SSN 2016: Power, Performance and Trust

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Last week I presented at the 7th Biannual Surveillance Studies Network Conference: Surveillance: Power, Performance and Trust in sunny Barcelona. This international conference, hosted at University of Barcelona, is the biggest in the field of surveillance studies, itself a growing multidisciplinary domain.

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Over 4 days, as you can imagine, a lot of ground was covered. Many of the papers focus on social implications of emerging technologies from different epistemic perspectives, although primarily from across the social sciences and humanities. A glance at the abstract booklet gives you a sense of the diversity, featuring perspectives from, between and combining geography, management, business, theology, critical theory, communications studies, STS, criminology, politics, law etc. The topics covered in panels were vast, with themes covered like border security, state intelligence, mobility, trust politics and surveillance, vigilantism, identity and migration, body cams,  health, social media, quantified self, big data, CCTV…the list goes on.

I went a couple of years ago, and also got a scholarship to go this time which was nice. The first panel I went to, Politics, had a nice talk by Colin Bennett looked at voter surveillance and how this factors into electoral campaigns (having since watched some of House of Cards S4, the Pollyhop story arc captures some of the issues raised in the talk).In the Education panel I saw some nice work going on in Canada through co-design workshops with youths for privacy education  , and another project looking at the Canadian educational policy landscape around cyberbulling, as part of the eQuality Project. In the afternoon I enjoyed some talks around policing and communities, particularly David Murakami Wood’s talk about a Tokyo community association’s experience with CCTV. I also really enjoyed the panel on body worn cameras (BWC), a hot topic this year. I found William Webster and Charles Leleux’s work on BWCs used across different public sector organisations in Scotland particularly interesting, check out this panel from CPDP 2016 on BWCs.

Among others, I also enjoyed listening to results from some ethnographic projects on security and policing, one on the Rio World cup and techno-scientific approaches to spotting security risks. A nice panel on Art and Film unpacked cinematic representations of drones on the Mexico-US border, and another looking at the relationship between data and intimacy in Spike Jonze, Her. A last highlight was the panel on criminal justice included a range of talks: representations of policing through TV observational documentaries (like Cops); identification practices (particularly fingerprints and DNA) of Portuguese suspects (arguidos) and impacts on their identity; the role of ‘super recognisers’ matching suspect faces on CCTV in the UK and Australia (interesting contrast to smart CCTV approaches); and lastly a reflective talk on field work and ethics with covert policing.

Lastly, in my panel on Art, I was presenting some of my PhD work on theoretical challenges of bringing law and HCI closer together in the context of Internet of Things and Privay by Design. I was joined by interesting talks on community participation projects in cities, and different art projects engaging with surveillance.

My abstract is here:

Regulation by Design for Ambient Domestic Computing: Lessons from Human Computer Interaction

This paper will look at the role of design in addressing regulatory challenges posed by ambient technologies embedded in our domestic environment. Many terms capture the essence of these technologies from internet of things and ubiquitous computing to ambient intelligence and home automation. Broadly we define these as technologies physically embedded around us that sense and process human data to provide contextually appropriate services.

These systems have varying levels of visibility (physically and psychologically) and autonomy (from minimal to semi autonomous behaviour). They may prompt a direct interaction (eg through an interface or smartphone app) or/and try to understand our human needs by sensing our presence or movements (eg smart thermostats managing our home heating based on movement). The relationship between the human and ambient computer is one of daily interaction where technology often mediates routines and human experiences in the home. The goal of many of these technologies is to become assimilated into daily life to the extent they become ‘unremarkable’. There is often a complex ecosystem of actors involved in the provision of both devices and services, from the manufacturers developing and managing the systems, to the third party advertisers seeking access to the data. Increasingly we see policy and law moving towards involving non state actors in the practice of regulation. A key example is regulators looking to designers to enable regulation by design. From nudges to privacy by design we see a recognition of the power of design as a mechanism to address hard regulatory problems and the importance of designers as mediators. We recognise that the system designers of these new ambient technologies have a responsibility to their users and they act in some capacity as regulators through their ability to define how the human uses and engages with the technology.

Importantly, the technology is not neutral, it is a product of active choices and decisions of system designers (from system architects and programmers to interface and user experience designers). We are particularly interested in human agency concerns, which are themselves broad. Narrowing down the problem space is problematic but user control over personal data, (dis)trust in the infrastructure and the importance of decision making and choice when interacting with these systems are particular interests. We consider the range of tools available to system designers within the field of ‘human computer interaction’ to address regulatory concerns. When designing new ambient technologies, HCI practitioners use methods to build situated knowledge of the practices in the social settings that technologies will be built for, from workplaces to homes and public spaces, often by speaking to and observing users of these systems. They do this to make sure the systems, experiences and interactions fit the context of use. These same design tools and knowledge could be repurposed to understand regulatory issues faced by users in context. Accordingly, we reflect on approaches from the HCI that help system designers engage with their regulatory role, eg value sensitive design or the Scandinavian school of participatory design.

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