How much is your privacy worth?
How often do you think about your online privacy? According to Mitra Shreeram, you should probably be thinking about it more. He’s the curator of Surveillance Signal, the latest art exhibition at the Satellite Project Space that opens this Thursday. The exhibition features Toronto artists Philip Baljeu and Francisco-Fernando Granados sharing digital video and performance pieces on the themes of surveillance and privacy. Mitra spoke about the exhibits while sharing his thoughts on the current state of our surveillance society.
Let’s talk about the theme of surveillance and the artists that make up this exhibition.
People are becoming more aware of how much they are being surveilled online. Everything that they do leaves a data trail behind for use by organizations and governments. The uses range from the malicious to the relatively innocuous and deal with varying levels of consent. That is, when you’re signing an end-user agreement or Terms of Service, you sign off and organizations can have algorithms search through and guess your various preferences to your potential detriment.
Ultimately, there are many different ways that people are being surveilled online without realizing that it’s happening. Because of that, I wanted to curate an exhibition that brings attention to this issue.
Along those surveillance lines we have Francisco-Fernando Granados. He immigrated here to Canada and he’s been through the refugee application process. His performance, “spatial profiling…” (performed by Taylor Doyle, Tyler Durbano, and Angie Quick), involves tracing the outline of his face repeatedly against a wall so that it creates a waveform. It’s a commentary on the treatment refugee applicants face.
Due to the influx of refugees, the application process is moving away from a narrative component. Previously, you would see and hear from the applicant in a holistic way. Now, there is a move to biometrics where people become a set of data points. Consequently, you are missing that important narrative component.
Phillip Baljeu’s piece, “Scan Processing Architecture Abstractions,” also deals with surveillance. He took video of the Bell building, the London courthouse, and the Social Science building and Weldon Library at Western. He’s built a Rutt-Etra scan processor that takes the source footage of these buildings and produces a sort of electrical signal. The signal then goes into an oscilloscope, and the video ends up looking digital and abstract. These buildings all relate to surveillance or Brutalist architecture. Instead of pointing to people that are walking by the building or they’re going in the building, Philip’s video portraits are of the building itself. He uses technologies designed for surveillance to create something beautiful, and not the original intended use.
Many of us tend to give our information freely. There’s almost an apathy towards privacy. Why do you think that is?
The apathy comes from this new economy. We don’t realize that instead of paying for something with money, we’re paying for something with our privacy. Now, people are coming around to realizing, “oh, this is actually as valuable as my money is if not more valuable.” I explicitly think privacy is much more valuable than money. The protection of who you are and how you want to appear in the public is a huge economy and privacy is what we’re all paying with.
In many ways, you almost need to have a digital identity. Whether it’s job searching or networking you need to be on LinkedIn or Facebook or other social media platforms. Are digital identity and privacy completely at odds with each other? Do you have to give up privacy to have a digital identity?
I think that’s the kind of uncanny valley we’re in right now, because this is still new to everyone. With the job search question, there’s questions that people cannot ask you during an interview, right? They can’t ask your age or your socioeconomic status or your history outside of what’s on your resume. Now recruiters and companies can look you up online and find out everything. This person likes this and that doesn’t align with our culture. This person is 50 years old and we didn’t want to hire anybody over 30. There’s all these new forms of discrimination that are underway. It’s that balance of how much you want to put online and then how much you can afford not to put online. If you don’t have anything online, there is immediate suspicion that you are hiding something.
Surveillance can come from our peers as well. What impact does that kind of surveillance have on our digital selves?
It’s the peer policing network, right? You are always “curating” what your digital persona is. However, you’re not curating it for yourself, you’re curating it for how you want others to perceive you as. So it’s like a peer-based policing that is another form of surveillance from the bottom up as opposed to scary, large authoritarian figures that are imposing their cultural views from the top down.
What do you think the impact is on a person’s identity when the Internet is forever? You put something up and there will always be a copy of it somewhere. You can’t change it and you can’t evolve it.
I don’t believe the human mind can absorb what one million people think of something that you posted online. This is judgment on a scale that the brain isn’t even capable of registering. It can be innocuous to something that has ruined your life and caused you to change jobs, change countries. I have a hard time thinking of something that should be following you around forever that would actually be a benefit.
From the top-down approach, you have governments and private organizations taking data from all over the world – biometrics data from refugees, communication data that’s taken from backdoors placed in our phones – all sorts of things that get put into their own black box of signal analysis. We don’t know what’s in that black box, right? Whatever proprietary algorithms that they’re using, the end result is deepening algorithmic profiling. We already have so many issues with profiling in a physical space already.
Is there anything we can do?
The other part of the exhibition is that we have a workshop, “Reclaiming Your Digital Privacy”. That’s going to be on July 11th from 7-9 p.m. in the Satellite Space, led by Melissa Seelye and Erin Johnson. They put out the online privacy guide at Western University that’s available to the public. They’re going to show what the current Canadian legislation is, why the state of things is where it’s at, and how to protect themselves in the future. It’s important to use this opportunity to scare people on what is happening in the world of surveillance right now. It’s also to protect people in the future. Everyone’s kind of freaking out about how much information they’re leaking online. So that’s the other part that we wanted to offer.
What do you think happens when we reduce people to data points?
That’s almost the whole point of Francisco’s work. If you’re removing everyone’s subjective components, you’re left with data points. It’s analogous to drawing the outline of your face and saying, “this is what I look like.” You can see the outline of someone’s face, but you’re missing so many other aspects of it. Likewise, that’s what we’re doing with these refugee application forms. We’re removing so many of the important spaces and components of it. Because of that, we’re not able to see the whole picture anymore. We have this objective data set. That’s not the right way to go about something as nuanced as a refugee application. Arguably it’s okay if you’re sorting objects, but that’s not what people are.
The night will feature beer from the London Brewing Co-Op and pupusas and plantains from Lo Nuestro. Be sure to stay for the DJ Set featuring You’ll Never Get to Heaven from 9-11 pm. Surveillance Signal will run until July 16.
Featured photo by Philip Baljeu, Scan Processor Architecture Abstractions, still from video, 2017