Fragment: Towards the Age of Coveillance?

There’s a lot of chat, and a lot of reports out (I’ll get around to listing them when I take the time to…) regarding the potential use of phone apps of various flavours regarding contact tracking as a possible tech solutionist contribution to any release of lockdown, particularly at scale over extended periods…

…so I’m really surprised that folk aren’t making use of the coveillance / #coveillance tag to refer to the strategy, playing on “covid-19″, “contact tracing”, “surveillance“, and even at a push, “panopticon” and so on…

From a quick search, the first reference I could find is from a course several years ago at Berkeley, 290. Surveillance, Sousveillance, Coveillance, and Dataveillance, Autumn/Fall 2009, taught by Deirdre Mulligan, which had the following description:

We live in an information society. The use of technology to support a wide array of social, economic and political interactions is generating an increasing amount of information about who, what and where we are. Through self documentation (sousveillance), state sponsored surveillance, and documentation of interaction with others (coveillance) a vast store of information — varied in content and form — about daily life is spread across private and public data systems where it is subject to various forms of processing, used for a range of purposes (some envisioned and intended, others not), and subject to various rules that meet or upend social values including security, privacy and accountability. This course will explore the complex ways in which these varied forms of data generation, collection, processing and use interact with norms, markets and laws to produce security, fear, control, vulnerability. Some of the areas covered include close-circuit television (CCTV) in public places, radio frequency identification tags in everyday objects, digital rights management technologies, the smart grid, and biometrics. Readings will be drawn from law, computer science, social sciences, literature, and art and media studies

This gives us a handy definition: coveillance: documentation of interaction with others

A more comprehensive discussion is given in the CC licensed 2012 book Configuring the Networked Self by Julie E. Cohen (printable PDF), specifically Chapter 6, pp. 13-16:

