NCA, Dallas 2017: Visibilizing Surveillance and Control Infrastructures

Visibilizing Surveillance and Control Infrastructures

Thu, 11/16: 8:00 AM  – 9:15 AM 
Room: City View 2 – Fourth Floor 

Most forms of technological surveillance evade scrutiny because their operations are hidden from view. Through the integration of algorithmic functions into built form, attention is deflected from pervasive surveillance protocols and the unequal ramifications of control infrastructures. The papers in this session seek ways of rendering such processes and effects visible–of tracking the emergence of new regimes of visibility, challenging their politics, and creating spaces to imagine more just social and cultural configurations.

Chair Torin Monahan, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Activism and Social Justice Division
Critical and Cultural Studies Division


Confronting complicity: Surveillance art and the interpellation of viewing subjects

Critical artworks about surveillance introduce compelling possibilities for rethinking the relationship of people to larger systems of control. This paper analyzes a number of art projects that strive to render surveillance visible and cultivate a sense of responsibility on the part of viewers or participants. Some of the projects invite participation as a way of producing discomfort and reflexivity on the part of viewers (Dries Depoorter’s “Sheriff Software”), others use tactics of defamiliarization to draw critical attention to everyday surveillance that has become mundane (Jakub Geltner’s “Nests”), and still others show the human costs of surveillance-facilitated violence and urge viewers to take action (“#NotABugSplat”). By fostering ambiguity and decentering the viewing subject, surveillance art can capitalize on the anxiety of viewers to motivate questions that might lead to greater awareness and open a space for ideological critique. 

Author Torin Monahan, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill 

Light industry

In the development of the Stanford Industrial Park, one land use report referred to the corporate campus’ design as one that would attract “light industry of a non-nuisance type.” Silicon Valley would go on to attract a whole range of light industry, with the manufacturing that term originally referred to giving way to software, networks, and an industry defined by and contingent on the secure transport of light through strands of glass. 

In the past decade, the distinction between technology of personal computing and traditional “heavy industry” has become harder to distinguish. But Silicon Valley’s industrial history is anything but “light”–the twenty-three federal Superfund sites in Santa Clara County make that abundantly clear. This paper will discuss the use of historical narratives and artworks to challenge the perception that software is itself not a heavy industry, and the political and environmental consequences of that light/heavy distinction. 

Author Ingrid Burrington, Data and Society Research Institute 

Surveillance and the spectrum: The globalization of cell phone interception technologies

This paper explores the emergence and use of a technology known as the IMSI catcher. Also known as a “cell site simulator” “StingRay,” or “dirtbox,” the IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) catcher functions by mimicking a cellphone base station. It locks on to cellphones in a given vicinity and intercepts data from and/or remotely reconfigures or operates the phones. Because of its powerful surveillance capability, the technology has been incorporated into the work of military units, state agencies, law enforcement agencies, and criminal organizations. The IMSI catcher is now part of a lawful interception industry that is expected to be worth $1.3 billion by 2019. After describing multiple use scenarios, the talk will address a series of critical issues elicited by the globalization of cell phone interception technology, including the relationship between surveillance and cynicism, surveillance as a technique of democratic governance, and state and corporate suppression of technical information. 

Author Lisa Parks, MIT 

The aesthetics of state surveillance: From secrecy to publicity

The 2013 Snowden revelations about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) warrantless spying activities seem relatively benign when contrasted against the more overt displays of state surveillance power in recent months. To consider this shift from secrecy to publicity in the NSA’s manifestation of state power, we suggest reading the changing role of the NSA over time from its aesthetics. Specifically, we look at the NSA’s communications through a critical discourse analysis, attuned to the role of aesthetic representation in legitimizing authority. What this analysis reveals is how the agency¹s aesthetic strategies follow useful binaries ­ between public and private, us and them, good and evil ­ that can be mapped onto broader political exigencies. In particular, we focus on how the aesthetics of the NSA are co-articulated with certain ideologies about networked technology in order to rethink the surveillance-privacy nexus as it traverses a path from secrecy to publicity. 

Author Tamara Shepherd, University of Calgary 
Co-Author Mél Hogan, University of Calgary