surveillance

#OccupationUQAM

In "Crowd, Power and Post-Democracy in the 21st Century”, Zizek (2008) argues that when the normal run of things is traumatically interrupted, the field is open for a ‘discursive’ ideological competition. In other words, when there is a crisis.

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After our class yesterday there was a l’UQAM  occupation. It ended late into the night with an unnecessarily large police presence in riot gear, endless tear gas burning throats, and violent dispersion strategies. The night occupation was an immediate reaction to the events of earlier that day at UQAM.

Today, on the campus of the Université du Québec à Montréal, facing a court order demanding that classes be held and the threat of expulsion issued by their administration, hundreds of students turned up to disrupt classes and enforce their democratically voted strike mandate.

In response, the university administration called in the Montreal police, who arrived in full riot gear with pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets and batons at the ready. Paradoxically enough, their stated role there was to ensure that classes could occur as scheduled.

The students were shortly boxed in. The bulk of the reported 22 arrests happened as riot police swept onto campus. Students then set up barricades, and police formed a line and prepared to move in.

The occupation was also a response to the larger institutional issues of the different forms of violence against students (physical, economic, etc) and the austerity myth. The violence of those in power is much more insidious and invisible than the violence of destroying university property, which creates an unbalanced imaginary in this political struggle.

When we see images in the media and read the discourse of others which try to decontextualize a serious and complicated issue, and only focus on ‘violent protestors doing damage to property’ we must remember history, context, and the nuanced ways that bodies are excluded from spaces. What are the modes of recourse against the systemic and systematic violence we are faced with? Yes, all of us! Whether we recognize it or not. Although, some of us are affected by institutional violence more than others, which is where our friend intersectionality comes in. And even then, we must self-reflect what subject position we are coming from in the ways in which we orient towards events like the occupation last night. Why do we have x or y opinion on protests/protestors? What has shaped that perspective?

We must also remember the ways in which regulatory powers favor property over human bodies. When are riot gear, teargas and rubber bullets, etc. appropriate modes of policing bodies? (remember the Jason Farman example about increased security cameras pointing to computer labs and not for the safety of students on campus.)

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Photos courtesy of Caroline Ramirez.

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Blog Post 3- Who’s Watching?

“In March 2010, a 31 year old man from California was arrested for spying on a young woman through her webcam” “Since then, there have been thousands of documented cases of what is called webcam hacking”.  

This is a short film created entirely through the use of a webcam, to help demonstrate the dangers of a owning one, and how easily anyone can hack into someone’s computer to spy on people virtually, which ultimately affects them in their physical reality by disrupting the privacy of their space, both online and offline. This removes the ideology that personal computers are a safe private space for their users, rather, there is a growing paranoia that one’s own devices are being used to someone else’s advantage without their knowledge. In this case, to be spied or surveilled on by webcam hackers which raises the question of weather someone can know if they are truly safe simply by being connected to the internet and owning a webcam. This article on BBC News from June 2013 also investigates the accessibility of other people’s computers, which is remarkably easy to do with hundreds of tutorials online: Webcams taken over by hackers, charity warns

CNBC explores the tool Blackshades RAT, which allows people to access and control anyone’s computer, with little expertise and on very low costs: Inside Blackshades: Hackers are watching you on infected webcams

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Most people who own computers, especially from Apple, have a camera already installed into them, or have purchased a webcam to have more visual conversations with people on private networks such as good old MSN messenger, and Skype. Although these social networks claim to give us control over our security through the settings of our personal accounts, it is very possible if someone is not attentive to their computers or who don’t know any better, especially children, that their webcams are being accessed by a hacker. This can lead to more dangerous cases that involve the hacker and the computer’s owner having a physical interaction, outside of this virtual space.

“John, 16, who lives near London, estimates he has hacked 100 computers and viewed webcams on almost half of them” He says: “I know it is illegal. I wasn’t really looking for anything on their webcams, just their reactions. I’d open up random sites – shock sites – they’d see a scary picture or someone screaming, and you’d see they were scared. There are creepy people who post pictures of female slaves. I’m not really into that.”

