Archive for July, 2016


CRISP group photo

Photo from CRISP’s blog post about the summer school

In June I attend the third annual doctoral summer school from the Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance & Privacy (CRISP) in Edinburgh, Scotland. My PhD program assigned me to share my experiences for others who may wish to join summer school four next year – or five, or 55. As we all know, every byte is forever and will return to haunt us – in its worst possible, out-of-context light – just before we finalize employment contracts, wedding licenses, bids to become head-of-state, etc…

Or not – the longevity of digital information is complicated in practice (as is what we can do to protect it). I attended the CRISP school because (on a related note) I’ve read a fair amount of academic literature about privacy, broadly defined as individuals’ control over their personal space and information. I went to the summer school hoping to gain a perspective on privacy related to surveillance – the acts of observation (via garden-variety voyeurism, CCTV, digital meta-data collection, etc) often thought to endanger privacy.

In regards to that surveillance perspective I hoped to gain, thinking in terms of security helped place me in a more ‘active’ head-space. Privacy is often envisioned as a defensive concern, related to preventing others from gaining access to oneself. Reflecting on the action of surveillance reminded me that many privacy measures are no less proactive. Furthermore, it reminded me that the action of surveillance is situated within its own concerns, which are not directly conceptually opposed to privacy. As CRISP academic and school organizer Charles Raab argued in a paper and summer school seminar, privacy and security (the freedom from danger often invoked for surveillance) are not opposite poles on the same sliding scale. One doesn’t necessarily gain security by giving up privacy, or lose security by enhancing privacy. This fits in with critiques I’ve been developing to present at another summer school in August  on Privacy and Identity Management.

Of course, volumes have been written on these topics – the above is merely my own immediate take-away. Just what ‘surveillance studies’  is was a perfunctory controversy on day one, as we were all jokingly asked if we considered ourselves ‘surveillance scholars’ to an (expected) lukewarm reception. This wasn’t for lack of interest (we all chose to spend the week there, after all) but rather a statement of the complexity of positioning oneself in a multi-disciplinary field. Just what are we as professionals, and how do we study whatever we study?

While this identity anxiety was expected, the week’s conception of multi-disciplinarily was a welcome refresher – as was the flexibility in what surveillance studies can be. I earned my bachelors’ degree at an American liberal arts school, where taking courses on a variety of subjects is the modus operandi, all rooted in humanities-style critical thinking. By contrast, I’ve found that some of the UK’s disciplinary heritages to be more singular – in the case of my own department, reflecting the underlying epistemologies of Computer Science, Human Factors, and Human-Computer Interaction. I felt at home in a place that incorporated technical discussions; a panel of journalists and activists; a film screening (2006’s Galsgow-set Red Road); and two talks that related theology to surveillance. At the CRISP school and July’s Digital Economy Network Summer School, I further noted that the American imports (either academic staff at UK institutions or invited speakers) tended to talk about their teaching as a particularly integral element to their careers (often discussing it in relationship to their own research), which further made me feel a bit ‘at home’ in regard to academic values.

This attention to breadth also speaks to the CRISP week’s overall quality. It was apparent that everyone involved cared about fostering an informative experience for us students, who chose to make the trek from across Europe, North America and Oceania (Asia, Africa, and South America were not represented in students and under-represented in content, in contrast to my current home at the Horizon CDT – where the student body is nearly 50% Chinese if one considers it as part of the same whole as the IDIC program). It was well-scheduled, alternating between seminars and coffee, with a field trip mid-week to Glasgow Community Safety’s CCTV command centre. Even general seminars on topics like ‘publishing in top journals’ and ‘research ethics’ managed to keep a personal and practical voice and focus. Some bits of useful advice I’ll pass on: 1) stop reading when you’re only making marginal gains. 2) Become a part of the review process if you really want to learn the intricacies of how a journal’s conventions. And two talks by journalist Duncan Campbell about mass surveillance (who was prosecuted in 1978 for journalism related to the publicizing the existence of GCHQ – who today, together with various international intelligence organizations, are likely collecting your data as we speak) reminded me of the importance of well-founded paranoia all over again.

Furthermore, I have to hand it to CRISP for its creative branding: part of its promotional propaganda includes ‘CRISP privacy devices’ (‘do not disturb’ hotel-style door-hanger) and packages of CRISP-branded crisps.

Anyway – it was a great summer school, and do consider it if you’re a PhD student considering learning more about surveillance, information and privacy!

