I just came across this remarkable estimate in an Economist feature on surveillance. I knew digitalisation made surveillance cheaper but I didn’t realise quite how much cheaper. How much of the creeping authoritarianism which characterises the contemporary national security apparatus in the UK and US is driven by a familiar impulse towards efficiency?

The agencies not only do more, they also spend less. According to Mr Schneier, to deploy agents on a tail costs $175,000 a month because it takes a lot of manpower. To put a GPS receiver in someone’s car takes $150 a month. But to tag a target’s mobile phone, with the help of a phone company, costs only $30 a month. And whereas paper records soon become unmanageable, electronic storage is so cheap that the agencies can afford to hang on to a lot of data that may one day come in useful.

http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21709773-who-benefiting-more-cyberisation-intelligence-spooks-or-their

In reality, it is of course anything but, instead heralding a potentially open ended project to capture the world and achieve the utopia of total social legibility. An ambition which always makes me think of this short story:

The story deals with the development of universe-scale computers called Multivacs and their relationships with humanity through the courses of seven historic settings, beginning in 2061. In each of the first six scenes a different character presents the computer with the same question; namely, how the threat to human existence posed by the heat death of the universe can be averted. The question was: “How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?” This is equivalent to asking: “Can the workings of the second law of thermodynamics (used in the story as the increase of the entropy of the universe) be reversed?” Multivac’s only response after much “thinking” is: “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”

The story jumps forward in time into later eras of human and scientific development. In each of these eras someone decides to ask the ultimate “last question” regarding the reversal and decrease of entropy. Each time, in each new era, Multivac’s descendant is asked this question, and finds itself unable to solve the problem. Each time all it can answer is an (increasingly sophisticated, linguistically): “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”

In the last scene, the god-like descendant of humanity (the unified mental process of over a trillion, trillion, trillion humans that have spread throughout the universe) watches the stars flicker out, one by one, as matter and energy ends, and with it, space and time. Humanity asks AC, Multivac’s ultimate descendant, which exists in hyperspace beyond the bounds of gravity or time, the entropy question one last time, before the last of humanity merges with AC and disappears. AC is still unable to answer, but continues to ponder the question even after space and time cease to exist. Eventually AC discovers the answer, but has nobody to report it to; the universe is already dead. It therefore decides to answer by demonstration. The story ends with AC’s pronouncement,

And AC said: “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” And there was light

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Question

I love the analogy offered by Elinor Carmi at the start of this excellent Open Democracy piece:

Yesterday I walked to the supermarket, like I do every Tuesday morning. All of a sudden I started noticing a few people starting to follow me. I try to convince myself that it is probably just my imagination, and carry on walking. After a few minutes, I cross the road and make another turn, but then I look behind me and see that now there are dozens of people starting to follow me, taking pictures of me and writing rapidly, documenting my every move. After a couple more steps, they became hundreds. My heart was racing, I could hardly breathe, and I started to panic. Freaking out, I shouted at them, “Who are you? What do you want from me?” I tried to get a clearer view of this huge group – some looked a bit familiar but I didn’t remember where I’d seen them before. They shouted back at me, “Don’t worry, we don’t really know who you are, we just need some information on you, so we can show you different ads on billboards”. Puzzled by their response I scream, “What do you mean you don’t know who I am!? You know my gender, skin/eyes/hair color, height, weight, where I live, the clothes and glasses I wear, that I have 10 piercing in one ear and that I shop at Sainsbury on Tuesday mornings!” They smile and try to reassure me, “But we don’t know your NAME, silly! So stop being so paranoid, we do this to everyone walking on the street, it’s public space you know…”.

This scenario might seem science fiction to some people, a dystopian reality, horror film or a South Park episode. But for the others that recognise this situation, this is actually what happens every day when you browse the internet.

https://www.opendemocracy.net/digitaliberties/elinor-carmi/whose-data-is-it-anyway

From The Black Box Society, by Frank Pasquale, pg 52:

An unaccountable surveillance state may pose a greater threat to liberty than any particular terror threat. It is not a spectacular dangers, but rather an erosion of a range of freedoms. Most insidiously, the “watchers” have the power to classify those who dare to point this out as “enemies of the state,” themselves in need of scrutiny. That, to me, is the core harm of surveillance: that it freezes into place an inefficient (or worse) politico-economic regime by cowing its critics into silence. Mass surveillance may be doing less to deter destructive acts than it is slowly narrowing of the range of tolerable thought and behaviour.