Coveillance, Self-Exposure, and the Culture of the Spectacle

Other social and technological changes also can alter the balance of powers and disabilities that exists in networked space. Imagine now that our café-sitting individual engages in some embarrassing and unsavory behavior— perhaps she throws her used paper cup and napkin into the bushes, or coughs on the milk dispenser. Another patron of the café photographs her with his mobile phone and posts the photographs on an Internet site dedicated to shaming the behavior. This example reminds us that being in public entails a degree of exposure, and that (like informational transparency) sometimes exposure can have beneficial consequences. (It also reminds us, again, that online space and real space are not separate.) Maybe we don’t want people to litter or spread germs, and if the potential for exposure reduces the incidence of those behaviors, so much the better. Or suppose our café-sitter posts her own location on an Internet site that lets its members log their whereabouts and activities. This example reminds us that exposure may be desired and eagerly pursued; in such cases, worries about privacy seem entirely off the mark. But the problem of exposure in networked space is more complicated than these examples suggest.
The sort of conduct in the first example, which the antisurveillance activist Steve Mann calls “coveillance,” figures prominently in two different claims about diminished expectations of privacy in public. Privacy critics argue that when technologies for surveillance are in common use, their availability can eliminate expectations of privacy that might previously have existed. Mann argues that because coveillance involves observation by equals, it avoids the troubling political implications of surveillance. But if the café-sitter’s photograph had been posted on a site that collects photographs of “hot chicks,” many women would understand the photographer’s conduct as an act of subordination. And the argument that coveillance eliminates expectations of privacy visà-vis surveillance is a non sequitur. This is so whether or not one accepts the argument that coveillance and surveillance are meaningfully different. If they are different, then coveillance doesn’t justify or excuse the exercise of power that surveillance represents. If they are the same, then the interest against exposure applies equally to both.
In practice, the relation between surveillance and coveillance is more mutually constituting than either of these arguments acknowledges. Many employers now routinely search the Internet for information about prospective hires, so what began as “ordinary” coveillance can become the basis for a probabilistic judgment about attributes, abilities, and aptitudes. At other times, public authorities seek to harness the distributed power of coveillance for their own purposes—for example, by requesting the identification of people photographed at protest rallies.23 Here what began as surveillance becomes an exercise of distributed moral and political power, but it is power called forth for a particular purpose.
Self-exposure is the subject of a parallel set of claims about voyeurism and agency. Some commentators celebrate the emerging culture of selfexposure. They assert that in today’s culture of the electronic image, power over one’s own image resides not in secrecy or effective data protection, which in any case are unattainable, but rather in the endless play of images and digital personae. We should revel in our multiplicity, and if we are successful in our efforts to be many different selves, the institutions of the surveillant assemblage will never be quite sure who is who and what is what. Conveniently in some accounts, this simplified, pop-culture politics of the performative also links up with the celebration of subaltern identities and affiliations. Performance, we are told, is something women and members of racial and sexual minorities are especially good at; most of us are used to playing different roles for different audiences. But this view of the social meaning of performance should give us pause.
First, interpreting self-exposure either as a blanket waiver of privacy or as an exercise in personal empowerment would be far too simple. Surveillance and self-exposure bleed into each other in the same ways that surveillance and coveillance do. As millions of subscribers to social-networking sites are now beginning to learn, the ability to control the terms of self-exposure in networked space is largely illusory: body images intended to assert feminist selfownership are remixed as pornography, while revelations intended for particular social networks are accessed with relative ease by employers, police, and other authority figures. These examples, and thousands of others like them, argue for more careful exploration of the individual and systemic consequences of exposure within networked space, however it is caused.
Other scholars raise important questions about the origins of the desire for exposure. In an increasing number of contexts, the images generated by surveillance have fetish value. As Kirstie Ball puts it, surveillance creates a “political economy of interiority” organized around “the ‘authenticity’ of the captured experience.” Within this political economy, self-exposure “may represent patriotic or participative values to the individual,” but it also may be a behavior called forth by surveillance and implicated in its informational and spatial logics. In the electronic age, performances circulate in emergent, twinned economies of authenticity and perversity in which the value of the experiences offered up for gift, barter, or sale is based on their purported normalcy or touted outlandishness. These economies of performance do not resist the surveillant assemblage; they feed it. Under those circumstances, the recasting of the performative in the liberal legal language of self-help seems more than a little bit unfair. In celebrating voluntary self-exposure, we have not left the individualistic, consent-based structure of liberal privacy theory all that far behind. And while one can comfortably theorize that if teenagers, women, minorities, and gays choose to expose themselves, that is their business, it is likely that the burden of this newly liberatory self-commodification doesn’t fall equally on everyone.
The relation between surveillance and self-exposure is complex, because accessibility to others is a critical enabler of interpersonal association and social participation. From this perspective, the argument that privacy functions principally to enable interpersonal intimacy gets it only half right. Intimate relationships, community relationships, and more casual relationships all derive from the ability to control the presentation of self in different ways and to differing extents. It is this recognition that underlies the different levels of “privacy” enabled (at least in theory) by some—though not all—social-networking sites.Accessibility to others is also a critical enabler of challenges to entrenched perceptions of identity. Self-exposure using networked information technologies can operate as resistance to narratives imposed by others. Here the performative impulse introduces static into the circuits of the surveillant assemblage; it seeks to reclaim bodies and reappropriate spaces.
Recall, however, that self-exposure derives its relational power partly and importantly from its selectivity. Surveillance changes the dynamic of selectivity in unpredictable and often disorienting ways. When words and images voluntarily shared in one context reappear unexpectedly in another, the resulting sense of unwanted exposure and loss of control can be highly disturbing. To similar effect, Altman noted that loss of control over the space-making mechanisms of personal space and territory produced sensations of physical and emotional distress. These effects argue for more explicitly normative evaluation of the emerging culture of performance and coveillance, and of the legal and architectural decisions on which it relies.
Thus understood, the problems of coveillance and self-exposure also illustrate a more fundamental proposition about the value of openness in the information environment: openness is neither neutral nor univalent, but is itself the subject of a complex politics. Some kinds of openness serve as antidotes to falsehood and corruption; others serve merely to titillate or to deepen entrenched inequalities. Still other kinds of openness operate as self-defense; if anyone can take your child’s picture with his mobile phone without you being any the wiser, why shouldn’t you know where all of the local sex offenders live and what they look like? But the resulting “information arms races” may have
broader consequences than their participants recognize. Some kinds of openness foster thriving, broadly shared education and public debate. Other, equally important varieties of openness are contextual; they derive their value precisely from the fact that they are limited in scope and duration. Certainly, the kinds of value that a society places on openness, both in theory and in practice, reveal much about that society. There are valid questions to be discussed regarding what the emerging culture of performance and coveillance reveals about ours.
It is exactly this conversation that the liberal credo of “more information is better” has disabled us from having. Jodi Dean argues that the credo of openness drives a political economy of “communicative capitalism” organized around the tension between secrets and publicity. That political economy figures importantly in the emergence of a media culture that prizes exposure and a punditocracy that assigns that culture independent normative value because of the greater “openness” it fosters.28 Importantly, this reading of our public discourse problematizes both secrecy and openness. It suggests both that there is more secrecy than we acknowledge and that certain types of public investiture in openness for its own sake create large political deficits.
It seems reasonable to posit that the shift to an information-rich, publicity-oriented environment would affect the collective understanding of selfhood. Many theorists of the networked information society argue that the relationship between self and society is undergoing fundamental change. Although there is no consensus on the best description of these changes, several themes persistently recur. One is the emergence and increasing primacy of forms of collective consciousness that are “tribal,” or essentialized and politicized. These forms of collective consciousness collide with others that are hivelike, dictated by the technical and institutional matrices within which they are embedded. Both of these collectivities respond in inchoate, visceral ways to media imagery and content.
I do not mean here to endorse any of these theories, but only to make the comparatively modest point that in all of them, public discourse in an era of abundant information bears little resemblance to the utopian predictions of universal enlightenment that heralded the dawn of the Internet age. Moreover, considerable evidence supports the hypothesis that more information does not inevitably produce a more rational public. As we saw in Chapter 2, information flows in networked space follow a “rich get richer” pattern that channels everincreasing traffic to already-popular sites. Public opinion markets are multiple and often dichotomous, subject to wild swings and abrupt corrections. Quite likely, information abundance produces a public that is differently rational — and differently irrational — than it was under conditions of information scarcity. On that account, however, utopia still lies elsewhere.
The lesson for privacy theory, and for information policy more generally, is that scholars and policy makers should avoid investing emerging norms of exposure with positive value just because they are “open.” Information abundance does not eliminate the need for normative judgments about the institutional, social, and technical parameters of openness. On the contrary, it intensifies the need for careful thinking, wise policy making, and creative norm entrepreneurship around the problems of exposure, self-exposure, and coveillance. In privacy theory, and in other areas of information policy, the syllogism “if open, then good” should be interrogated rather than assumed.

