Friday, February 10, 2006

Stimulating privacy awareness

Leslie Shade, an Associate Professor at Concordia University, recounts On the Identity Trail the results of a wonderful exercise she had her students engage in to stimulate their general awareness of privacy issues in the modern era.

"This semester in an Issues in Information Society fourth year undergraduate class at Concordia University’s Department of Communication Studies, one of the assignments I gave students was for them to create a project detailing ‘Surveillance in Everyday Life’: “Students are asked to provide a portfolio of their everyday interactions and how they are impacted by surveillance. Be as creative as possible! This can include photo documentation, monitoring of public discourses on surveillance issues, fiction, a play, podcasting, the creation of a CDROM or….”

Readings by Foucault, Lyon, and O’Harrow Jr., on privacy and surveillance were meant to stimulate the students and add to the other scholars we had been studying: Bell, Castells, Mosco, Huws, Schiller, Black, etc.,"

The students, it seems, surprised even themselves. One student wrote:

"I took a couple of photos of the eye-in-the-sky. I was being discrete thus I was more than a little surprised when less than two minutes after the first photo I was approached by an employee and asked to stop. Honestly, I only thought those systems were monitored in Vegas. I expected that these cameras were only connected to VCRs, and perhaps they are, I don't know if it was someone from upstairs or an employee on the floor who noticed me. In any case I was asked to stop. The double standard always shocks me – the business can monitor the consumer, but the consumer can not monitor the business. I promptly left, but not before snapping a couple of shots of the stickers that are used to gauge height in the instance of a robbery."

Another, a Starbucks employee had this to say:

"So what do my experiences with employee surveillance say about the work-place culture we have become accustomed to? Is there now such little trust that employees must be monitored and tracked? The problem is that such cultures of fear are being used to the benefit of the corporations we work for or governments we belong to. I feel justified in pondering whether the bomb threats that occurred at my government offices – these regular occurrences - were a way of keeping us on our toes? If we a population perceives itself as constantly under threat, it is more likely to bend to increasing control over their lives. But are there also benefits to these monitors? As the good employee, I benefit greatly from some of them. Free access to a car all summer. Free Internet use. Those extra minutes I came in early and stayed late at Starbucks add up over time – at least I’m getting paid for them right? Who cares if the trade-off for all of these things is a little surveillance? But therein lies the problem: surveillance only benefits conformists. It is made to oppress and subjugate a people, not to help them rise up. The real problem with surveillance is that it tries to eliminate the individual – the thing we all strive so hard to be – and it is individuals that change a culture, not conformists."

You can't beat hands on experience to get a real feel for the issues.

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