight and may only be drunk during breaks or after shifts.
- 1⁄2 lb ground coffee per week. To be supplied by another employee and approved by manager to avoid taking too much.
- 30% discount on certain items.
- Although not truly on the list of perks, employees may take whatever baked good has past its Starbucks expiration date.
Every time an employee takes advantage of these comps, they must enter it into the computer and sign the receipt over to the manager. As part of this project, I tried going above my allowed limits. In consequence, I was reminded of the amount I was allowed to take for myself and told that if it happened again I could be reprimanded. There are of course ways around these rules. One could easily forget to sign out drinks or mark-out pastries. The subject of counter-surveillance and slackerism, however, is addressed in other posts….
Finally, Starbucks outposts are kept on their toes by what is called “snapshots”. These are, in essence, a classic example of secret shopping. In a routine snapshot, a secret shopper comes in and pretends to be a regular customer. When ordering, he or she asks questions about the items they might like to have or what kind of products are available to them. The store is evaluated on the knowledge and friendliness of the staff, the cleanliness of the bars and seating area, and whether or not the store met safety standards. There is never any warning as to when a snapshot might occur – even to store managers. This is one of the most effective ways of controlling staff through surveillance because, unlike the other forms mentioned, the employee has no way of knowing if and when it is happening. Without this knowledge, subverting the system becomes increasingly difficult.
So what do my experiences with employee surveillance say about the work-place culture we have become accustomed to? Is there now such little trust that employees must be monitored and tracked? The problem is that such cultures of fear are being used to the benefit of the corporations we work for or governments we belong to. I feel justified in pondering whether the bomb threats that occurred at my government offices – these regular occurrences - were a way of keeping us on our toes? If we a population perceives itself as constantly under threat, it is more likely to bend to increasing control over their lives. But are there also benefits to these monitors? As the good employee, I benefit greatly from some of them. Free access to a car all summer. Free Internet use. Those extra minutes I came in early and stayed late at Starbucks add up over time – at least I’m getting paid for them right? Who cares if the trade-off for all of these things is a little surveillance? But therein lies the problem: surveillance only benefits conformists. It is made to oppress and subjugate a people, not to help them rise up. The real problem with surveillance is that it tries to eliminate the individual – the thing we all strive so hard to be – and it is individuals that change a culture, not conformists.

Resisting Surveillance

Two students set up a dialogue amongst themselves; in a typical student hangout in Montreal (café), E and D discussed the politics of surveillance, Foucault’s notion of the panopticon, and how to resist surveillance:

E: But what about surveillance on the web? Can we resist it?

D: Data collectors (both human and technological) collect information that users have left about themselves on various internet pages or, in the extreme cases, hack into their home computer. This surveillance ensures that all of the unpaid labour, which individuals everywhere perform for these companies (in the form of audiences for their advertisements and sources of data for their market strategies), does not go to waste. Only so long as there is widespread tracking and identification of consumers, can some of the biggest industries (all kinds of business services) maintain their dominance in our present economy. This massive system requires a great deal of compliance on the part of the ‘‘consumers.’’ If we accept this panoptic scenario than we become demographically compliant (ranging from ‘‘opting in’’ to their marketing lists to buying their product).

E: I guess that the one form of resistance to panoptic practices on the web would be to use a fake persona when navigating the net, thereby diverting the gaze of the panopticon to the trace of a person that does not exist.

D: Yes! Just like the barred shadows projected across the cold, hard floors of the prison, signifying the prisoner’s presence, traces of people on the web are also revealed through light; in the form of fibre optic zeros and ones. Information about millions of people on the internet is gleaned everyday by countless organizations and companies, for marketing, ‘‘security,’’ polling, and countless other purposes. This presence, though, is always verified by a trace of the person in the form of information about them, like their name, email, income bracket, place of residence and commercial preferences, among others. These pieces of information frame the individual along a number of categories, subsequently determining their ‘‘worth’’ economically. One way of resisting these commercial practices is to construct a fake persona.

E: How is a fake persona an effective means of resisting surveillance?

D: Jeremy Foucault is one such fake persona. This ‘‘person’’ has a name, email address, lives in Whitby Ontario, went to high school at Anderson Collegiate and likes technology, sports and baby care products. Jeremy’s email address is panopticpractices@hotmail.com, and his password is ICUpanopticon911.

E: Very clever! [sarcastic tone] I get it. Michel Foucault meets Jeremy Bentham. The password, I guess, relates to the idea of looking back at the panopticon. And the 911, is pretty self-explanatory. [pause] Oh! And, the email address with the password it creates a statement. I love it! [laughs]

D: This persona allows its user to navigate the web, without worries of being targeted as a market demographic and absorbs much of the unwanted advertising that is often incurred when registering for or entering certain domains on the web (like chat rooms or blogs).

The Camera Phone – New Ways of Trendspotting?

Our wandering student above, also expressed her concern with camera phones:

They may be fun and convenient for some but they are also considered a violation of privacy by many, including myself. Many people argue that we are being photographed all the time – and this is largely true. But most of these images are in the form of surveillance video which will not be uploaded to the web or used against us unless we are party to a crime. Cell phone images however can easily be used to degrade and shame the unknowing suspect.They can actually be considered a form of digital harassment. Several television programs have based storylines on picture phone bullying. The one that sticks in my mind is an episode of Joan of Arcadia in which Joan was photographed in the shower in the girls locker room. Perhaps this is an extreme example, but I maintain that my bad hair day is my personal business. I do not want to see it on the web. If you think about it, we all do things every day that we would not want to have caught on tape: picking wedgies (or our noses), stuffing ourselves with gigantic pieces of chocolate cake, or simply wearing an unflattering outfit. These moments happen and I find it outrageous that they may be used against us.
What has been concerning me the most recently is that high tech companies are actually using blackmail stemming from camera phones and pocket sized camcorders as a selling point. Take for example the new Samsung ad in which a young upstart employee takes video footage of the office party. He later shows the recording to a myriad a people higher up on the corporate ladder, receiving a promotion each time he does. The ad seems innocuous because the employee is depicted as a simple, childlike soul. But the underlying message remains.
(If you have not seen the ad you can view it here (sorry I was unable to download it). Follow the link then go to BRAND CAMPAIGN at the bottom of the page (it takes about 15 seconds to pop up), then choose “Summer Picnic”).

But, Creating Beautiful Art with Camera Phones
Another student used the camera phone to create a beautiful video The Mobile Eye. It’s both mesmerizing and poetic….graceful and seductive.

What I Learned…
Other student projects included: a photographic tour of a prison; a Harvey Pekar-like comic about dealing with rogues and cops in Montreal – and whom to trust; recent filmic depictions of surveillance; a tabloid spoof of protecting one’s own personal privacy; the compulsion to record diary-like everyday mundane events and the effect this could have on friends and lovers; moody ‘surveillance’ like music; a surveillance board game; a discussion of recent Canadian policy issues on surveillance; and a clever and sharp film using the Prelinger Archives showing Post WWII industrial footage of nuclear and Commie scares, eerily echoing the Homeland Security zaniness of today.

Young people are concerned about surveillance practices – from web intrusions to cameras – in their everyday lives, and they were very surprised at its prevalence. Perhaps more so than any other issue discussed in class – surveillance (ha!) captivated them and politicized them. Of course none of these issues are on the current election agenda….

Leslie Shade is Associate Professor at Concordia University, Department of Communication Studies

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