Visibility Is A Trap

Can you report on surveillance tools without using surveillance tools?

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Can you report on invasive surveillance without being invasively surveillant? Wrestling with this at The New York Times, Charlie Warzel and Stuart A. Thompson seemed to decide: sort of. Warzel and Thompson used a leaked data file that “included about 100,000 location pings for thousands of smartphones” to trace the movements of thousands of people near the Capitol on January 6. The data traced “around 130 devices inside the Capitol exactly when Trump supporters were storming the building.”

The data itself is the kind smartphone apps silently collect all the time, and which is commonly used for advertising and customer tracking. “Most consumers don’t know it is being collected and it is insecure and vulnerable to law enforcement as well as bad actors — or an online mob — who might use it to inflict harm on innocent people,” they wrote. They were firm in their position on it, theoretically. “None of this data should ever have been collected,” they wrote.

Yet, as Chris Gilliard and Albert Fox Cahn wrote at OneZero, here we are, all looking at it anyway, on the homepage of one of America’s biggest newspapers. To Gilliard and Fox Cahn, showcasing and using the data — even for journalism — is hypocritical. “If the data is truly toxic and should not exist… then it should be treated as such,” they argued. “The Times cannot have its cake and eat it too. If this type of data exploitation and tracking is unethical, then it is unethical — the paper should not itself participate in these practices in pointing out how bad they are.”

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original video via The New York Times

One of the threats we face in becoming an increasingly surveillance-based society — the one about which Warzel, Thompson, Gilliard, and Fox Cahn all express deep unease, and that is being rapidly constructed without oversight or broad public understanding — is precisely that it assumes all aspects of our lives, whether social or economic, require surveillance to occur properly.

In other words, the threat of a surveillant society is exactly that which has been exposed by this trove of data. It showcases how, within such a construct, nothing is possible without surveillance. A protest cannot happen without it, for how else do you organize if not via an online platform or app that is itself based on a form of surveillance technology? As for the reporting of that protest, how else do you reveal the depth of the surveillance without, well, revealing the depth of the surveillance?

“Visibility is a trap,” Michel Foucault concluded, examining Jeremy Bentham’s infamous Panopticon. Unlike a dungeon, where darkness sheltered a prisoner, the Panopticon, with its backlit cells, left its inmates constantly exposed, whether or not they were being actively watched. There is a difference between the Panopticon and our current world. Whereas in Bentham’s creation, the inmates and wardens were different people, in the world we’ve created, you can be both at the same time. Thanks to our smartphones and apps, we are equally monitoring and monitered, at all times being watched while also watching. Surveillance retains its power and continues to dictate our actions, not only because of how we’re seen but also because of what we see — the visibility it can create for us.

Surveillance shows us what we didn’t know. Before you had a camera-equipped baby monitor, you didn’t know the details of your kid’s sleep pattern. Before you started wearing a smartwatch, you didn’t know how many steps you took every day. Before you installed that camera on your porch, you didn’t know people tested your car door to see if it was open at 3am. Now you know, and that knowledge becomes the basis for what you do next. Pretty soon, your entire life is built on the premise of constant surveillance. You can’t live without it.

Unfortunately, the same thing applies to your neighbourhood, your community, your city, and your country. The more we rely on surveillance, the more we’ll come to rely on surveillance. Visibility is a trap.

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