Jacob Silverman,  June 10, 2015

Watching the Watchers

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The imposing edifice of the security state is propped up by many tools. Mass incarceration, stop-and-frisk, and endless war (those old standbys) get help from Stingray devices, license plate scanners, surveillance blimps, and a thousand different ways to data-mine. Should we pin our hopes for reform on sousveillance, or surveillance from underneath—on body cams, cameraphones, and citizens watching the watchers?

As secret services around the world turn to open-source intelligence—mining social media and other public forums—civic-minded programmers are doing the same, parsing public data in order to better understand the security state. ICWatch is one such effort. A searchable, public database drawn largely from LinkedIn profiles, it presents information on approximately 27,000 people who work in the U.S. intelligence community.

Now partnered with WikiLeaks, the database is part of a larger project called Transparency Toolkit, which “uses free software and open data to analyze surveillance and human rights abuses.” In a lecture at the 2015 re:publica conference, M.C. McGrath, the cherubic founder of Transparency Toolkit, said, “We have the potential to build a sousveillance state that’s a decentralized check on the surveillance state based on this open data.”

ICWatch highlights both the great potential and the humbling limitations of sousveillance. Type in a few terms—maybe the names of NSA programs like XKeyscore or Pinwale—and up pops a list of profiles of putative intelligence professionals. Spend enough time in the database, and you begin to learn about new program code names, common career paths for intelligence employees, and where major facilities are located.

You might not learn much else. As McGrath notes in his lecture, there is “some noise in this data.” Some of these people don’t work in intelligence at all; they only got flagged because they used terms associated with surveillance (like “prism”) in their profiles. Others are veterans, have moved on to other industries, or work on the margins of the surveillance industry, such as in HR or recruiting, rather than in actively monitoring Americans. But even these peripheral characters’ profiles may be revealing. And any false positives serve to make a point. After all, the U.S. government engages in contact chaining and mass surveillance, scooping up vast amounts of information on people who are entirely innocent. That a few similarly innocent people might get drawn into McGrath’s database is an example of the sort of ironic fair play he’s promoting.

“This isn’t a hit list,” McGrath reminds his audience. “This isn’t necessarily a list of just bad people.” All kinds of people hold security clearances. In his talk, McGrath follows the career of one intel professional, showing pictures of him and his family wearing big smiles and lobster-shaped hats. There is something menacing here, and not just in McGrath’s nervous laughter as he pulls up a photograph of the man’s house. The menace lies in the implied correlative: if we can learn so much about a random SIGINT analyst, imagine how much they can know about us.

However successful McGrath is at creating a “sousveillance state,” it will still be far less powerful than the state it’s mirroring. Understanding is only one step on the miles-long path to reform. Journalists like Vice’s Jason Leopold have made an art of navigating the opaque FOIA system, but so much of U.S. policy remains mired in state secrecy that it seems that fundamental change can come only through revolution, a dramatic shift in policy, or perhaps, a longshot lawsuit that ends up in front of a sympathetic judge. We already know so much—except for how to rein in the powerful. 

So, too, with the problem of police violence. From journalists photographing Birmingham in 1963 to a bystander recording the Rodney King beating with a VHS camera, visual documentation has been an indelible part of chronicling law enforcement abuse. Now, with networked cameras on every street corner and (soon) cop’s lapel, proving wrongdoing may become as simple as queuing up a video. And yet the footage citizens capture on their smartphones seems little different from the photos Life magazine published four decades ago; it’s just that the cops are better armed. Technological progress doesn’t guarantee social progress. Nor does clear visual evidence guarantee justice. Just ask Rodney King or the family of Tamir Rice.

Sousveillance does accomplish two things: it spreads outrage, and it makes state and police violence difficult to ignore. This is an achievement in itself—even if it seems to come at the cost of valuing the testimony of the very people most affected by police abuse. Haven’t minority communities been protesting racist policing for years? Why didn’t we listen? Perhaps it’s that video is hard to refute. But it’s also that videos are easily fed into the commercial and social apparatuses of today’s digital media. They become folded into the news cycle—this week’s unlucky stars are some black teenagers in Texas who were brutally roughed up and threatened by white cops for going to a public pool—where their accuracy and quality are debated relentlessly on social media, each one a Zapruder film of our collective guilt. If only we can slow it down and analyze it properly, get all Talmudic on it, maybe we’ll finally learn something.

Last summer, after the killing of Michael Brown, I went to a meeting for Copwatch, which trains people to understand how the police operate. They send volunteers out in well-organized teams to patrol neighborhoods, talk to residents about their rights, and film any police-citizen interactions they see. They also offer aid to people as they’re being arrested (“Should we call someone for you?”). As part of its efforts, Copwatch uses digital media and sousveillance, but these tools are incorporated into a larger program of activism, education, and protest. This is what makes them a civil society group and not just some people with cameras, fascinated by the optics of transparency. If sousveillance is to have any meaning beyond providing fodder for a CNN roundtable or getting an occasional cop fired, it will have to be part of a campaign for systemic change. It’s not enough to watch the watchers; we must figure out how to stop them from watching us in the first place.

Jacob Silverman’s book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, is published by HarperCollins.

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