One way of knowing whether your webcam is being accessed is if its light turns on, although if you have a microphone connected to your computer as well, there is no way of knowing who can tune in and listen on private conversations. BBC recommends people cover their webcams with a piece of black tape when they are not being used, and have a good anti-virus installed keeping their computer updated, making it more difficult for hackers to take control over their devices. The devious ways in which hackers can retrieve information from you through the mask of the internet, may fool many strangers they are speaking to in chat rooms as well; older sexual predators claiming to be kids is a form of virtual embodiment, as is performing as invisible and watching someone sleep while their camera is on.

By participating in today’s modern virtual spaces, such as Skype for instance, a private social network, and having a webcam which most people do, it shouldn’t be as easy as it is for one’s personal computer to be used against them by an outsider. More effective ways of knowing someone’s private space is no longer private should exist, perhaps by making more reliable and effective anti-malware software free. Otherwise anyone could be under unauthorized surveillance when they are most vulnerable and in their supposedly safe environments. Skype’s security page explains how to avoid hackers, by having a difficult password, keeping Skype up-to-date, avoiding phishing (when a third party attempts to trick you into providing information that they shouldn’t have, such as someone claiming to be a Skype employee asking for private information) and more which you can view on their security page: Skype Security

Question: Would these tools used for surveilling people through their webcams be useful for parental monitoring of children, in order for parents to have better control over their children avoiding the dangers of public chat rooms and viruses at such a young age? Due to existing social networks for children such as Club Penguin, a website my younger brother used to be very active on and made friends with people now outside of the penguin network, is meant for kids and supposedly created through their parent’s email addresses. Typically anyone can partake in this experience and would only appear as a friendly penguin to a young kid, therefore should parents have better surveillance over their children going on social websites like these? Here is a glimpse of what Club Penguin is: 

Sources:

Farman, Jason. (2012). Mobile Interface Theory Ch. 1 “Embodiment and the Mobile Interface” (16-34) London: Routledge.

“Hackers Are Watching You on Infected Webcams.” CNBC. 24 May 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

“Webcams Taken over by Hackers, Charity Warns.” BBC News. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

“Protecting Your Online Safety, Security and Privacy.” Skype Security. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

Blog Post 3: Authenticity & Virtual vs. Physical Bodies and Spaces

Virtual spaces are created and re-created by physical bodies in virtual form, and virtual bodies are created through virtual space, which is socially produced. (Lefebvre) What is fascinating to me about virtual spaces is that the boundaries of communication in physical interactions do not exist: bodies often communicate what they think with less guard than in physical life. Of course the opposite can be argued that bodies create a specific tailored self-image online censoring the communication they share, and this is the case when it comes to self-branding as a micro-celebrity. However, in the physical world bodies rarely interact with other strange bodies, but online this social taboo is broken unlocking vast spaces of connection and “free” communication.

98f76919Virtual spaces serve as sanctuaries for like-minded bodies. They provide a connection to other similar bodies that would otherwise have no support through traditional physical space. I personally rely on a virtual community for support regarding my lifestyle choice, as there is no physical space in my geographic location that provides connection to other like-minded bodies and support in this realm. My embodiment of these virtual communities on YouTube and Instagram have become habitual routes of travel forming my unconscious perception through my perceived space. When I am in these virtual community spaces I feel connection, support, ease, happiness, and belonging, creating a sense of home that can be felt through my embodiment online and in the physical space I inhabit at the time: sensory inscribed body. (Farman) Whether the online bodies are authentic is subjective. Some online bodies are more authentic than their physical counter-parts. For example, many introverts become extroverts when expressing themselves and connecting with others in online space, whilst in the comfort of their own personal physical space in solitude. Western  culture is built on the belief that authenticity exists, and is of great importance. People are obsessed with knowing the real truth. There is a heightened fear of “fake” people, or becoming fake yourself that drives this obsession, feeding consumerism as a solution for authenticity. Authenticity of online and physical bodies is an erroneous myth. Other bodies cannot decide the authenticity of someone’s embodiment due to intersubjectivity. (Farman)

onlinepersonaThe downfall to this lack of a social border that the physical world is tainted with is that it opens the doors to shaming, hatred, prejudice and violence through surveillance and sousveillance. In this refuge, where spaces are co-created by like-minded bodies, there also exist bodies with opposing cultural beliefs and perceptions. Because of the encouragement for “freer” communication with other virtual bodies, opposing bodies often say more exaggerated claims than they would ever consider doing in the physical world.