Where might this lead? What I think of as ‘techno-fascism’ is a speculative answer. How bad could this get if left unchecked? What would life within such a social order look and feel like? Could we imagine a frozen social formation, one able to perpetually recreate itself without change or challenge?

A really interesting BuzzFeed article about the use of smart phones on building sites to increase efficiency (the 30% of on-site time that is regarded idle, for reasons attributed to ‘miscommunication and disorganisation’) and their implications for workplace surveillance. What’s particularly striking is that inefficiencies are often the result of the complex subcontracting arrangements now ubiquitous within the construction industry:

According to Frinault, 30% of time workers spend on-site at commercial construction projects is idle — not because workers are lazy, but largely because of miscommunication and disorganization. There’s also the problem of “rework” — doing a task, and then having to do it over again. For example, a subcontractor might be told to cover a hole with drywall; the next day, an electrician who wasn’t finished wiring an outlet comes in and tears that drywall out again, and the drywall hanger has to come back and redo it. With Fieldwire, Frinault hopes to improve the communication channels between subcontractors.

His app, which raised $6.6 million in October, doesn’t locate workers on a map; it locates tasks on a blueprint — tasks that foremen can then check off in real time as they are completed. The purpose of Fieldwire is to record and share information as synchronously as possible. “It may seem invasive,” said Frinault’s co-founder Javed Singha, “but the reality is these guys are recording all this information manually anyway.”

http://www.buzzfeed.com/carolineodonovan/these-apps-watch-men-at-work?utm_term=.rwKNoRWrm#.icdrQPGNq

This app is apparently being used on over 35,000 construction sites internationally. An even more invasive app has been developed by former Navy engineers:

Rhumbix, an app meant to be in the hands of the workers themselves, is making an even bolder ask in terms of transparency. Not only do workers clock every hour of their day on Rhumbix, but the app also tracks their location, and even some of their movements. Rhumbix is the invention of two former Navy engineers, Drew DeWalt and Zach Scheel, who took a class together at Stanford and decided to build a startup. “I said, every phone has GPS in it,” Scheel told BuzzFeed News. “Let’s try to create a system like the ones we use now in the military to help improve the system we use for construction.”

With Rhumbix, workers clock in and out at the beginning and end of each work day. While they’re on the clock, the app tracks their movements, both in terms of motion (moving or stationary?) and location (on the job or out to lunch?). This data is presented to managers in two ways: as a live safety snapshot, which shows where workers are at any given time, and as aggregated and anonymized labor time data that can help the bosses figure out how much is being spent on different activities. This tracking can benefit the worker — for example, a worker who had passed out on a hot roof due to sunstroke was discovered when the Rhumbix app alerted his foreman that he wasn’t moving. But the app can also be used to, say, prove that workers who claim they worked through lunch actually didn’t.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/carolineodonovan/these-apps-watch-men-at-work?utm_term=.rwKNoRWrm#.icdrQPGNq

At present the Rhumbix data is anonymised and aggregated when presented on the dashboard for managers. But how long can this last? As a general rule, if a weakly held moral commitment is the only thing preventing a service-provider from offering a much demanded service to existing customers, it’s unlikely to provide durable in the face of, say, declining sales or a difficulty raising further venture capital. Charmingly, their take on this question is to say “You’re going to have to trust us a little bit”.

It’s worth considering this in terms of what was until recently established practice within the construction industry. Given the existence of a UK industry wide blacklist has been conclusively established, ruining the lives of many who had the temerity to demand basic safety obligations be met on site, you’d have to be painfully naive to imagine these new technologies won’t be used for work place repression. For instance, if a manager wanted to rid a site of a ‘trouble maker’, use their Rhumbix data to demonstrate an unacceptable amount of ‘idle time’ as grounds for dismissal. Furthermore, it’s easy to imagine how Rhumbix could end up tracking collective organisation on site. Even if the data is aggregated, surely it would represent a grouping of the work force for a face-to-face meeting? It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this technology can be used for workplace repression and I fear we’re on a slippery slope.

