Surveillance and Citizenship

Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011
5-7 pm.
Bartos Theater
MIT Media Lab
20 Ames Street


Digital technologies have exponentially expanded the power of government and corporations to keep tabs on citizens. But citizens in turn are exploiting new technologies to expose the activities of governments, companies and even each other. How does the persistence and ubiquity of surveillance in our digitizing world affect what it means to be a citizen? Does our emerging condition of constant surveillance encourage individuals to curtail how they speak and act -- or to offer more information? In what ways are the new forms of citizen surveillance and public witness instruments of democracy and transparency? In what ways are they the tools of distortion and propaganda for idealogues or special interest?


Our panel of three distinguished scholars will engage these and related questions on evolving notions of citizenship in the digital age. Panelists include Sandra Braman, a professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee who has written extensively on information technology, law and society and author of Change of State: Information, Policy, and Power; Susan Landau, a visiting professor at Harvard University and author of Surveillance or Security? The Risks Posed by New Wiretapping Technologies recently published by The MIT Press; and Marcos Novak, professor and artist at the University of California, Santa Barbara whose work explores the relationship between humans and technology. 

MIT Center for Civic Media Director Ethan Zuckerman will moderate.

Co-Sponsor: Technology and Culture Forum.

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[This is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript.]

By Elyse Graham, CMS

Ethan Zuckerman

Ethan Zuckerman set the broad terms of the discussion. New technologies are changing the ways in which citizens and governments watch each other. In the hands of governments, this power is often framed as an implicit threat: how does surveillance from above change the way we behave? Then again, we can also see new opportunities for sousveillance, observation from below—as when protesters use cell phones to film police officers. In short, being watched and participating in watching have profound implications for the way we live in a digital age.

Marcos Novak

Marcos Novak began by calling attention to the linguistic heritage, and through it the philosophical heritage, of the key words we use when talking about surveillance and the polis. Referring to the Patriot Act, he noted the word patriot, which he linked to the Iliad. He described the ancient concept of self-surveillance – connected with the idea of doing fine work for its own sake – as signifying “a pleasing thing for the gods.”

The world that coined that concept, he said, was one in which men and works were viewed under a sense of wholeness, balance and self-sufficiency that we have lost. Our modern concept of surveillance, said Novak, assumes that the world is a dangerous place from which we must be protected. But we would not want or need to watch each other if we could think of the world instead as whole, in terms of balance, and behave accordingly. Novak quoted Aristotle: “Ethics comes from habits.”

Susan Landau

Susan Landau used three illustrative stories in her introductory comment. The first concerned East Germany in 1989. At that time, the Stasi, the East German secret police, numbered 191,000 men and women, plus informants — all told, 1 in 63 East Germans worked for the Stasi directly or indirectly. Yet despite this heavy surveillance, the East German government was unable to prevent the tumult that erupted (after early rumbles in the spring) in the summer and fall of 1989, which led ultimately to the fall of East Germany.
The second story concerned Iran in 1979 where the Shah’s government was closely allied with the United States and its vast security apparatus. Yet the U.S. was unprepared for the Shah’s sudden fall. Having data does not mean having foresight. Later, after the Cold War ended, the U.S. found it had even more difficult challenges in keeping track of events abroad. As Landau put it, after the Cold War, the game went from “finding out secrets” to “solving mysteries.” Secrets are pieces of a larger puzzle: they’re hard to keep and they don’t last long. The trouble with mysteries is that by their nature, you don’t know what the mystery is—what questions to ask, where to look. Traditional and even enhanced forms of data-gathering and surveillance may not be sufficient for such post-Cold War, 21st-century mysteries.

The third story concerned Occupy Wall Street. Until it appeared on the scene, she said, we didn’t know that twenty-three percent of Americans are in sympathy with the radical resentment and sense of powerlessness that defines this protest movement. If one judges by policies implemented by Congress, it seems clear that large parts of our government were unaware of the depth and extensiveness of the public’s anger.

In short: surveillance is a complicated problem for any government. Having information does not always mean you that have enough information or that you know what to do with it.

Sandra Braman

Sandra Braman said that new information technologies deployed for surveillance may have already dangerously changed the way in which the government and the legal system operate. Some new practices undermine some root-principles of our legal system. The new technologies have encouraged the creation of elaborate protocols intended to reveal a suspect’s intentions, not her behavior, and of computer software that aim for pre-emption instead of deterrence. There are situations, under today’s security laws and regulations, in which an individual may be convicted on the basis of digital evidence he cannot examine. Another disquieting example: if you have an “associational relationship” with someone who has become a terrorist, even if it is merely a Twitter link, some of your citizenship rights can be lost.

The digital age has created a new form of power, Braman said: “informational power.” As she argued in a recent book, we live in what can be called an “informational state,” in which the government has vast new powers derived from surveillance technologies. But citizens, too, have new systems for recording and disseminating official misconduct and for rapid peer to peer communication. There is also a role for narrative and artistic creativity in our environment of pervasive and invasive surveillance: the need to find ways to create “messages that elude algorithmic detection.”

Audience discussion:

Sasha Costanza-Chock, an assistant professor of Comparative Media at MIT, asked about the fate of minority publics and dissenting social movements in a world of ever-increasing surveillance. Are we losing the private space where nascent social movements used to form?

Landau (left), Braman and Novak

Landau replied that Occupy Wall Street provides a good example of a movement that can still come together under the new conditions. “We always have some people who are willing to be public early, and some who are not willing to be public early,” she said: even now, some participants and supporters have opted to remain private, while others are very much in the public eye.

Responding to a question that raised the specter of technologies of mind-reading, Braman said more than a decade ago, the government issued a directive for research in “the co-design of humans and weapons.” We’re in a moment of species change, she said.

Answering a question about how individuals can defend themselves against the surveillance state, Landau described a tool called Tor, built by U.S. naval laboratories in the early 2000s, that hides the digital information about who is communicating with whom. The U.S. government is putting a lot of money into tools that protect this kind of transactional information, she said: “It’s an interesting ray of hope in the midst of all the gloom we’re talking about. And it’s a ray of hope being promulgated by the U.S. government.”