Archive for the ‘Surveillance’ Category

Signal Jackers

May 17, 2010

I will have you know, dear reader, that I am currently writing this in my kitchen, where my cable internet connection hath no reach, and so I’m taking advantage of one of my neighbours’ “D-link” unsecured signals. Which amounts to a small act of bandwidth piracy on my part, though I am scrupulous not to download voluminous material and so contribute to what might be an added charge on this person’s monthly service bill.

But it turns out that covert signal thieves like myself are not the only pirates out there, and that the Google Street View vans that have been prowling city streets since 2007 have been collecting more than just pictures of the city and its people. Thanks to questions from privacy enquirers in Hamburg, Germany who nonchalantly asked a Google employee what the hard drive in their Street View vehicles are set up to contain, it became public knowledge last week that Google has been recording data transmitted over unsecured wireless signals as its vehicles roam the neighbourhoods of the developed world. This means that simple, text-based messages such as e-mail and, yes, blogpostings, have been recorded and archived alongside Google’s vast storehouse of books, images and photos of city streets.

Google claims that it has been doing this “mistakenly”, which it seems far fetched to read as “accidentally”, since how does one set up a fleet of vehicles to “inadvertantly” collect private information from people’s wireless internet communications and navigations? I guess that “mistakenly” in this context means something like “deviously” and “unethically”, as it is entirely unclear how the inclusion of this spy technology in the Street View arsenal could simply be part of their desire Google to “help improve its mapping products”.

But this revelation does answer a question that has been nagging me since I first learned about the whole Street View project not one month ago. After navigating the amazing software that allows one to prowl, as disembodied observer, the streets of cities across the world, I wondered to myself the possible motivation a big company like Google would have for embarking on what can only be an extremely expensive, large scale project of this sort. Surely it had to be more than a simple techno-utopian desire to create a virtual map of the world. Perhaps it was an instance of what Derrida named “archive fever”, or the ultimately self-defeating desire to save everything.

But now it seems that a darker, though not unrelated motive for the project has surfaced: Google does want to save as much of our discursive culture as possible, even to the point of intruding into the private lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens. I am reminded of the German film of 2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others in which a popular and successful playwright in East Germany in the eighties is put under surveillance by the Stasi secret police. The end of this film brings us to a period after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the protagonist Goerg Dreyman gains access to his own Stasi file and learns, for the first time, the extent to which his living space had been monitored. The difference between this scenario and Google’s systematic surveillance is that, with the fall of the failed Socialist utopian projects, there no longer exists a sense of there being a possible “outside” or “end” to the systems of control that combine to form the contemporary social world.

It is difficult to imagine how, in the current vision of an expansive global capitalism, there could be a dissolving of state power of the kind that allowed for the “liberation” of the East German people and the opening of the Stasi police archives as a national museum and monument to the “bad old days”. I’m not saying that such an eventuality is impossible in the modern context, just that we have no imaginative categories, short of the apocalyptic disaster scenario, in which a similar liberation narrative might be constructed.

Remember the scene in one of the original series of Planet of the Apes TV shows when the human and ape protagonists stumble upon a computer mainframe still functioning in a vault beneath the ruins of New York city? Now imagine that the scientists who have been stranded in this alternative future are from the current decade, and that the computer they find just happens to be a Google machine full of information collected by its Street View cars. The heroes are astounded to discover an archive collecting the private lives of a vanished civilization, but in looking further into the data, they discover that it was Google itself that supplied the information used by the mutated apes to undermine and ultimately enslave their human masters.

We are living in an age of unprecedented opportunities for the surveillance and control of populations, but, like the naively idealistic Dreyman in The Lives of Others, we remain smug in the belief that our own good fortune and abilities somehow exempt us from this general circumstance. And this, in the end, is the process of hegemony, whereby we are willing to relinquish hard won freedoms for the illusory promise of greater security or, what’s worse, for a technological gimmick that allows us to spy on friends and neighbours from afar.