Privacy in the age of surveillance

At a party recently, someone said ‘Well, this is a conversation we couldn’t have on Facebook’, regarding a tongue in cheek plan for sedition and revolution. I suddenly realised that with the introduction of wearable recording devices, we will not be able to have that conversation anywhere. Most of my friends are already carrying devices that can record everything, it’s just that they’re in pockets or handbags, and we assume that our friends are not surreptitiously recording our conversations, and that those devices are secure and un-hacked by agents of power (in case you don’t know, it’s possible for malicious entities to activate microphone, camera, and gps functions on smart phones remotely to record everything you do, without your knowledge).

It’s already a problem with tagged photos on Facebook, and there have been a few recent incidences when I have requested that photos are not taken or at least don’t go on Facebook, because they could have been compromising for me or other people present. I really don’t need all 500 people on my friends list seeing what I get up to every Saturday night – not that it’s very embarrassing, or illegal – it’s just that when I’m having a good time, I don’t want to have to think about how I look to those on my list that I have a more formal relationship with, or how it might look in 10 years when that photo has become available outside of Facebook, and Google has tagged it with automated facial recognition, and it’s on record for ever. Recent conversations have shown me that many people really just don’t understand the privacy implications of what they do online – and others do, but just have different ideas to me about what’s acceptable and appropriate in terms of documenting and sharing. There are no absolutes, and while I would err on the side of caution when deciding whether to pull out my camera in a questionable situation, others take a different approach. We haven’t yet developed social rules to deal with these questions.

What will happen when Google Glass, or similar technologies become widely available? A quick search for ‘wearable camera’ returned these in the top results:


You can buy these things already. They clip on to your clothing, automatically take photos or videos all day, and upload them to a cloud service. The totally-recorded life is now an affordable reality. I can think of some awesome uses for this, particularly for ecological fieldwork, which is one of my interests. Lost the tag from a specimen and can’t remember where you collected it? Just consult the recording from the camera you were wearing. (An aside: I’m sure managers will also enjoy the ability to more closely monitor the performance of their workers, which is another issue that has both positives and negatives – as a worker, I appreciate having good feedback, which requires good data – but I also resent micromanagement and unnecessary surveillance.)

BTW, check out this amazing testimonial on the Narrative site:narrative-testimonial
Apparently his entire behaviour changing is a positive thing.

Narrative have a ‘community‘ – really an Instagram hashtag, with which you can tag the photos it produces as you upload them, to ‘share’ your life with the rest of the internet. Some people have designed beautiful leather holders for their Narrative cameras:

This is the beginning of the wearable computing revolution, and while it will have many amazing benefits, if we continue down the path that we’re on socially and politically, it will also signal the death of privacy completely. It will no longer be possible to have that funny conversation about methods of creating a revolution at 1am on a Sunday morning, because you won’t know who in the room is recording and uploading every word to the databases of the information industrial complex on the pretext of ‘sharing’ their life. We’ve seen several situations where jokes on social media were perceived by authorities as threatening to national security and lead to serious consequences for the poster, so it’s fair to assume that real life instances of similar behaviour will be treated similarly when they are recorded and made public. We are now entering an age where all media is social media, and all socialising (and the rest of life) is recorded and uploaded to cloud services, which are potentially vulnerable to attack by malicious actors (including agencies of nation states), if they are not actively colluding with them.

Another range of wearables, already pretty common, are monitoring biomedical data about ourselves and uploading that to the cloud. Coming soon – devices that are more specific and sensitive: – a system that measures many different parameters to improve fitness activities. – a device that monitors posture and might reduce back pain. – This is a cup that can tell you what’s in it, including how many calories, and how much caffeine or alcohol. It can tell the difference between 7-Up and Sprite. It can remind you when you are slipping on your diet goals. – This is the winner. A device that, when inserted into the vagina, can help the user to improve their pelvic floor strength by monitoring pressure. It gives tactile feedback by vibrating, so you get a little buzz when you squeeze it properly. Of course, it comes with an app that tracks your progress.

Again, the technology is amazing and will no doubt have many benefits, but we’re opening up the insides of our bodies and the tiny details of our daily lives to public scrutiny, and anti-public surveillance, without really ever having a conversation about whether that’s desirable, or how we want to manage it if so.

