Monday, 27 March 2017

Introducing Veillance and Transparency: A Critical Examination of Mutual Watching in the Post-Snowden, Big Data Era

by Vian Bakir, Martina Feilzer and Andrew McStay

This Special Theme examines veillance (mutual watching) and transparency in the context of big data in a post-Snowden period. We propose that today we live in a techno-cultural condition of increased and normalised transparency through various veillant forces. We interrogate the technical, social, economic, political, legal, ethical and cultural implications of this situation.

Veillance is Steve Mann’s (2013) term for processes of mutual watching and monitoring by surveillant organizations and sousveillant individuals. The latter refers to: the capacity for people to monitor from a position of minimal power; but also monitoring by those who are participating in the activity being watched or sensed (from life-logging to using mobile phone cameras for monitoring police at demonstrations).

The past decade has seen an intensification of veillant forces from all quarters (state, commercial, civil society, citizens), leading to questions of whether resistance is possible or desirable.  For instance, Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing in June 2013 exposed governments’ secret mass surveillance, storage and real time analysis of ordinary citizens’ digital communications (content and metadata). Increasingly too, use of big data analytics and machine learning is applied by commercial organisations to understand people in ever more intimate ways and to target marketing communications.

Accepting the inevitability of surveillance, and the rapid growth of sousveillance, Mann and Ferenbok (2013) envisage a state of equiveillance, where there is equality between surveillant and sousveillant forces, leading to a transparent society.

Yet, transparency does not always take an equiveillant form. For instance, liberal transparency is, historically, an enlightenment norm that opens up workings of power for public inspection, an exemplar being journalism acting as the Fourth Estate. Radical transparency opens up not just public processes but also the private lives of citizens for inspection. Next, where radical transparency is enacted without citizens’ knowledge or consent, we enter the situation of forced transparency where resistance to surveillance is tantamount to guilt, and where choice, control and autonomy is denied (McStay 2014). An exemplar of forced transparency is intelligence agencies’ bulk data collection that, pre-Snowden, ensued without citizen knowledge or consent; post-Snowden the now familiar meme used to justify forced transparency is ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’.

While a balanced condition of mutual watching may be unrealisable in practice, this Special Theme critically examines a range of veillant forces, resistances and tensions, seeking to understand these operations across three key debates in the context of big data post-Snowden.

The first set of debates query how useful theories of veillance and transparency are in explaining practices of mutual watching in the post-Snowden, big data era. Dan McQuillan’s analysis of algorithmic paranoia dismisses Mann’s concept of veillance as the wrong sort of metaphor for the forms of seeing introduced by big data algorithms. Critiquing the idea that equiveillance captures our contemporary condition of mutual watching, Clare Birchall advances the notion of shareveillance in her discussion of subjectivity, open data (that governments willingly share with citizens) and closed data (such as that collected by intelligence agencies). Focusing on the pre-crime assemblage, Peter Mantello advances the notion of ikeaveillance: ‘a do-it-yourself, voluntary opt-in approach to algorithmic governance’ that contributes to the pre-crime assemblage. Piro Rexhepi focuses on peripheral political spaces to query the ability of sousveillance to destabilise and disrupt what she terms sur/violence (such as drone strikes killing people via metadata identification).

The second set of debates that we examine concern norms, ethics, regulation, resistance and social change around veillance and transparency. Anthony Mills and Katherine Sarikakis examine journalists’ experiences with surveillance in non-Western and Western countries, finding that investigative journalists have been intimidated through surveillance; but that they fight back through often-fraught cooperation with hacktivists, and through self-directed protection of communications and sources. Lina Dencik, Arne Hintz and Jonathan Cable examine British social justice activists’ resistance to state surveillance, arguing that this should be connected to broader social justice agendas.  Focussing on advertising and the net rise in empathic media (namely, technologies that track bodies and react to emotions and intentions), Andrew McStay advances and problematizes the notion of emotiveillance: the use of biometrically sensitive technologies to infer peoples’ emotions.  Focusing on regulations and rights, Yvonne McDermott-Rees observes that implementation of the EU-created right to data protection faces challenges in an era of ubiquitous veillance practices and big data.

Our third set of debates centre on whether post-Snowden veillance and transparency discourses and practices adequately educate and engage people on abstract, secretive surveillance practices, or the possibilities and pitfalls of sousveillance. We present innovative engagement tools and interactive art including Evan Light’s Snowden Archive-in-a-Box; Derek Curry and Jennifer Gradecki’s Crowd-Sourced Intelligence Agency; and Benjamin Grosser’s Tracing You.  Yuwei Lin reflects on her experiences of teaching privacy and surveillance to media arts practice university students in the UK. Ben Brucato considers efforts by journalists and activists to construct databases that document and measure killings by US police, examining how they exemplify the new transparency.  Steve Mann highlights the need for bottom-up transparency in computer engineering, arguing that scientists have the right and responsibility to be able to understand the instruments they use to make their discoveries: he posits that veillance is important not just in human-human interaction (such as people watching other people) but also in terms of Human-Computer Interaction.

Through these three debates, this Special Theme shows that the veillance field is multi-perspectival, and characterised by tension. We argue that to understand contemporary data transparency, modern watching, sensing and data analytics, we need to examine all the various forms of veillance (not just surveillance). While it remains to be seen whether we will ever see Mann’s equiveillance in practice, we call for continued critical, technical, legal, political, educational and artistic intervention into the veillance field.