De Anza College Thinking Through Surveillance Today Discussion

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In his section on Privacy and Surveillance in the “Arresting the Imagination” chapter, Michael Schwalbe writes, “Elites like to monitor what it is being thought and said by those who seek change.  From the standpoint of elites, it’s good to know if trouble is brewing, so that trouble can be dealt with before it gets out of hand…People who have been exploited and who see change…do not want to be monitored (or surveilled) or worse: literally arrested and locked up.  What they want is freedom of speech and assembly.  They also want privacy, so that those freedoms can be exercised without intrusion or disruption by elites or their agents.’’  Schwalbe also makes a point that we could see underscored very clearly in our films so far this week: “Looking back, we have plenty of examples of people being fired from jobs or failed for expressing unpopular views—from opposing wars, to praising unions, to advocating birth control, to supporting communism, to criticizing the U.S. government.  So it is clear that even in the U.S., with our supposed constitutional protections, it has never been entirely safe to publicly express ideas that threaten powerful groups.  Expanded surveillance means that it could be unsafe to express such ideas even in spaces that were previously thought to be private.”  And he points out that such surveillance can be used as a tool undermine political imagination and protect the rigged game: “When the rules dealing with freedom of speech and assembly and with privacy are changed, interpreted or enforced in ways that make it harder, perhaps even frightening, to exercise political imagination, it becomes harder to challenge inequality.

And we might feel disturbed at the historical examples we have looked at this week about how surveillance was weaponized against folks who fought to unrig the game.  But the truth is that almost all of us voluntarily carry around in our pockets the most sophisticated surveillance tool ever invented.  Read this short comic about the ways in which we actively participate in surveillance against us: https://thenib.com/ticket-to-ride/ (Links to an external site.)

In a piece in The New Yorker a few years back, Louis Menand walked through some of the things we should be thinking about regarding both our devices and our use of search engines and social media.  He wrote about how nonchalant we are about this type of surveillance, “We sign up to get the service but we don’t give much thought to who might be storing our clicks or what they’re doing with our personal information.  It is weird, at first, when our devices seems to ‘know’ where we live or how old we are or what books we like or which brand of toothpaste we use.  Then we grow to expect this familiarity and even to like it…but we really don’t know who is seeing our data or how they’re using it.”  He continued, “We don’t like to be fingerprinted by government agencies, a practice we associate with mug shots and state surveillance, but we happily hand our thumbprints over to Apple, which does God knows what with them.”  And we know that corporations are using the information they collect about us to microtarget us in ever more savvy ways, but Menand also points that that it is not just corporate use of our data that we should be concerned about: “In the digital age, almost all transactions are recorded somewhere, and almost any information worth keeping private involves a third party…Police cannot listen in on your phone conversation without a warrant.  But if you knowingly reveal your location to a third party such as a cell-phone service provider, that information is not protected.  The third party doctrine dates back to a 1979 case…You ‘gave’ information to your phone service, just as you gave your credit card company information about where and when you bought your last iced latte and how much you paid for it.  The government can obtain that information with minimal judicial oversight.  Meanwhile, of course, Alexa is listening.”

One side note: Schwalbe tries to address one of the most common arguments that folks make about why we should tolerate surveillance: “In response to expanded monitoring and shrinking privacy, many people in the United States will say, ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.’ This sounds like common sense but it is really not very sensible.  In fact, we all have potentially embarrassing personal information (medical, financial) that we want to keep to ourselves, and this isn’t a matter of hiding illicit activity; it’s a matter of preserving dignity.”  Here’s how I think about this: when we had face to face classes, I would sometimes ask if anyone had heard of the children’s book Everybody Poops (it’s a classic!). 🙂  The basic idea is right in the name.  And I ask folks if it is morally or socially wrong or unethical to relieve one’s bowels.  And of course, it isn’t and in fact everybody does poop.  And then I ask folks, “well, if you aren’t doing anything wrong when you poop, then obviously you would be okay if we trained a live webcam on your bathroom?”  😉  And of course, no one really wants that.  This is the kind of thing that Schwalbe is getting at when he talks about preserving dignity.  Nadya Tolokonnikova (p. 173) also discusses the danger of this kind of violation of privacy (and references the social theorist Michel Foucault who wrote classic book about this called Discipline and Punish): “Foucault names three primary techniques of control: hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and examination.  Control over people can be achieved merely by observing them, he says (38 years before Edward Snowden published his leaks about mass surveillance).  Prison is an ideal architectural model of modern disciplinary power.  There are surveillance cameras everywhere in prison, and inmates might be being watched at any time and all the time.  But they can’t be sure exactly when.  As Foucault notes, since inmates never know whether they are being observed, they must act as if they are always objects of observation.  Prisons mirror the society around them.  Unless we change both, we will all be trapped in a kind of prison.”

Given that we literally ARE always objects of observation now through our cellphone use, social media use and internet use, this is really worth thinking about.

Investigating surveillance today–Pick ONE article

Since you just watched two documentaries with a lot of black and white footage, it can be tempting to think that the government’s use of surveillance as a strategy for quashing dissent is a thing of the past.  For this discussion, I have assembled a series of articles about contemporary surveillance tactics.  Pick ONLY ONE of them to read.  You will share out about it with your classmates and then collectively we will learn about all the many horrifying uses of surveillance (good times!).  Read the article and take notes.  Here is what you should be looking for:

  • WHO is being surveilled, BY WHOM?
  • Specifically, HOW are they/we being surveilled (i.e. what is the mechanism of the surveillance?)
  • For WHAT PURPOSE are they/we being surveilled?
  • WHO BENEFITS from the surveillance of whomever is being surveilled?

Here are the articles to choose from.  You only need to PICK ONE:

1) https://theintercept.com/2019/04/29/family-separation-protests-surveillance/

2) https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2018-palantir-peter-thiel/

3) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/11/technology/personaltech/i-downloaded-the-information-that-facebook-has-on-me-yikes.html

4) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/05/business/motel-6-ice-lawsuit.html

5) https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/vigilant-solutions-surveillance/427047/

6) https://medium.com/@AxelUnlimited/tracked-by-a-stingray-raising-questions-about-your-cellphone-privacy-a23bcaabcc0d

7) https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/04/13/us/google-location-tracking-police.html

8) https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/7x3g4x/pentagon-wants-to-predict-anti-trump-protests-using-social-media-surveillance

9) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/10/us/politics/social-security-disability-trump-facebook.html?action=click&module=News&pgtype=Homepage%20

10) https://theintercept.com/2018/03/19/black-lives-matter-fbi-surveillance/ (Links to an external site.)

11) https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/03/18/magazine/facial-recognition-clearview-ai.html (Links to an external site.)

12) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/21/technology/iphone-encryption-police.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage§ion=Business (Links to an external site.)

Note that if you have any trouble with the New York Times articles falling behind a pay wall, as De Anza students you are eligible for a free account to the newspaper, which you can access and sign up for through the De Anza library: http://www.deanza.edu/library/articledata.html (Links to an external site.)  Scroll down to The New York Times hotlink and you can sign up for an account using your De Anza credentials.  In general, the library databases are a good place to check when articles you need are behind a paywall. 🙂

Write a discussion post (8 points)

Write a post of at least 200 words that:

  • includes the link to the article you chose
  • educates your classmates by summarizing the answers to the questions in the bullets above
  • makes connections between the contemporary example of surveillance you chose and The Spider Web and First Rainbow Coalition historical examples of the use of surveillance as a strategy to quash dissent
  • reflects on your own thoughts and feelings about surveillance in relation to your devices, internet or social media use

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