Ambiguities & Asymmetries

“Ambiguities & Asymmetries”, Review of the SSN Conference, Barcelona, 2014

The bi-annual conference of the Surveillance Studies Network 2014 takes place in the centre of Barcelona, on the campus of the University of Barcelona and the adjoining cultural institution CCCB. This year’s conference’s topic opens the floor to discussions of “Asymmetries and Ambiguities” in Surveillance Studies. The attention for the conference is unusual, not only in academia, as it becomes obvious in the comparably large number of 170 participants, but also in exceptional public and media attention. This surely has to do with the revelations of Edward Snowden and the so-called NSA scandal, which have proved true or surpassed the often dismissed observations of the surveillance studies community. Here especially “asymmetries” come to the fore: between an all-encompassing state-run surveillance assemblage, drawing on private sources, on the one side and disempowered individuals on the other.

In the evening panel discussion (videos available online) with Caspar Bowden (a privacy advocate and former Microsoft executive), Katarzyna Szymielewicz (human rights lawyer, Panoptykon Foundation), and Ben Wizner (Snowden’s lawyer) who is participating via video connection, these asymmetries become apparent. Wizner remarks that surveillance has outreached democratic control and that the storage of data by security agencies such as the NSA was against the law and that the information not in most cases was not useful as prevention, but merely as a forensic tool. This new phase of data collection has become possible through an increase in digital storage capacities, which allow for the whole data transfer to be monitored and stored. In relation to these practices, the breaking of secrecy (and national laws) by Edward Snowden’s decision to disclose the “secret” information to journalists could be seen as a move of bringing the public back into the game. From his experience of the treatment of privacy as a former chief privacy adviser at Microsoft Caspar Bowden draws conclusions for the use of online data transfer. In reaction to the possibilities and practices of monitoring data transfer in cloud computing he cautions against using these systems altogether and argues for an education in peer to peer encryption techniques for online communication. The human rights lawyer Katarzyna Szymielewicz accuses governments of keeping back information and not reacting to the available information on NSA- and mass-surveillance. There was no political reaction by the governments who were placing economic interests over human rights.

Also the history of surveillance figured prominently in the programme. This rising interest resulted in a special panel with five speakers. Apart from my paper on the “Bertillonage” and 19th century images of identification, topics were ranging from national registration and identification in Palestine, surveillance in the former GDR, as well as the archives of Brazilian dictatorship. A red threat trough the papers of this panel was the systematic depiction of individuals in identification portraits, but also their ambivalent nature, between objective trace of individual identity, external construction and asymmetrical enforcement, as well as re-appropriation in later movements where the same images were used to demand recognition and redress.

Moreover, for my PhD project a number of papers on biometrics were relevant. Malorika Jayaram spoke about “Biometrics in Beta” in India where two different systems are currently being established. The recording of a huge number of biometric markers and the practices of this biometric recognition of the inhabitants of a whole country are highly problematic. A number of privacy concerns are raised in relation to state control and, due to private contractors, the information is likely to be used by commercial actors. 600.000.000 data sets are already recorded in a centralized database and the system might be used as a blueprint for later programmes. The establishing of the identification system however also shows ambiguities: people are enthusiastic to be “recognised” as citizens and expect benefits from the system. Interestingly in the history of biometrics in India, the name Francis Galton pops up. He used fingerprints collected in the British colony in his influential book on the systematic classification of fingerprints.

Another interesting paper by Rocco Bellanova, Gloria Gonzalez Fuster and Raphaël Geller was investigating the absence of visibility in surveillance devices. The researchers argue that the “obscene” is removed from the “scene”, such as in body scanners, where the human body is replaced by a shape, only the computer indicating where potential risks might lie. This absence of the body is contraposed by artistic works that explicitly use the naked body to criticise surveillance and control: obscenity reveals, as the presenters point out, or is it once again: sex sells?

In the final plenary the highly interdisciplinary nature of the conference becomes obvious jet again. A wide range of academic disciplines and artistic and activist approaches come to the fore, a common demand however was to encourage and take seriously critical views from the humanities.