Feeling Some Kind of Way About Surveillance

Racial profiling fundamentally relies on surveillance, and in the case of African Americans, it’s been going on for hundreds of years; so far we have not been able to opt out of being constantly watched.

by Davida Small on October 8th, 2014

Heroes to many and yet villains to some, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange each took tremendous risks to reveal to us how the U.S. government, its allies, and corporations heavily engage in mass surveillance. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for her actions, and two others are marooned indefinitely as punishment for revealing what many already suspected to be true: the government has been spying on its own citizens in the form of a covert operation; that we can apparently kiss old assumptions about privacy goodbye. This is especially true for groups without access to technological privilege, who must also deal with race, ethnicity, class, gender, and lifestyle biases against them.

In this new age of extra surveillance, everyone is being watched – but those of us who face a history of racism and economic disparity have meager access to technological advances and may be uninformed about our full rights. We are not in a position to protect ourselves against harsh judgements and/or deep privacy violations. Simultaneously, we are encouraged to believe we have more choice and control over our privacy than we think. By hitting an “Okay” or “Accept” button on our computers, we consent to give up our privacy in order to benefit from products and services, especially those that make us feel safe in the face of threats like crime and identity fraud. But growing demands by tech giants to retrieve and aggregate mountains of formerly-protected data create privacy vulnerabilities only the most sophisticated and alert can counter. Only the most privileged and motivated can effectively respond to frequent policy changes or events that might put their privacy more at risk.

If you are from a group of those most heavily surveilled and targeted — if you are say, a young black or brown man, or Muslim of any color range — you will be be mistrusted by the state. The illusion of privacy and protection could not be maintained by Trayvon Martin, Alex Nieto, or Mike Brown, all who were surveilled and murdered by a paranoid vigilante or police just for going about their day.

Artwork of four Black people standing outside a storefront that reads 'Foremost Ice Cream. Frost City. Tasty Hamburgers. Hot Dogs.'

Photo by the author.

These young men represent a demographic that is watched closely from the very moment they walk outside their front doors – if they are still “fortunate” enough to have a home. Often, these young men live in an environment where there are few educational, extracurricular or career opportunities. It’s not surprising that you are going to see black people outdoors a lot, where they may be accused of  “loitering,” (obligatory dictionary definition: to stand or wait around idly without purpose, or to travel indolently with frequent pauses), or may generally be scaring and embarrassing the heck out of those prone to react in fear. Their every move is watched and an action as simple as putting a hand in a pocket can fuel enough suspicion to bring a rain of bullets down upon them, or they may eventually be incarcerated in one of many prisons, which will put them to “good purpose” as they work for a slave wage inside.

Opting Out

Racial profiling fundamentally relies on surveillance, and in the case of African Americans, it’s been going on for hundreds of years; so far we have not been able to opt out of being constantly watched. Antibellum overseers, law enforcement agents and judicial representatives make it hard for poor people to opt out of their surveillance plans. The activities and movements of African Americans have been watched continuously since the days on the plantation and beyond. Even intimate or private bonds with family members were closely monitored and actively discouraged by slave owners and those who benefitted financially from the American slave system. The descendants of slaves are still segregated, corralled when necessary, and urged to stay away from certain neighborhoods. However, if the more privileged desire to live in their neighborhoods, they are systematically displaced and further ghettoized to places where we can more closely monitor them.

The surveillance state has become an even bigger problem for black people and other groups with new plans to increase the watchful eyes on them. When consent is virtually absent, as in the case of the big Roving Eye conspiracy theorists often hinted at, it looks something like the Domain Awareness systems designed by Microsoft and the NYPD, or the center that’s been heavily protested against for Oakland. A press release on the New York City website states that “…[The Domain Awareness System] pools existing streams of data from live camera feeds, 911 calls, mapped crime patterns and more to help officers prevent crimes and respond faster.” New York City stands to gain extra revenue with the plan, too, since over 3000 video cameras would be licensed to other municipalities interested in the data, or for triangulating someone’s long-distance movements and telephonic and electronic communications.

Image of an out-of-service phone booth.

Photo by the author.

According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, facial recognition software has already been installed and tested in San Diego County that will do away with any need to present a driver’s license or other ID when approached by an officer. In the city of Chula Vista, in San Diego County, police have tested a program using Samsung Galaxy tablets, holding them up to suspects’ faces, gathering data to compare against a mugshot and criminal history already in their databases. In a program called NGI (Next Generation Identification), police carry mobile fingerprinting devices they use and then send to a huge server room in West Virginia, which had its grand opening on September 15, 2014. The facility is run by the FBI, and also stores all iris and facial recognition data gathered. Lockheed and many other tech companies have collaborated with the FBI to develop the project.