From The New Ruthless Economy, by Simon Head, loc 1209. I wonder what ‘innovations’ have emerged in the ten years since this was book was published?

There are at least five distinct types of monitoring software. First, there are what might be called “classic” monitoring products, software that embodies the Taylorist preoccupation with timing and measurement: How long do agents take to answer a call? How long does the call last? How long does the agent take to “wrap up” the call by completing clerical tasks that may have arisen in the course of the call? Second, there are “quality-monitoring” products-software that eases the manager’s task of measuring the agent’s “soft skills”-his warmth and politeness, and whether his demeanor has strengthened ties of intimacy and loyalty between company and customer. Third, there are what might be called “total monitoring” products, software that simultaneously multaneously monitors what is happening on the agent’s screen and what the agent is saying on the telephone. With this “total monitoring,” it is possible to know whether the agent is following a prescribed script and accurately relaying the information and recommendations provided by product databases. Fourth, there is software that monitors Internet and E-mail “conversations” between agent and customer, and which can, if necessary, integrate this monitoring with the parallel monitoring of telephone conversations. Fifth, there are the digital technologies that are embodied in many of these monitoring products and that have made possible this forward leap in the scope and intensity of monitoring.

This great lecture by Frank Pasquale (podcast) references this note, the text of which is the title to this post, sent to Martin Luther King by the FBI. As Pasquale notes, King was under constant surveillance that both facilitated and motivated this horrendous intervention. Can we imagine a data-driven generalisation of this condition and the possibility of comparable interventions being made by intelligence and security agencies seeking to repress dissent in an era of increasing social unrest? I certainly can.

Bookmarking this so I can come back to it later. If I pursue this thread, Social Media For Academics is never going to get finished:

Reflecting their student populations, universities have long been bastions of oodles of consumer technology. We are awash in mobile phones, laptops, tablets, gaming consoles, and the like. If one combines mobile consumer technology with Big Data analytics, one gets a host of new possibilities ranging from new ways of providing students with basic support to new ways of getting students to learn what the faculty needs them to learn. If we can get the right information flowing through the minds of students, perhaps we can improve their success. We can potentially help transform the classroom from the 19th century to the 21st.

The byproducts of all this data are the new insights that can drive decision making in new ways. When one adds into the mix advanced data visualization capabilities, one gets something different for university administrators and faculty: better and approachable insight into university operations and even the minds of the students. Higher education is at the cusp of gathering an unprecedented amount of information using affordable tools and techniques.

http://www.sap.com/bin/sapcom/hr_hr/downloadasset.2014-01-jan-29-18.applying-big-data-in-higher-education-a-case-study-pdf.html

I included some material on this in a lecture on big data I did for the MA course I was convening this year. But it just struck me how enormously significant this is for digital scholarship: the more academics embrace social media in circumstances where managers seek to unleash a big data tsunami of change, the more they will be monitored as part of such initiatives.

Earlier today I started reading Blacklisted, an account of the extensive blacklisting in the construction industry that was exposed by an investigation by the Information Commissioner. For those unfamiliar with the case:

In 2009, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) exposed details of a large-scale surveillance operation run by a company called The Consulting Association.  This company collated files on thousands of construction workers, as well as academics and journalists, and sold the information to 44 construction companies.  The Director of The Consulting Association, Ian Kerr, was fined just £5,000 and all 44 companies escaped without penalty or punishment.

Many of these workers had their lives ruined, unable to find employment in the construction industry, blacklisted for their trade union activities or for raising health and safety concerns.

http://www.ucatt.org.uk/blacklisting

The thought I can’t shake is how archaic the technology used to implement this blacklist was. A man in an office effectively kept a ring binder with names, updated via tips from aggrieved employers supplemented by newspaper cuttings from the radical press.

I can’t be the only person who’s had the idea of algorithmic blacklisting: using social media data and natural language processing to flag up ‘problematic’ workers in order to place them on a blacklist i.e. replacing newspaper cuttings with big data.  How would we even know if this technology was implemented?