Being a surveillance scholar means that almost anywhere I happen to be – from the corner bodega to a solid-state lighting conference – I am surrounded by people with interest in the object of my study. Surveillance is on our minds. A most prominent theme related to surveillance and expressed in any venue is that of privacy. However, I think that underlying these expressions and extending far beyond them is a much more pervasive distress: keeping the “good people” from being categorized together with “bad people” as a result of this or that surveillance program. By implication, these concerns certify these categories as reliable, meaningful, and worthy of preservation. The problem to be avoided, then, is the corruption of the categories or those appropriately placed within them by mistakenly combining them, which surveillance is reasonably believed to be prone to do.
This theme pervades much of surveillance studies, a young but active interdisciplinary field. At the 6th Biannual Surveillance Studies Network (SSN) Conference in Barcelona, Catalonia, last month, Mehera San Roque expressed caution regarding the prevalence of concern for “the innocent getting caught in the net.” Her comment is not without reason. This metaphor represents common rhetoric referencing surveillance, privacy, big data, the internet and so forth, and even at a conference of an academic organization that should need no such cautionary remarks after its 12-year history.
As the SSN conference was underway in Barcelona, the Theorizing the Web Conference 2014 Conference (TtW14) was underway in my home state of New York, in Brooklyn. Janet Vertesi’s presentation at TtW14 was adapted for an article at TIME. Vertesi’s research is partially centered around a personal experiment in which she attempted to remain a user of social media, online shopping, and most other common applications of the internet while simultaneously keeping her pregnancy private.
Vertesi’s evasive counter-surveillance maneuvers were extensive, requiring significant labor, cunning, and cooperation by family and friends. It was further vital to employ some rather extensive expertise in how various social media and retailers use big data for marketing and administrative purposes. The link between surveillance and marketing was recognized in Oscar Gandy’s seminal study on the panoptic sort in 1993. Through surveillance, consumers and citizens are separated into special categories, some receiving unique rewards and access. As a result of such algorithmic sorting, according to Vertesi, when consumers are recognized as pregnant their data points increase in value from about 10 cents to $1.50.
This separation of people into categories by surveillance for unique treatment is often received with greater apprehension when such processes become more automated, managed by algorithms rather than human operators. They also produce widespread anxieties as the objects of surveillance are more inclusive, as potentially all people are being watched. These two situations are particularly disturbing when a possible category into which one might be placed is that of “criminal.”
Vertesi’s TtW14 talk explained that using several prepaid credit cards to make large ticket purchases makes one prone to being classified as a potential criminal. Vertesi needed to purchase an expensive stroller that would not only be functional, but would also be impressive among fellow Manhattan residents. Making such a purchase produced a critical choice: either expose to the retailer and their unknown and uncountable corporate partners that she was pregnant and thereby be subjected to special treatment; or, expose to the retailer and law enforcement agencies that she may be engaged in criminal activity. This was received by her and many in her audience as alarming.
I find their alarm worthy of greater concern than the fateful choice Vertesi faced.
The concern with “the innocent being caught in the net”, with “the good people” being categorized alongside the criminals does some deeply consequential cultural and political work. Rather than challenging the structure of the net, the frequency of its use, and the consequences of being caught, it instead certifies these. What is responded to is that the privileged are subjected to the treatment more routinely reserved for the criminalized, but without similar unease about the constructedness of crimes and the injustices experienced by those branded as criminals. Simply, save the “good people” from the treatment we wish to preserve for those “bad people.” The criteria for innocence and guilt are not questioned, but rather endorsed. The problem with algorithmic or ubiquitous surveillance is that these criteria may not function as reliably as the more privileged have enjoyed. Oh, dear, what if the databases don’t recognize white skin as an indicator of goodness and innocence as reliably as do human police officers?!
We should hope that the increasing experience with “the innocent getting caught in the net” would produce an opportunity for solidarity to be built between “good people” and “bad people.” As innocence remains increasingly tenuous, as the scope and depth of the surveillance gaze become all-encompassing, this should build bridges between the privileged and the oppressed. What we instead see are critics of surveillance certifying these categories. The criticism of surveillance is not directed toward undermining its punitive effects, but to preserving the benefits of the privileged being immune from the policing and criminal justice apparatus.