At the end of January 2014 I was delighted to participate in the Surveillance, Copyright, Privacy: The end of the open internet conference held at the University of Otago in New Zealand. It was an inspiring three days looking critically at the way privacy and surveillance are increasingly at war in contemporary culture, which the eternal bugbear of copyright continues to look large. For a sense of the conference, Rosie Overell has collated the tweets from the event in four Storify collections: day one; morning of day 2; afternoon of day 2; and day 3.

The paper I presented was entitled ‘Captured at Birth? Intimate Surveillance and Digital Legacies’. Here’s the slides and abstract:

From social media to CCTV cameras, surveillance practices have been largely normalised in contemporary cultures. While sousveillance – surveillance and self-surveillance by everyday individuals – is often situated as a viable means of subverting and making visible surveillance practices, this is premised on those being surveyed having sufficient agency to actively participate in escaping or re-directing an undesired gaze (Albrechtslund, 2008; Fernback, 2013; Mann, Nolan, & Wellman, 2002). This paper, however, considers the challenges that come with what might be termed intimate surveillance: the processes of recording, storing, manipulating and sharing information, images, video and other material gathered by loved ones, family members and close friends. Rather than considering the complex negotiations often needed between consenting adults in terms of what material can, and should, be shared about each other, this paper focuses on the unintended digital legacies created about young people, often without their consent. As Deborah Upton (2013, p. 42) has argued, for example, posting first ultrasound photographs on social media has become a ritualised and everyday part of process of visualising and sharing the unborn. For many young people, their – often publicly shared – digital legacy begins before birth. Along a similar line, a child’s early years can often be captured and shared in a variety of ways, across a range of platforms, in text, images and video. The argument put forward is not that such practices are intrinsically wrong, or wrong at all. Rather, the core issue is that so many of the discussions about privacy and surveillance put forward in recent years presume that those under surveillance have sufficient agency to at least try and do something about it. When parents and others intimately survey their children and share that material – almost always with the very best intentions – they often do so without any explicit consideration of the privacy, rights or (likely unintended) digital legacy such practices create. A legacy which young people will have to, at some point, wrestle with, especially in a digital landscape increasingly driven by ‘real names’ policies (Zoonen, 2013). Inverting the overused media moral panic about young people’s sharing practices on social media, this paper argues that young people should be more concerned about the quite possibly inescapable legacy their parents’ documenting and sharing practices will create. Ensuring that intimate surveillance is an informed practice, better educational resources and social media literacy practices are needed for new parents and others responsible for managing the digital legacies of others.

References

Albrechtslund, A. (2008). Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance. First Monday, 13(3). Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2142/1949

Fernback, J. (2013). Sousveillance: Communities of resistance to the surveillance environment. Telematics and Informatics, 30(1), 11–21. doi:10.1016/j.tele.2012.03.003

Lupton, D. (2013). The Social Worlds of the Unborn. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Mann, S., Nolan, J., & Wellman, B. (2002). Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments. Surveillance & Society, 1(3), 331–355.

Zoonen, L. van. (2013). From identity to identification: fixating the fragmented self. Media, Culture & Society, 35(1), 44–51. doi:10.1177/0163443712464557

For me the trip to Dunedin had the added bonus of spending some time visiting family and reacquainting myself after far too long away with the beautiful city I was born in.