Though coordinated communication systems are seen as helpful to law enforcement agents and are used to nab suspected criminals and terrorists, it’s hard to believe that mass surveillance actually prevents crimes. In this age of real or perceived terrorist bogeypeople and apocalyptic fear-mongering, many would gladly give up their images and whereabouts when promised safety and convenience in exchange – even if it hasn’t been proven that camera surveillance truly prevents crimes, when it hasn’t even prevented well-planned, well-coordinated events from escaping our sophisticated intelligence-gathering machinery: the Boston Bombings and innumerable school shootings come to mind.

Many are angry and have vigorously protested the Domain Awareness System and other aspects of surveillance infrastructure. But learned fears about catastrophic events still keep many of us undecided on the issue, silent out of fear, or filled with a sense of resignation. We try to have hope that by being good citizens, we will be properly cared for by Big Brother, and be spared and protected if and when the next big attack happens.

Surveilling Ourselves… so no one has to do it for us

There is a perceived, if not real liberation in the if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them response to privacy violations at every level of our lives. Not everybody fears a world where everything we do can be seen and interpreted without our consent or control. Some of us, “millennials” who have had social media and other technological tools marketed to us practically from birth, have led the way by taking control of our own “brand,” exposing ourselves and our bodies in naked selfies, or by “oversharing” on social media sites. Perhaps this is a way of reclaiming meaning and identity. But it doesn’t always work out that way: bullying and predatory behavior may stalk us on the internet, too.

Living as I do in an area where cameras are mounted all around, on public and private property, I can no longer relax and enjoy the experience of an unobserved moment alone. Neighbors have embraced new surveillance technologies and enthusiastically use them to monitor nearby environments, perhaps to gain a sense of protection, but perhaps also to monetize images and information they have gathered. Their behavior, mimicking the surveillance state, can elicit an even higher discomfort than government eyes. You can be profiled just walking down the street, surveilled by private citizens… who may have very strong opinions.

Like all women out in public, I have been subjected to unwanted predatory gazes, unsolicited comments about my appearance, and other tactics of socio-sexual surveillance. I have adapted (and maladapted) to these situations in a number of ways. Sometimes I ignore it, sometimes I make clever retorts that de-escalate the situation. At times I have been angry and let it show. It really depends on what will keep me feeling safe and dignified at the time.

I find out what profile I am being judged by in their approaches on the street. If I’m not gorgeous, than I must be ugly; if I’m not grinning, then I must be angry and should “smile.” If my legs aren’t toned to current trends, than I am “shaking-it-but-not-breaking-it.”  If my hairstyle is uncombed I supposedly have low self-esteem; if my hair is styled to remind someone of an “afro,” I am assumed to be militant or somehow unrelatable by many.  Being unexpectedly surveilled can lead to a surprising feeling of shame and a sense of  automatically wanting to hide what you were never ashamed of in the first place.

Once, after leaving the house once looking like maybe I don’t care about my appearance, I stood waiting for a street light to change. I watched a well-dressed male teen point his white iPhone nonchalantly at me for a while until it dawned on me that he was photographing me, and for the life of me I could not figure out why. I just didn’t seem like his type and he didn’t really seem interested in *me* per se. His bored but steady gaze fell at my crotch. I followed his eyes and looked down past my slightly potted belly, but just couldn’t figure it out.

I forgot about the incident until I got home when, to my shock and embarrassment, I realized that my yogawear had betrayed me. Specifically, my mons venus and even my labia majora were clearly outlined by the clingy fabric of my yoga pants. I had what the internet now called “cameltoe.”

I was mortified at the time, for somehow fitting someone else’s profile, of being a probable source of ridicule, of providing an image a private citizen could distribute without my knowledge or consent. The fig leaf had fallen to the ground.

I’m laughing about it now to reclaim the innocence of my body, but I wish I could have turned the camera back on him that day.

The Revolution May Be Televised After All

A sign on a building that reads 'Your activities are being video taped. Sus actividades son grabadas en video.

Photo by the author.

Sometimes, we turn the camera back on the one who is watching us. We can attempt to sabotage vehicles of surveillance, by protesting them, mimicking them, or trying to dismantle them.

As protesters in Ferguson, Missouri have shown by taking full documentary evidence of the police brutality used against them, surveillance itself can be used to document the actions of an oppressor. Maybe their actions are a commentary on a better future ahead, where the surveillance gaze is finally two-sided, where a true dialogue can actually happen and we can decide for ourselves what true privacy means to us, and advocate to protect it. In 1971 Gil Scott-Heron wrote in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised:

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay

Too bad he was wrong.

A brother is being shot down by a pig every 28 hours. That’s about as close to instant replay as you can get. With the whole world “watching,” will a positive revolution ever take place? Let’s stop looking at each other; let’s start really seeing each other. Then a real revolution will actually take place.