By Joshua Long
August 16, 2019
Today, August 16th, is #SurveillanceDay, formerly called Wave at Surveillance Cameras Day. This seemingly-quite-jokey annual occurrence, once branded by Motherboard as the Laziest Protest Ever, was possibly started by pseudonymous privacy activist, Zorbitor, who we expect will, once again, release a video on their YouTube Channel, in spite of their Twitter suspension. 🚫
Whether you think that Surveillance Day is just a gimmick, or you intend to spend the whole of this Friday locating and waving at the various cameras that are likely surrounding you on your commute, dog walk, or daily shop, we thought it would be a valuable contribution to discussions around this yearly happening to look at some of the most recent "Orwellian" developments that have cropped up in our newsfeeds. Yes, surveillance cameras are an integral part of the slowly-growing, eyes-everywhere style reality that we live in, but when talking about surveillance, it's important to remember that there are many, many more ways in which public and private organizations alike keep tabs on us. 👨📹👀
In March of 2018, the Economist ran a story (apologies for the paywall) entitled There will be little privacy in the workplace of the future. This story featured a company called Humanyze, (definitely getting points there for the disconnect between name and purpose,) who provide science-backed analytics to improve business process, organizational health, and workplace strategy.
What this really boils down to is having employees wear a sociometric badge which utilizes RFID, NFC, and Bluetooth to process data about conversations between staff members in real time. This data is then combined with digital communications data in order to produce dashboards that managers can use to get a holistic view of what goes on in the company. 😲
Certain countries are less allowing of this kind of data collection, especially when employees are not told about it; if this kind of monitoring provides employers with large productivity benefits, who's to say there aren't going to be changes to laws and regulations in the future? 🔮
Earlier in the year, a myriad of publications reported on Taylor Swift's usage of facial recognition technology at concerts in order to protect her against stalkers. This kind of technology has been used by police and militaries for years, with the first trial in a public space having taken place in 2001, at Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa Bay, Florida. The important part of the Taylor Swift implementation is that it has coincided with a whole host of other use cases for facial recognition that are expected to turn into a $9.6bn market in the next two years according to a 2015 report from Allied Research.
The Philip K Dick-like future applications are easy enough to dream up, but currently companies in the space are offering facial recognition technology as a means to provide direct advertising in NASCAR and baseball stadiums, allow festival/concert-goers to buy drinks with their likeness, and getting to know customers better through store-based solutions. With companies like Live Nation and Ticketmaster having invested in these ventures, it looks like face-based data collection will become an inevitable fact of future event attendance, avoidable only through very nonstandard methods.
The seemingly unstoppable proliferation of surveillance interfaces, like Alexa and Google Assistant, has continued this year. An early-2019 forecast from the UK-based analysts at Juniper Research reported that the global market for this kind of technology was expected to reach 8 billion units in use by 2023, with the bulk of this growth coming from smart TVs.
Earlier this year it was reported that humans are employed to review the recordings that are stored as a result of people using these assistants. The persistent claim by the companies doing the reviewing is that this practice serves to improve the functionality of the home assistants themselves; even if this is true, sensitive recordings which occur in a place as intimate as your home are high-value targets for entities with malicious intent, and leaks such as the one reported in Belgium this July show that we are unable to trust these companies when it comes to keeping the resulting data safe...
The march of the social media giants continues ever-onward, in spite of a whole truckload of problematic actions through the years, ranging from the wilfully harmful, to the downright negligent. These networks have been involved in sharing data to advertising partners without consent, not taking proper care over disguising their users' regular haunts, and even gathering information on people who don't use them. Knowing you through the information that you put out there is kind of their business model; the greater the pool of data built up about a person, the easier it is to advertise to them, the greater the click revenue, the more money raked in by large, faceless corporations.
As we have highlighted in the LibreNotLibra campaign, the most comprehensive of all dystopian power moves came on June 18th, when Facebook Libra was formally announced. The pushback to this has been immense, as the crypto community, politicians, and organizations collectively joined the dots on a project that could become the most effective Trojan horse for surveillance that has ever existed.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
-- Richard Brautigan
Unfortunately, on the subject of employee monitoring and facial recognition, there's not really much we can give you aside from doing your best to avoid employment in a company that wants to string a tracker round your neck, and to investigate any ticketed events you're considering properly before purchase. For personal assistants, well... we'd advise you don't buy them if the tales above scare you.
One thing we can offer is a chance to be part of a platform that is aiming to ditch the baggage of the social media networks which have, time after time, made headlines for their troublesome actions. If like us you've watched in amazement at how large corporations have managed to monopolize the tools that we use to communicate, organize, and live, why not join us in dreaming of a better world?