Exploring Digital Culture

3. The (in)convenient surveillance device

The Mobile Phone as both Enabling Surveillance yet Empowering the Individual

Tue 04 Nov 2014
Ben Borrow 

In late 2013 and before the Kremlin became (overtly) involved in the civil uprising sweeping Ukraine, some pundits focussed less on the political implications of an Eastern European country falling to revolutionaries and were more concerned with a single text message presumably sent by the incumbent government just before it fell. The message read: “Dear Subscriber, you are a registered participant in a mass disturbance.”

At the time, the message was described as the “most Orwellian text ever sent,” and indeed, the nature of the Ukrainian government’s attempt to deter protestors was unprecedented. However, the message – and the context in which it was sent – also highlights the underlying paradox of the mobile telephone as a surveillance dispositive and a tool individuals might appropriate to subvert those watching. Certainly, the protesters’ locations were revealed to authorities because of the locative features imbedded in modern phones; however, aside from enabling the government to observe (and attempt to suppress) the protesters, the phone is also likely to have played a crucial role in the organisation of the protest in the first place. Just as occurred in 2001, when Filipino protesters used mobile phones to form an ad hoc “smart mob” to peacefully overthrow the government, mobile phones would have been employed by Ukrainian protestors to communicate with each other and spread their revolutionary fervour. Thus, the modern telephone deserves consideration as two-sided coin: a device choc-full of features enabling surveillance of individuals, while at the same time, these devices empower individuals to, at times, subvert those who might be watching.

Regarding the first side of the coin, it is not difficult to identify why the mobile phone has been labelled “the snitch in our pockets.” Indeed, the phone is an amalgamation of many technologies that could enable surveillance in and of themselves. It is location-aware, camera-equipped, blue-tooth and wifi-stumbling, and constantly engaged in two-way communication with the service towers upon which it relies, and the app servers (most of which are located abroad and have dubious approaches to security and data-collection) running in the background. Then, as though to render it the perfect surveillance tool, many people rely so heavily on their mobile phones to stay in touch, that it gets ported around as much as house keys, and warms the bedside table (if not pillow) throughout the night.

However, aside from a lingering suspicion that our mobile data is being collected somewhere by someone, little is known about the extent to which our phones are being monitored. It is enough though, to recognise the potential for extensive and revealing data collection takes place. Particularly with respect to call logs and location information, this data can form the basis of an intimate personal profile of the phone owner. German newspaper, Zeit highlighted the nature of such personal profiles when it presented the poignant data visualisation of politician, Malte Spitz’s movements and call logs based entirely on collected by Deutsche Telekom over a 12 month period (available online at http://www.zeit.de/datenschutz/malte-spitz-data-retention). Interesting, Deutsche Telekom refused to grant Spitz every piece of information it had collected relating to his phone – claiming it was too sensitive, even for Spitz’s eyes.

Regarding the second side of the coin though, many of the phone’s surveillance-enabling attributes also present distinct advantages to the individual. Not least of which is the sense of security it provides. For example, driving has existed for more than a century, but only recently have drivers felt uneasy when embarking on a long journey without their mobile phone at hand. Similarly, location information can be used to find Alzheimer patients, young children and lost hikers. But perhaps more importantly, the phone can be used to broadcast messages straight to recipients’ pockets. The results of which can organise large groups of people to peacefully (or otherwise) overturn entire governments. Particularly evidenced by the events in Manilla in 2001, which are likely to have been mirrored in Kiev in 2013/2014, the telephone can confer power from the few to the many.

Thus, the phone is at once a surveillance enabling device and a tool that can greatly assist the plight of the individual – who at times might be looking to subvert those with the capacity to observe. However, this duality is only viable so long as communication between telephones cannot be surveilled and censored – in which case, those looking to incite revolution must look further than the hi-tech device attached to their arm.

Mara Vandorou Editorial: The Public Human Strategies of living in the transparent society
Carmin Karasic 1. Hacktivism in My Words Becoming a hacktivist through electronic civil disobedience
Stephanie de Smale 2. Tinkering with Life Strategies for 'literacy' in the age of biotechnology
Marina Turco 4. In the Shadow of the Matrix A strategic approach to the transparant society
Alexandra Woelfe 5. Surveillance of the state Connections to identity, autonomy and Foucault's notion of biopower
Dr David Barnard-Wills 6. Stanza An artist's engagement with surveillance, privacy, technology and control
Joeri Taelman 7. Biopolitics through the internet of bodies The act of looking back might sound appealing, but it might very well mean the disappearance of disappearance
Suze Krijnen 8. Waarom je online privacy kunt vergeten (Tenzij we als publiek onze verantwoordelijkheid nemen)
Hans de Zwart 9. Privacyrede 2014 Deze rede werd op 2 september 2014 uitgesproken voor SETUP en Studium Generale UU in de Senaatszaal van het Academiegebouw in Utrecht.
Nienke Huitenga 10. Mijn Digitale Schaduw Ooit ging het om je persoonsgegevens. Nu geven we iets veel waardevollers weg.