The regulations to keep online communities in-check is as un-just as the laws to enforce “peace” in physical space. They are corrupted by double standards, bias, whiteness, sexism, and heterosexual normality.

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Virtual space has many of the same dimensions and characteristics of physical space and should be thought of with equal importance. Virtual bodies are authentic embodiments of physical bodies and online lives should not be dismissed as less important.

 

Questions:

Is it possible to construct a fair system of conduct online without taking away bodies’ right to express themselves, or any forms of oppression?

Why is it that bodies are so concerned with the authenticity of other bodies and representations of themselves? When online bodies are created through virtual embodiment, even if their online body is completely different from their physical counter-part, isn’t there still authenticity to the online embodiment if they are creating it with?

Sources:

Lefebrve, Henri. “The Production of Space.” In Gieseking, Jen J. And William Mangold, (Eds.), The People, Place, and Space Reader. (289-293). London: Routledge.

Farman, Jason. (2012). Mobile Interface Theory Ch. 1 “Embodiment and the Mobile Interface” (16-34) London: Routledge.

Greenwald, Richard. “Why Is ‘Authenticity’ So Central To Urban Culture?” City Lab. 31 Jan. 2013. Web. 29 March. 2015.

Read more about the obsession of authenticity.

 

The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed

This weekend I was presenting at the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference as part of a panel arranged by Prof. Fenwick McKelvey. Sarah T Roberts was part of the two-art panel and shared with us an eye-opening presentation on commercial content moderators (CCMs) -- the people that do the labour of approving or removing objectionable content when it is flagged. They are the ones who experience the reality of the internet to keep up the internet mythology we believe in. Below is the only available article on the issue, an article that took years to put together and relied a lot on Roberts's ethnographic research.

by Adrien Chen, 23 October 2014.

THE CAMPUSES OF the tech industry are famous for their lavish cafeterias, cushy shuttles, and on-site laundry services. But on a muggy February afternoon, some of these companies’ most important work is being done 7,000 miles away, on the second floor of a former elementary school at the end of a row of auto mechanics’ stalls in Bacoor, a gritty Filipino town 13 miles southwest of Manila. When I climb the building’s narrow stairwell, I need to press against the wall to slide by workers heading down for a smoke break. Up one flight, a drowsy security guard staffs what passes for a front desk: a wooden table in a dark hallway overflowing with file folders.

Past the guard, in a large room packed with workers manning PCs on long tables, I meet Michael Baybayan, an enthusiastic 21-year-old with a jaunty pouf of reddish-brown hair. If the space does not resemble a typical startup’s office, the image on Baybayan’s screen does not resemble typical startup work: It appears to show a super-close-up photo of a two-pronged dildo wedged in a vagina. I say appearsbecause I can barely begin to make sense of the image, a baseball-card-sized abstraction of flesh and translucent pink plastic, before he disappears it with a casual flick of his mouse.

Baybayan is part of a massive labor force that handles “content moderation”—the removal of offensive material—for US social-networking sites. As social media connects more people more intimately than ever before, companies have been confronted with the Grandma Problem: Now that grandparents routinely use services like Facebook to connect with their kids and grandkids, they are potentially exposed to the Internet’s panoply of jerks, racists, creeps, criminals, and bullies. They won’t continue to log on if they find their family photos sandwiched between a gruesome Russian highway accident and a hardcore porn video. Social media’s growth into a multibillion-dollar industry, and its lasting mainstream appeal, has depended in large part on companies’ ability to police the borders of their user-generated content—to ensure that Grandma never has to see images like the one Baybayan just nuked.

“EVERYBODY HITS THE WALL. YOU JUST THINK, ‘HOLY SHIT, WHAT AM I SPENDING MY DAY DOING?’”

