Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Seminar 4 Position Statement: Dr. Evan Light, Concordia University

Researching Surveillance Without Being Surveilled: A Practical Intervention

FRQSC Postdoctoral Fellow
Mobile Media Lab, Concordia Univ. (Canada)

Since the Snowden revelations there has been significant energy put into social conversations around surveillance and transparency with a dash of accountability (oversight) thrown in for good measure. The conversations that have emerged – while interesting – have originated from a select few media outlets and have thus only had a chance to impact a limited audience. While the number of documents that have been made public (504) may seem significant, consider that there are tens of thousands of documents awaiting analysis and release. The fact that the media have taken so long to analyze and release these documents – and to then, through their writing, educate the public about mass surveillance practices reinforces the claims that that surveillance is largely invisible and of an overwhelming scale and complexity. At the same time, we – researchers, journalists, activists who critically engage with the surveillance state – tend to accept that in order for the general public to care about mass surveillance they must understand as experts do. Through my work with the Snowden Digital Surveillance Archive, I have come to believe that perhaps this is not the case.

The Snowden Digital Surveillance Archive was launched in March 2015 by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression in collaboration with researchers at the University of Toronto. It was the first effort to create an institutional archive of the published Snowden documents, processing them into machine-readable formats thus making them text searchable. They have also been categorized, summarized and linked to the original articles with which they were first published. Shortly after the launch of the archive, I proposed to create a portable stand-alone version so that people could do research on the archive without being surveilled. I then decided to integrate a wifi sniffer - a tiny computer that sucks radio signals out of the air – into it. As people use this stand-alone archive by simply connecting to an open wifi network and going to the GCHQ website, the wifi sniffer plays back on a screen the conversations taking place between their phones/tablets/laptops and the archive. As I'll demonstrate at the Kings College London DATA-PSST! workshop, users experience the unique sensation of reading top secret documents about mass surveillance while witnessing surveillance of their own actions in real-time.

When I first created the Portable Snowden Surveillance Archive, I did not consider it as a public education/surveillance visualization tool. However, as it has made the rounds as an installation and workshop prop, public reaction has been fascinating. The visualization aspect is currently less than fancy. It is, quite literally, a rolling textual representation of computer conversations. People don't seem to care that the data makes no sense to them, though. The fact that they can see “their data” streaming by – that the act of surveillance has been rendered transparent before their eyes - makes people uncomfortable. Film festival-goers in Bologna refused to connect to it for fear it would take over their phones, students have instantly wanted to learn how to use encrypted email, people have looked at it and shuddered.

Two questions to bring to the table:

- Is it necessary to explain the inner-workings of massive mass surveillance programs to the public – to render these things transparent at a high level – in order to engage the public?

- Working with a public education project such a the Portable Snowden Surveillance Archive, how do we move beyond simply “creeping people out” to engaging them politically and immediately?

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