From that book, we also get a pointer to the term appearing in the literature: Mann, Steve, Jason Nolan, and Barry Wellman. “Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments.” Surveillance and Society 1.3 (2003): 331–55 [PDF]:

In conditions of interactions among ordinary citizens being photographed or otherwise having their image recorded by other apparently ordinary citizens, those being photographed generally will not object when they can see both the image and the image capture device … in the context of a performance space. This condition, where peers can see both the recording and the presentation of the images, is neither “surveillance” nor “sousveillance.” We term such observation that is side-to-side “coveillance,” an example of which could include one citizen watching another.

Mann seems to have been hugely interested in wearables and the “veillance” opportunities afforded by them, for example, folk wearing forward facing cameras using something like Google Glass (remember that?!). But the point to pull from the definition is perhaps generalising “seeing” to meaning things like “my device sees yours”, and whilst the device(s) may be hidden, the expectation is that: a) we all have one; b) it is observeable, then we are knowingly in an (assumed) state of coveillance.

By the by, another nice quote from the same paper:

In such a coveillance society, the actions of all may, in theory, be observable and accountable to all. The issue, however, is not about how much surveillance and sousveillance is present in a situation, but how it generates an awareness of the disempowering nature of surveillance, its overwhelming presence in western societies, and the complacency of all participants towards this presence.

Also by the by, I note in passing a rather neat contrary position in the form of, “a people’s guide to surveillance: a hands-on introduction to identifying how you’re being watched in daily life, and by whom” created by “a collective of technologists, organizers, and designers who employ arts-based approaches to demystify surveillance and build communal counterpower”.

PS as promised, some references:

Please feel free to add further relevant links to the comments…

I also note (via tweet a few days ago from Owen Boswarva) that moves are afoot in the UK to open up Unique Property Reference Numbers (UPRNs) and Unique Street Reference Numbers (USRNs) via the Ordnance Survey. These numbers uiniquely reference properties and would, you have to think, make for interesting possibilities as part of a coveillance app.

And finally, given all the hype around Google and Apple working “together” on a tracking app, partly becuase they are device operating system manufacturers with remote access (via updates) to lots of devices…, I note that I haven’t seen folk mentioning data aggregators such as Foursquare in the headlines, given they already aggregate and (re)sell location data to Apple, Samsung etc etc (typical review from within the last year from the New York Intelligencer: Ten Years On, Foursquare Is Now Checking In to You). They’re also acquisitive of other data slurpers, eg buying Placed from Snap last year (a service which “tracks the real-time location of nearly 6 million monthly active users through apps that pay users or offer other types of rewards in exchange for access to their data”) and just recently, Factual, the blog post announcing which declares: “The new Foursquare will offer unparalleled reach and scale, with datasets spanning:”

  • More than 500 million devices worldwide
  • A panel of 25 million opted-in, always on users and over 14 billion user confirmed check-ins
  • More than 105 million points of interest across 190 countries and 50 territories

How come folk aren’t getting twitchy, yet?

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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