So companies like Facebook and Twitter rely on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us. And there are legions of them—a vast, invisible pool of human labor. Hemanshu Nigam, the former chief security officer of MySpace who now runs online safety consultancy SSP Blue, estimates that the number of content moderators scrubbing the world’s social media sites, mobile apps, and cloud storage services runs to “well over 100,000”—that is, about twice the total head count of Google and nearly 14 times that of Facebook.

This work is increasingly done in the Philippines. A former US colony, the Philippines has maintained close cultural ties to the United States, which content moderation companies say helps Filipinos determine what Americans find offensive. And moderators in the Philippines can be hired for a fraction of American wages. Ryan Cardeno, a former contractor for Microsoft in the Philippines, told me that he made $500 per month by the end of his three-and-a-half-year tenure with outsourcing firm Sykes. Last year, Cardeno was offered $312 per month by another firm to moderate content for Facebook, paltry even by industry standards.

Here in the former elementary school, Baybayan and his coworkers are screening content for Whisper, an LA-based mobile startup—recently valued at $200 million by its VCs—that lets users post photos and share secrets anonymously. They work for a US-based outsourcing firm called TaskUs. It’s something of a surprise that Whisper would let a reporter in to see this process. When I asked Microsoft, Google, and Facebook for information about how they moderate their services, they offered vague statements about protecting users but declined to discuss specifics. Many tech companies make their moderators sign strict nondisclosure agreements, barring them from talking even to other employees of the same outsourcing firm about their work.

“I think if there’s not an explicit campaign to hide it, there’s certainly a tacit one,” says Sarah Roberts, a media studies scholar at the University of Western Ontario and one of the few academics who study commercial content moderation. Companies would prefer not to acknowledge the hands-on effort required to curate our social media experiences, Roberts says. “It goes to our misunderstandings about the Internet and our view of technology as being somehow magically not human.”

Read more »»»

Class 6 — Notes

This week we read three works and looked at a selection of slam poetry performances by queer artists that provided us with more concepts and embodied ideas to get at the question of the course — which bodies? which spaces?

Two of the readings assigned from the 1990s may seem outdated, but I assigned them because it’s important to have a history of when these issues and problems finally entered academia on a larger scale. Both Valentine and Knopp challenge the city/public space/the street as heterosexual. We used those two pieces as frameworks to think with Melissa Gira Grant’s evocative and high-speed Playing the Whore, which was released last year.

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The Amazon warehouse — a space for creating and regulating efficient workers

Amazon’s problematic and questionable business practices have received a lot of press over the past few years. Yet, their chokehold on retail stands. What are the modes of production that make it easy to participate and be complicit with corporations that hold problematic ideologies? This questioning should never be about shaming each other for using these services, but rather trying to unpack the reasons why to try to create the conditions to support alternate business practices.

Amazon chokehold on retail

Amazon uses GPS to track the minute activities of the bodies of its employees. Upon further searching Tesco (a big box chain in Europe) also does this. The idea of using GPS bands to monitor the exact movement of workers is of interest to us —the regulation of bodies and the production of spaces to accommodate such regulation. In particular, we should also ask how dominant powers use technology to maintain power.

I have picked out some crucial points below from a 2011 in-depth article on Amazon warehouse issues which includes detailed worker interviews. Focused on the ways in which Amazon let temperatures rise to above 114 F (45.5 C!) in one of their warehouses, it opens up discourse around the problematic business practices of Amazon that basically sees its workers as drones able to fulfill their quotas (an abstract mathematical system of economic power). The piece also outlines the ways in which Amazon dealt with issues of the heat as well as the extreme surveillance and discipline imposed on its warehouse workers. At first, Amazon didn’t do anything about the heat, and then later they tried to cover up that it was such a problem, installing a small amount of fans, providing cooling bandanas, and simply firing those who had a problem and couldn’t cope with the harsh conditions.

Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.

An emergency room doctor in June called federal regulators to report an “unsafe environment” after he treated several Amazon warehouse workers for heat-related problems.

Both permanent and temporary employees are subject to a point-based disciplinary system. Employees accumulate points for such infractions as missing work, not working fast enough or breaking a safety rule such as keeping two hands on an inventory cart. If they get too many points, they can be fired. Workers use hand-held scanners to track inventory as it moves through the warehouse, which enables managers to monitor productivity minute by minute, employees said.

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