watching the watchers: interesting work development

As of today, I have a part-time gig as a research assistant. For the month of May, and possibly for June and July, I'll be working on a very interesting project with some terrific people, and making decent money, too.

The project is spearheaded by Andrew Clement, a professor at University of Toronto who taught one of the core courses required in my first term at the i-School, "Information and Society". By coincidence, Dr. Clement knew my name from the War Resisters Support Campaign; he and his wife had housed a resister in the Campaign's early years.

Clement does really interesting, important work around privacy issues, some of it through IPSI, the Identity, Privacy and Security Institute. For example, he and a graduate-student research team convened a national forum on the enhanced driver's license that can be used in place of a passport at the US-Canada border.

The EDL, equipped with a radio-frequency identification chip, was supposed to save time at the border and increase security. It did anything but, and turned out to be readable from a very great distance, raising serious privacy issues. Clement's class is where I first heard the term "security theatre".

For me, the best thing about the course was the perspective that brings the academic and theoretical to bear on the practical, to use knowledge as an agent for change. How can this information be used to challenge the accepted power structure, to disrupt the status quo, to empower people against larger forces affecting or controlling their lives? That worldview guides all this work.

The focus of this specific project is video surveillance, which has crept into our public landscape without our input or consent. It's usually justified under the vague heading of "security," but there is no evidence that it makes us safer, either by deterring crime, assisting prosecution, or increasing personal safety. (The one exception to this, apparently, is in parking garages.)

This month, Clement will lead a Jane's Walk about video surveillance in downtown Toronto. If you're familiar with Jane Jacobs' excellent work, you may know the expression "eyes on the street," meaning, how neighbourhoods with street life keep urban spaces safe. The name of Clement's walk plays on that: "(Video) Eyes on the Street".

The following week, the senior members of the team will make a presentation to the International Association of Privacy Professionals' (IAPP) annual Canadian symposium. (At the meeting I attended today, we previewed the presentation.) A graduate student researcher collected information and took photographs of video surveillance in the private sector - in malls, banks and big box stores. Exercising his legal rights, he asked questions about the surveillance and requested information. His findings were interesting. Of 46 private-sector organizations - the largest corporate presences in the Greater Toronto Area - all used video surveillance. And exactly none were compliant with laws governing privacy. The researcher's requests for information were met with either complete cluelessness or, in some cases, cease-and-desist letters.

So here's a citizen standing in a public space taking a photograph of a video camera. The camera is employed by a private company to do surveillance of a public space with no warning or advance permission. And the company is threatening the citizen with legal action! (Some wmtc readers may enjoy this bit: security guards once threatened the researcher with "trespass," as in, "Watch out or I'll trespass you".)

This project assumes there are some reasonable questions we have a right to ask about this surveillance of public spaces. Am I being watched? By whom, and for what purposes? If this is for safety, will help come if I need it? Am I being recorded, and if so, who views those records? What is done with the records and how may I be affected by them? And of course, What are my rights?

Clement's team envisions warnings and disclaimers similar to those used for food-safety inspection or movie ratings, announcing to citizens what exactly is going on and what rights they have. Although right now such a system is a dream, the presentation raises questions that are not being asked and pokes holes in all the assumptions.

This work has spread through a network of like-minded people in other cities and countries. It's exciting to be a part of it in some small way. It also has relevancy to the public library, as librarians are on the front lines of resistance to government surveillance of citizens' information habits.

On a personal level, as you may know, I've been looking for work, almost constantly, for a very long time. My weekend job is inadequate income, putting us under constant financial pressure. Allan and I have both been picking up some freelance transcribing, but there isn't always work. The page job with the Mississauga Library System - which I need in order to get in the system there - has not materialized yet. I applied for a couple of jobs through school, but nothing came through. It's been frustrating.

Then this week, out of nowhere, one of those jobs re-appeared. This project is going into a particularly busy period and needs more research assistance. I was chosen for my organizational skills, to help them prepare for the Jane's Walk and the presentation. My political interests are a bonus. Whether it lasts one month or three, it will make a big difference.

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