It’s you again: Art and tech projects are staring back at surveillance
They are using new approaches to ask: Who will watch the watchmen? What will it take for people to care about the footage and data now out there, featuring them
We’re all stars of screen today. And activists are beginning to ask: What will it take for people to care about the amount of footage and data now out there, featuring them, that they didn’t even create?
In attempts to jog citizens out of their complacency when it comes to this invisible, relatively abstract (for now) threat, artists and analysts are trying new approaches.
Such projects are challenging the purpose, methods and use of surveillance data and asking: Who will watch the watchmen? Take a look.
For about two decades, initiatives around the world have sought to map public-facing CCTV cameras. It’s an all-but-impossible task. In 2001, Project iSee was launched in the US by the Institute for Applied Autonomy, a group of artists and activists, to track the spread across New York City, and then across other cities in the US. Since 2012, Datapanik and the Belgian League of Human Rights have held “camspotting” events in Belgium.
Since June 2019, Thejesh GN, chief technology officer with a marketing technology company, has been doing the same in Bengaluru. His Surveillance in Bengaluru project seeks to map all CCTV cameras directed at public spaces in his city.
Anyone can contribute, by taking a picture of a CCTV camera with the OpenStreetMap app OSMAnd and geo-tagging its location.
“Seeing the cameras everywhere and reading news of how footage of couples kissing in quiet spaces was ending up on pornography websites, got me thinking: Who are these cameras really meant to watch? Who is monitoring them and what is their motive?” says Thejesh, 42.
So far, the project has mapped more than 1,600 cameras, with the help of about 30 regular contributors. Since last year, Thejesh has also been holding “mapping parties”, inviting people to gather in a specific part of the city and spend the day adding more points to the map.
Thejesh hopes the data will eventually reveal the geographic spread of the surveillance: Which areas are most-watched? How far can one go without turning up on a feed?
He is also filing Right to Information requests on data access and storage. He hopes to eventually collate all his findings on his project website (thejeshgn.com/projects/surveillance-in-bengaluru).
“The common purpose behind installing CCTVs and allowing surveillance is the passive understanding that we’re ‘safe’. But my primary objective is to remind citizens that they are being watched,” Thejesh says. “And if what they’re doing doesn’t align with the powers that be, the same CCTVs can target them too.”
The cameras aren’t just watching. Some are also mapping and digitising faces.
Facial-recognition software is how some airports in Delhi, Bengaluru and Varanasi can allow check-in without multiple rounds of identity verification. Around the world, facial-recognition technology (FRT) has been used to identify individuals in crowds of protesters. (See the glossary alongside for tactics that are evolving to evade such surveillance.)
In India, the digital rights organisation Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) has been attempting to track the use of FRT since January 2020 (and is also separately petitioning the government to reconsider its use).
For now, IFF’s Project Panoptic seeks to map public spaces across India where this technology has been deployed. “Surveillance, by its very nature, is secretive. Although FRT projects had been launched by many states, there is little to no information on them,” says policy researcher Anushka Jain, who headed Panoptic while at IFF.
Government tenders, media reports, project plan outlays on government portals, and responses to Right to Information requests form the basis of the information represented on panoptic.in, with the sources for each listing hyperlinked.
Currently, the interactive map represents 170 FRT systems, at sites ranging from airports and public hospitals to government offices and high-security research institutes.
“IFF want to raise public awareness and create transparency around FRT projects,” says Jain. “There is currently no legislation in place that monitors the use of FRT in India.” That alone is concerning, she adds.
American photographer and author Trevor Paglen specialises in art that explores surveillance, threats to privacy, data collection, and how these collectively shape our culture.
“I try to ‘see’ landscapes of surveillance in different ways,” says the 49-year-old.
In one recent project, after being stopped while taking images of surveillance infrastructure, he launched an amateur photography contest. In partnership with a museum in Frankfurt, he put out a call encouraging people to take photos of drones, CCTV lenses and other surveillance infrastructure. About 150 participated in the Eagle-Eye Photo Contest, leading to a series of images that all seem to stare back at the systems that stare at us.
In other work, he simply showcases fibreoptic cables, switching and exchange stations, ground stations — “the materiality of the internet”. With such work, he seeks to demystify internet infrastructure that largely remains unseen, because internet infrastructure is now surveillance infrastructure, he says.
“We use metaphors like ‘the cloud’ and ‘cyberspace’, which imply something disembodied — an internet that is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. That is a bad metaphor,” Paglen says. “Because surveillance capitalism is everywhere. We’re moving on from a moment where tech companies extract value from us through surveillance, towards them extracting value by using that surveillance data to manipulate us.”
Amid all of this, art needs to help people “see what the world looks like”, he adds. “But that’s not easy to do, when much of how the world works is deliberately obscured from us.”