This is 2014. What is 2024 going to look like? These are the last years in which we can safely assume that at least some of our conversations, public interactions, and private activities are actually private. Enjoy it. And let’s talk about what we want to see in this space, and how we’re going to achieve it, before we all get distracted by the shiny new iWatch or Android EEG monitor, or whatever comes next.

Prints for sale – Fundraiser for the Secoya people of Ecuador

In 2009 I took this photograph of Delfin Payaguaje, grandfather of the family that hosted me, preparing medicinal plants.

Secoya man Delfin Payaguaje, preparing medicinal plats

In order to say thanks, I am selling prints of this image, and donating 100% of the profits to Delfin’s family. The money will help fund the Secoya’s conservation foundation, which aims to protect their land from oil exploration and illegal logging. The Secoya are also planning an ecotourism business, which is well organised and nearly ready to go. They have some excellent facilities; but they just need a bit more seed funding to finish building the infrastructure. $1000 USD will make a huge difference to them, and may be enough to launch their tourism operation. If I can sell a few more prints, I will be able to send them a thousand dollars.

The prints are 16″ x 24″ inches (the images are slightly smaller, because there is a bit of white space around them), on high quality photographic paper. I will be printing a limited edition run of ten signed copies.

I am asking for $250 for an unframed print, and $400 for a framed print (all prices are in AUD). The frames are simple black wood, with high quality acid-free matting. I can post unframed prints within Australia, included in the $250 cost; if you want me to send you a framed copy, I am happy to do so but I would like you to cover the additional cost. I can send prints framed or unframed internationally, however will need buyers to cover the cost of postage so that I can send the maximum amount to the Secoya.

I have sold two three of the ten prints so far, and I would like to send the money by October 17 2011. This means I will be taking orders for prints until October 10. Please contact me to place an order.

Thanks a lot for reading; if you’d like to read more details about this project, and the story of my time with the Secoya, please see this post.

La Rioja

We went to La Rioja only as a necessary stop on the road from Villa Union to Cafayate. However, we had heard some interesting things about the town, and it seemed like a good opportunity to enjoy the luxuries of urban living after a week or so on the road and in small towns, but it ended up being one of the strangest and most frustrating places we went to.

Road to La Rioja from Villa Union
Road to La Rioja from Villa Union

One of the things we had heard about La Rioja that interested us was that Jesus Christ was the mayor. It turns out that he is just the ‘symbolic’ mayor, but the story is still interesting. Apparently in 1593, early in Spanish colonisation of the area, the local indigenous people, the Diaguita, reached an impasse with the colonising forces. The priest, being a good negotiator, and in the interest of ‘saving’ native souls, was the intermediary between them. I have not been able to find exact details about what they disagreed about – perhaps it was the Spanish were stealing their land and forcing them into slavery. The official history is still that the Diaguita ‘accepted’ peace (they also apparently ‘volunteered’ to build one of the churches in the town). I’m cynical about these things. Anyway, a condition that the Diaguita put on peace was that they got to choose the mayor. They chose Jesus. I can just imagine the poor priest when the Diaguita came to him and said “You know that Jesus guy you are always talking about? Yeah, him. That’s who we want to be the mayor”. They now have a small statue of Jesus as a child called ‘El Nino Alcalde”, which lives in the Convento de San Francisco. They bring it out for a festival on New Year’s Eve, which sounds quite interesting; unfortunately we were not there at that time and did not manage to see the statue in the short time we were in La Rioja.

Shopfront of a Santeria in La Rioja
A santeria - where saints are sold

Arriving in the evening, we could have caught a bus north that night, but we were keen for a good sleep and a good meal, so we went to find a hostel, which entailed spending the entire following day there as well, because in the great South American tradition, bus services from rival companies going to the same destination all tend to leave at the same time. We found an ugly but affordable room in the Residencial Anita, a small place run by a friendly but reserved Doña. A pay-by-the-kilo restaurant had a the best vegetarian food we had eaten for quite a while.

In the morning, we enquired with the Doña about keeping the room for the day at a reduced rate, given that we had until 11pm that night before the bus. She would only offer us a slightly reduced rate over staying the night, so we elected to check out then and spend the day around the town. Unfortunately, we had not realised that La Rioja was apparently famed for its long and complete siestas. This may or may not have been influenced by the fact that at that time the swine fu epidemic was at its height and Argentina was very badly affected. After emerging from a few days in the wilderness of Talampaya and Villa Union, we discovered when we got to the bigger city that many people were wearing face masks and the media was full of swine flu anxiety. In most other places we had been to that had long siestas, we amused ourselves on days without much to do by spending time in internet cafes; but due to the swine flu outbreak, the regional government in La Rioja had declared that internet cafes were to be closed at all times. Amusingly, many internet cafes (known as locutorios) also have public telephone booths, which were allowed to be used, however the computers were off-limits. All of this resulted in us having absolutely nothing to do from around 10am until about 4pm.

