Is surveillance changing with today’s technology?

By AASHNA SUNDESHA | April 11, 2019

The Johns Hopkins University Program in Racism, Immigration and Citizenship (RIC) hosted a two-day event called “Eyes on Surveillance: (In)security in Everyday Life” last weekend. This was the RIC’s Eighth Annual Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Conference and consisted of five panel discussions, followed by a roundtable discussion with speakers from the ACLU of Maryland, Black Lives Matter DC and Open the Government.

One of the panels focused on big data and surveillance. The panel consisted of University of Waterloo professor Krystle Shore; UC Berkeley professor Xavier Durham; Princeton professor Cierra Robson; and National Institute of Education Planning and Administration professor Monika Maini.

Durham, a sociology professor, presented a talk called “Black Mirrors, Black Windows: An Invitation to Reflexivity on Epistemological Approaches to Surveillance Processes and Technology.” He explained that he saw as a paradigm shift in orthodox surveillance. 

Durham analyzed different perceptions of surveillance, suggesting that society needs a new model of surveillance to adapt to an increasingly digital world.

“It feels a bit misguided because what that does is that we constantly just talk about power, governmentality, the state,” he said. “That’s all that comes up, but there is more to surveillance now than just thinking about particular institutions such as the state.”

Robson, a professor of African American Studies, discussed her work, “Networks of Control: Race Surveillance in Oakland’s Domain Awareness Center.” She explained her writing process and discussed how she was intrigued by rising surveillance in Oakland, Calif. In 2013, the city accepted federal grant money to construct a mega database for electronic surveillance.

“My research began with one seemingly simple question: what is going on in Oakland?” Robson said. “In trying to answer this question, many others emerged. So my question became, why surveillance in Oakland?”

This question led Robson to develop a theoretical framework of “racialized surveillance capitalism,“ which seeks to account for the ways in which the state mobilizes private companies to capitalize off of data collected from minority communities.

Maini, a professor of Education Policy, Planning and Administration, elaborated on her thesis, “Dataveillance and Social Sorting: Reflections on Neo-liberal Surveillance and its Impact on Critical Thinking and Education for Democracy in Indian Public Universities.” She explained the basic purpose of algorithms and then went on to criticize the negative impact of their use on college students.

“How do scholars engage with truth when the facts are hidden purposefully by the use of algorithms?” she said.

Maini analyzed how different modes of neoliberal surveillance are normalized in Indian public universities and therefore blur the lines of consent.

Heba Islam, a RIC Graduate Student Assistant, spoke on why RIC decided to host an event on surveillance.

“It’s particularly timely,” she said. “Surveillance isn’t uniform…and we thought about, because RIC is very interdisciplinary, what would it mean to bring together a set of people thinking about it from these really different perspectives.”

Islam mentioned that she thought the conference saw a good turnout and was successfully overall.

“Surveillance isn’t just a theoretical thing, it’s real. We’re monitored, we’re spied upon,” she said. 

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