Evolving Digital Identity – The “Real Life” of watching and being watched

This post is around the #DigPINS Pedagome “Identity” week. I want to just sort of riff on my own about some personal experience so forgive me for not doing a map or otherwise following the prompt. I’ve long been interested in the impact of environment on identity but I recently took on a little personal project that made me think harder about the intersection of physical environments and digital identities. I’ve been wanting to write about it and this seemed the time to get it out.

I’ve been interested in data privacy and surveillance for some time now. About a year ago I started paying more attention to the signage that indicates that my physicality is under surveillance and started snapping pics of them. This was very much an aside and I wasn’t doing much more than snapping the pics. I did find some use for them in tweets and headers for blog posts about data privacy and surveillance but most of the time they just lived on my camera roll. I did find them interesting and noted some nuances to myself such as subilities in iconography and rhetoric but this was all just sort of in my head.

A few months ago I started wanting to do more with these pics and I had the idea that a social media presence could give them a home, help me be more intentional about looking for signage, and help me in noticing those nuances and chronicling them. Since they were pics I tried to establish an Instagram account but I’m not much of an Instagram user and the account never got off the ground. I’m not sure I ever even got one follower and then a few weeks later Instagram actually shut the account down – I think because I missed a verification email. Still, I wanted to do something and considering that I’m more of a Twitter user I decided to reestablish there. After being two days old on twitter @SurveillanceSam/Surveillance Signage had a few hundred followers – so something to be said about having an established network on a particular tool and even just knowing the tool.

For me, @SurveillanceSam is an establishment of a digital identity to scaffold a new kind of awareness and a way of being for myself. Right away several folks pointed out similar projects that were more robust or suggested that this project could be or do more. Suggestions included creating intricate maps, attaching levels of metadata, or scraping data of where surveillance equipment might be deployed and displaying it. All of these are fascinating and ideas I may want to evolve @SurveillanceSam to do at some point but right now it is just an outlet for me to be more aware of my surroundings. It is an outlet for a part of my brain and an expression of my current living experience right now. As great as all of those other ideas are that is not what I’m interested in doing with it right now.

Then something interesting happened – a few people started wanting to do this with me. They started tagging @SurveillanceSam in tweets that had pics of surveillance signage that they had come across and I started using the account to retweet. Some even backchanneled them to me and I would use the account directly to post them.  

I have mixed feelings about this phenomenon – on one hand I it is really fun to have other people doing this same kind of thing that I’m doing: paying attention to their surroundings, capturing these signs, sharing them with me to curate in one place. On the other I worry a bit about encouraging folks to follow along. I sometimes worry about snapping these photos even myself. I used to just carry a camera with me everywhere and snap pics of everything around me – I was a bit of a photo nerd. One day I was shooting a large outdoor fountain and some kind of angry enforcement officer (I can’t even remember if it was a proper cop – it was many years ago) wanted to know why I was taking pictures of the bank. I had not even noticed there was a bank in the background of the fountain. You sort of have to assume that you are under surveillance when you are taking these photos and that could look somewhat shady to whoever is watching. If you are not a middle-class looking white lady and if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time I can see how this could perhaps not be the best practice for you. So I hesitate to promote people joining me on this journey. But it is a journey that I am on and for those who find it possible to capture signs that their identity is being captured I’m happy to amplify.

So, what have I learnt?

It has been an interesting few months with @SurveillanceSam. Since creating the account I have become much more aware of signage and where I might find it. It feels a bit like geocaching in a way but with instinct rather than a GPS. One of the first things that I noticed was being more aware of where I would find surveillance but what was really interesting was how often there was no signage. I drew a line with the account that it was not a place for pics of surveillance equipment but rather just signage. I’m interested in how surveillance is communicated, why it is communicated, and who it is communicated to – and my experience so far has found that most often it is happening without communication. More often than not I find equipment without any signage.

And about the signage and my questions of how, why, and who?

“How” surveillance is being communicated is an interesting question which bleeds into “why” and “for who”. Iconography stands out to me: eyes, shields, and cameras permeate. I made note that often the cameras are mounted – though usually they are mounted to nothing. There is often a mount on the icon and sometimes a wire but it just hangs there in a void. This is a common kind of camera I suppose but it is interesting to me that so many of the cameras are old school – the newer cameras are dome ones but you never see those in the icons.

Screenshot from SurveillanceSam account showing camera mounts

The “why” and the “who” questions are even more interesting. Especially in light of my experience that most surveillance is not communicated. If not then when it is being communicated why is it being communicated. A favorite way of mine to question this is to put images indicating that you are for sure being surveilled next to one’s that say you may be being surveilled. What exactly is the point of a sign that says you “may be” under surveillance?

Yellow sign that reads "This area may be under surveillance"

“Who” is a sobering question as in my experience I’ve seen signs of surveillance more often in poor neighborhoods and in communities of color. But also digging into the signs themselves. Who are they directed at? Many are directed at the criminal stating in all caps WARNING or ATTENTION you are on camera, microphone, closed circuit TV, etc. but for others the audience for the sign is the person who is doing nothing wrong and states that the surveillance is for their benefit for protection or will even save them money by stopping theft at the store.

Black and white sign mounted to post that reads "Closed Circuit Television Cameras are in use to help provide you with low prices. Recordings will be used in the prosecution of criminal offenses".

In conclusion, I’m two months into @SurveillanceSam and it is an interesting overlay of a digital identity and how it can impact a “real life”. If you are familiar with some of my past thinking you know that those scare quotes are because I have issues with the term “real life”. I think this creates a false dichotomy. Unless we are talking about your dreams, imaginagings, psychedelic hallucinations, spiritual encounters, or the like we are talking about “real life”. @SurveillanceSam is not a “real person” but I am and it is an extension of my attention and current thinking. I’m sure that there are folks out there who have taken a deeper look at these things but I’m just starting to explore them and this is where I’m at for now.

2 thoughts on “Evolving Digital Identity – The “Real Life” of watching and being watched”

  1. I’m reading a novel right now called “The Circle” by Dave Eggars … it is dystopian and chilling … about a place where you share everything – every aspect of your life … there is no privacy … I think you might like it if you want to read a novel … I’m not done reading it yet, so I don’t know where it will go, but right now it is chilling …

    1. Thanks for stopping by Rebecca. I read that book a few years ago and loved it. They made a really bad movie based on it.

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