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On sharing refugee artwork with my Iowan hometown

I’m an American living in the UK, conducting research on how refugees use social media. I grew up in small town Iowa. It’s a distinct, stable and generally friendly place, surrounded by fields that stretch in all directions for lengths comparable in size to the entirety of England.

I’ve viewed connecting my present life and work to where I grew up as something of an opportunity and necessity.  About 3,000 people live in my hometown. Contrary to stereotype, supposedly ‘isolated’ areas often have complex relationships with the world at large. I’ve met Clarion friends (and friends of friends) traveling and living abroad. For locals, the international residents they encounter are primarily Mexicans who have arrived to work in the local industrial farms and foreign exchange students who spend a year at a time at the local high school.

Meanwhile, America is highly mediated society, the vast majority of which is produced in coastal centers like New York and L.A. These films, television shows, news programs and publications filter through to the massive interior, a highly unequal communication relationship that, I feel, discourages locals from feeling meaningful agency in the world at large. You hear many things in a small town; others scarcely have much interest to listen. At the national level, however, the current refugee crisis is partially caused by American foreign policy that was enacted by official elected by wide swathes of the country. When I return, I’m dismayed at the casual national security fears, underscored by the ambiance of Fox News on public television sets – the sense of threat that is normalized amid the geo-political safety of America’s interior.  It is particularly obscene to see refugees, travelling on immediate threat to their lives, being publicly dismissed en masse on the unprecedented contingency that some might be terrorists.

That’s its own form of privilege – the fear of the abstract and distant – and freedom of travel is among mine. I was on a leisure trip to Budapest, Hungary, last August when a friend’s friend (Mark Szabo) showed me some paintings some refugee children had made with his help. The kids and other refugees had been staying outdoors in II. János Pál pápa tér (Pope John Paul II Park). On August 7, Mark and a group of his friends had decided to spend the day painting. When one of the children asked him for a slice of melon, the day’s activities grew to incorporate them.

Refugee art shrink

The artist, with the picture. Photo by David Bodnar.

For Mark, the painting was one in a stack. For me, it was not particularly unique either; any child could have drawn it. I got it framed for my hometown in the hopes that in displaying it, I could build a bit of international empathy. I don’t want to overstate my involvement in the picture’s creation or a contentious local situation I briefly visited. The frame of this blog post is, in part, a fulfillment of academic credit. Seeing the painting in a locally-crafted wooden frame looks obscene, the contrast between the sturdy woodwork of the frame and the moment of instability it captures. But such is art; it is valuable because we have decided its value; and the figurative or literal frame, as Erving Goffman famously described, is a what gives us that point of reference. It took a photo of the dead body of three-year old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi (far from the first child to die) to give international media an empathetic rallying point late last year; here, with this picture, and the story of its transit, I thought I could build a more direct, albeit modest, bridge between my hometown and a crisis that will last until some form of long-term settlement prospects are realized.

Budapest, summer 2015, marked a unique moment in the ongoing migration. In late August, Germany announced it would welcome refugees.  Many who had been staying in Hungary immediately boarded westbound trains. The painting represents a moment that has now passed into memory. The artist who painted this was among the over one million displaced persons who crossed into Europe that year. These charts from the BBC explain the scope of the ongoing ‘crisis’, which – despite its recent increasing prominence in the news – is not new. The refugees in Europe represent a small percentage of people around the world displaced by conflict and natural disasters, which totaled 65.3 million by the end of 2015, up from the mid-2015 totals of 59.5 million. Nonetheless, just 272 refugees had gone through the initial settlement process as of the end of 2015. As we approach the middle of 2016, few have been offered opportunities for long-term settlement. Many are still living in temporary camps.

The painting I had framed was displayed at my local high school for the last several weeks of school in May. It then went on display at their annual summer “Festival in the Park” – celebrating the 151th anniversary of the town’s founding; it was incorporated one year before my historically-recent ancestors’ moved from Germany to America. From there, it will be circulate the local churches throughout the summer, the town ministerial committee having offered to guide its movements. An article was written about in the local newspaper, where I served as editor and primary reporter in 2014 before starting my PhD at Horizon.

I’ve also perhaps realized something of the practicalities of artwork, and why one would want to put a piece on ‘loan’ rather than donate. Permanent gifts may both create an awkward storage challenge for the recipients, one that may end with a permanent installation in the Town Hall janitor’s closet. So a loan is a way still have a bit of agency back there, even as (in another sense) it’s also a reminder of the limits of my tether to life back home. But life itself is made up of connections like those, and I hope the painting helps a bit to make more visible.

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