After an obligatory but unsuccessful attempt at a couple of internet cafes, we eventually resorted to sitting at restuarants and in the plaza all day. Sitting at a table outside the largest and most prestigious hotel in the city, overlooking the plaza, we ordered papa fritas (potato chips) and beer. The beer came out first, and the waiter asked “with foam, or without?”. We thought about this for a minute. Normally in Australia, beer comes with just a litle bit of head, so you know it’s still fresh and bubbly, but not so much that it’s hard to get at the actual beer. That’s the right amount of foam, according to my cultural assumptions. The question ‘with foam, or without?’ should never be asked; too much head means the bar staff are incompetent or the beer was shaken, and too little means the beer is old and flat. After coming to terms with the fact that things were done differently where we were, I asked for just a little bit of foam, hoping that that would produce the desired results. The waiter poured from a large bottle into a small glass, and it was drinkable.

This was followed by perhaps the worst papas fritas we ever ate in South America; about half an hour after bringing out a plate of crisps, and us explaining that we had ordered hot chips (both are apparently called papas fritas), a plate of soggy, cold, slimy pieces of something that may have been potato arrived.

Strange local guy in La Rioja
Friendly but insulting local in La Rioja

Following this, we were paid a visit by a local who was on the way to fill his thermos from the hotel’s urn for mate. We had had a small conversation with him and his friends a while earlier when in the plaza (evidently rugby fans, they had asked us where we were from, and when we said “Australia”, said “All Blacks!” and seemed very pleased about it). He stood next to our table and talked at us in thick Argentinean for about half an hour. We only understood about 10% of what he was saying, but after a while, it appeared he may have been insulting us. He asked us if we were married. When we said no; he proceeded to talk about 11-year old whores with several children. We weren’t quite sure how to interpret this; but after a while we became uncomfortable and told him it was time for us to go.

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the plaza, talking to street dogs and reading books. The time passed slowly and we became quite bored. At exactly four pm a diesel engine started on the other side of the plaza, and the ears of the three or four dogs nearby perked up. A tinkly song started playing over a crackly loudspeaker: ‘How Much Is That Doggy In The Window”. A strange vehicle emerged on the other side of the plaza. It appeared to be a small truck or tractor that had been covered with metal sheeting to make it appear like a train locomotive. A clumsily painted Bart Simpson adorned the front. Immediately, every dog in the plaza – at least six of them- jumped up and started running towards the vehicle. It seemed they had been waiting all day for this. They were ecstatic. As the ‘train’ drove slowly around the square, evidently in order to attract children for a ride, the dogs chased it, barking excitedly. One of them evidently decided that it was the leader – it ran ahead of the train, looking back happily to make sure that it was still being followed. Of all the things I saw in South America, this was one of the funniest, and is the thing that I most regret not getting a photo of.

Georgia sleeping in the plaza at La Rioja
Asleep in the plaza

In a restaurant that night, we had further interesting interactions when ordering food. Georgia ordered wine, and asked for a ‘vaso de tinto’ (direct translation for glass of red wine). The waiter looked slightly confused, but came back bearing a tall tumbler of chilled red. After that we remembered to order a ‘copa’ when asking for wine, because in Spanish, wine glasses are called cups, not glasses.

Following this, we finally made it to the bus and headed north. La Rioja, Argentina: I can’t really recommend it.

Post Exhibition

We had an awesome night on Thursday. At its peak, there must have been a hundred people inside the little gallery, which created quite a sauna. Alex and I received plenty of positive feedback about our photos and a few sales.

If you didn’t manage to make it down to the opening, the photos will be on the wall at Hole in the Wall until May 18th. The gallery is open weekdays 10-6 and Saturday 11-5.

Nearly finished hanging

Dean hanging some of Alex’s photos

A few of mine on the wall

Some happy visitors

Quite a few beers were drunk

Non-human species also enjoyed the exhibition

Simon Pynt (with my blurry face in the foreground)