Participatory Surveillance

This is an evocative phrase, I think – “participatory surveillance” – though the definition of it is lacking from the source in which I came across it (Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance, Anders Albrechtslund, First Monday, Volume 13, Number 3 – 3 March 2008).

A more recent and perhaps related article – Cohen, Julie E., The Surveillance-Innovation Complex: The Irony of the Participatory Turn (June 19, 2014). In Darin Barney, Gabriella Coleman, Christine Ross, Jonathan Sterne & Tamar Tembeck, eds., The Participatory Condition (University of Minnesota Press, 2015, Forthcoming) – notes how “[c]ontemporary networked surveillance practices implicate multiple forms of participation, many of which are highly organized and strategic”, and include the “crowd-sourcing of commercial surveillance”. It’s a paper I need to read and digest properly…

One example from the last week or two of a technology that supports particapatory surveillance comes from Buzzfeed’s misleading story relating how Hundreds Of Devices [Are] Hidden Inside New York City Phone Booths that “can push you ads — and help track your every move”; (the story resulted in the beacons being removed). My understanding of beacons is that they are a Bluetooth push technology that emit a unique location code, or a marketing message, within a limited range. A listening device can detect the beacon message and do something with it. The user thus needs to participate in any surveillance activity that makes use of the beacon by listening out for a beacon, capturing any message it hears, and then doing something with that message (such as phoning home with the beacon message).

The technology described in the Buzzfeed story is developed by Gimbal, who offer an API, so it should be possible to get a feel from that what is actually possible. From a quick skim of the documentation, I don’t get the impression that the beacon device itself listens out for and tracks/logs devices that come into range of it? (See also Postscapes – Bluetooth Beacon Handbook.)

Of course, participating in beacon mediated transactions could be done unwittingly or surreptitiously. Again, my understanding is that Android devices require you to install an app and grant permissions to it that let it listen out for, and act on, beacon messages, whereas iOS devices have iBeacon listening built in the iOS Location Services*, and you then grant apps permission to use messages that have been detected? This suggests that Apple can hear any beacon you pass within range of?

* Apparently, [i]f [Apple] Location Services is on, your device will periodically send the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple to augment Apple’s crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower locations. In addition, if you’re traveling (for example, in a car) and Location Services is on, a GPS-enabled iOS device will also periodically send GPS locations and travel speed information in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple to be used for building up Apple’s crowd-sourced road traffic database. The crowd-sourced location data gathered by Apple doesn’t personally identify you. Apple don’t pay you for that information of course, though they might argue you get a return in kind in the form of better location awareness for your device.

There is also the possibility with any of those apps that you install one for a specific purpose, grant it permissions to use beacons, then the company that developed gets taken over by someone you wouldn’t consciously give the same privileges to… (Whenever you hear about Facebook or Google or Experian or whoever buying a company, it’s always worth considering what data, and what granted permissions, they have just bought ownership of…)

See also: “participatory sensing”Four Billion Little Brothers? Privacy, mobile phones, and ubiquitous data collection, Katie Shilton, University of California, Los Angeles, ACM Queue, 7(7), August 2009 – which “tries to avoid surveillance or coercive sensing by emphasizing individuals’ participation in the sensing process”.

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