Between 12th and 13th November, I asked 20 LICA 230 students a number of questions regarding surveillance. From watching a variety of documentaries, extensive research and general discussion, I had found that opinions regarding surveillance were incredibly mixed. Some scholars and journalists were positive towards the idea, maintaining that it was important for the government to have the ability to watch it’s citizens. With recent attacks in Paris, one can understand this line of argument. Many, however, were negative. Journalists working for the Guardian specifically were against Surveillance, objecting to Theresa May’s draft bill that came in front of the commons in early November. Heather Brooke wrote on 8th November that “George Orwell lacked vision,” continuing by explaining that “the spies [had] gone further than [Orwell] could have imagined, creating in secret and without authorisation the ultimate panopticon.” Similarly, David Shariatmadari argued on 7th November that “this government [was] seeking to undermine the Freedom of Information Act, it [had] introduced an investigatory power bill that puts us all under the spotlight of suspicion.” What’s more, Edward Snowden himself criticised Theresa May’s new draft bill, asserting on the 4th November that it was the “most intrusive and least accountable surveillance regime in the West.”
My aim with these “interviews” was to establish how regular students felt towards surveillance: were people absolutely against it, or could some understand the need for it? Did they know enough about surveillance to form an opinion? Had they been involved or, at the very least, kept up to date with the news over the past two or so years? I simply wanted to establish how much people actually knew. I was astonished with my results.
Out of the 20 people I asked, only 3 knew who Edward Snowden was. Similarly, only 1 person knew the name of the government agency that collected our internet data (GCHQ - Government Communication Headquarters) and only 5 cared about the way they went about doing it. When asked on their opinions of mass surveillance, the majority opposed, saying it was an intrusion of their privacy, yet later stated that they were willing to give up their privacy for their security. Out of the 20 students asked, at least 13 did not trust the UK government or felt that they could not be fully trusted. When asked whether the government should have the ability to know where they are and what they’re doing all the time, 2 students both made reference to George Orwell’s book ‘1984’, stating they thought that concept was terrifying to them. When the extent to which the government was spying on it’s citizens was revealed however, only one of these two students expressed shock. Furthermore, despite knowing the freedoms that Snowden gave up in order to inform the public about government surveillance, 3 students felt it was not his place to leak these documents and 1 felt he should have done more to stop this mass collection. One person asserted that they “didn’t think he had helped,” whilst another felt he wasn’t so much a hero as “a decent human being.” My results reinstated the idea that views regarding surveillance were incredibly mixed. Whilst some felt surveillance was important in their safety, others felt they had not seen enough benefits of surveillance programs and were against being watched, despite having nothing to hide from the government.
I found that a lot of people were unaware of issues surrounding mass surveillance and the government’s ability to watch them. Despite taking a neutral standpoint during the interviews, and despite assuring I would remain neutral, I feel people should have been aware of these issues. Whilst I respect the views of everyone involved, I was, and continue to be, baffled as to people’s obliviousness to the subject. Perhaps people feel as though they have been spied on their whole lives, so don’t feel inclined to be involved in the debate regarding government surveillance. Or, perhaps, the selection of students I asked gave a bad indication as to people’s involvement in the surveillance discussion; maybe they are an anomaly? To assert this, however, would disregard and devalue the opinions of those involved. In order to establish the answer to this, then, I must ask a greater selection of students (Alexandra Square, for example), and people from town.
The piece was recorded using a Zoom H1 Handy Recorder and a Radio Shack omnidirectional lapel mic. When connected to the handy recorder, the lapel mic only recorded through the Left stereo channel. To reverse this, I had to import the audio clips into Logic Pro 9 and use an imaging plugin to change the direction of the audio, essentially moving the dialogue from the left ear to both ears. Whilst the audio quality is good in some of the interviews, in others it is poor. In these specific cases, the interviewee spoke too quietly or the microphone was placed in a position that did not pick them up as clearly as was hoped. In response, I placed a compressor and a limiter on the affected audio tracks to give them greater perceived volume. In doing this, white noise becomes more noticeable and makes the tracks appear poorer in quality. Whilst adding a Denoiser can help reduce some of this background fuzz, it can also reduce the crispness of an audio track. I was more concerned with crisp and clear dialogue than with reducing the amount of white noise, so went against using the denoiser. If I am to do a piece with sound again, I feel I need to pay close attention to this problem and ensure the mic is placed in the correct area.
What makes this piece interesting is that people’s opinions tend to be based on current events. 3 years ago, people would not have had an opinion on mass surveillance. I’m sure the majority of people I asked would have said that it was not possible to collect such a mass amount of data and would have dismissed the claims. Yet, now we know the extent to which people were/are spied on. As a result, people are able to form specific opinions as to whether they think surveillance is right or wrong. But it often takes catastrophes in places closer to home to make people actually sit down and think. In some cases, these catastrophes can cause people to change their mind in a panic and give up freedoms for security. What is important in making these decisions is that people consider the long term effects of these decisions.
Following the Paris terrorist attacks on the 13th November, it’s clear to see, from re-interviewing the same students, those who would give up freedoms to feel safe in a time of panic. Attacks like Paris ultimately beg the question: have there been any benefits to giving up our privacy? Have we earned anything from giving away that freedom? The answer, at this point, is no. We give up our privacy for national security, yet we still run the risk of being involved in a similar attack here in the UK. Whilst the argument can be made that it’s impossible to stop every attack, one could note that we are wrongly giving up our privacy because we cannot ever be entirely safe.
Following these interviews, I used Facebook and other social media websites to gather as much information about the students as I could. I wanted to show how easy it was for anyone to find out what they wanted about people based solely off their social media accounts. These profiles were then hung up on a wall in the studio. Each profile was hung with it's transcript. These profiles were then linked to other people's profiles that they knew and/or were Facebook friends with. The black string was used to connect those who were close friends/those who shared studio spaces. The blue string was used to connect people who were friends on Facebook. The work was hung on the outside wall of the studio so everyone could view what I had discovered. Reactions were mixed. Many people regarded me as a "stalker" for going as deep as I had into peoples' profiles. Others were astonished at how easy it was to collect information about people from their Facebook and Twitter accounts. I found that some accounts were harder to search as they had a lot of personal information blocked/unavailable to the public. Others, on the other hand, had everything available, from mobile phone numbers to, in one case, their home address. What captivated me about this whole piece was discovering things about people that I did not know before. For example, I found that one of my course mates had a second persona with a separate Facebook page and website. This person, who will remain unnamed, was a big supporter of Cosplay (the practice of dressing up as a character from a film, book, or video game, especially one from the Japanese genres of manga or anime), and often went to events such as Comic Con in costumes she had made herself. These costumes were incredibly detailed and professional and had led to her getting close to 1000 likes on her Facebook fan page. What I found truly remarkable was that no-one knew about this, despite being close friends with her.
This piece continued along the same line of thought as the Itemised phone bill. It was politically motivated, but did not intend to comment on/dictate an opinion on mass surveillance. From the interviews, I was able to create a larger awareness to issues that were (and are) incredibly important to our generation. This piece is almost an artistic documentation of what GCHQ has the ability to discover. I am using the data that would otherwise be meaningless for my own personal benefit. In this way, the data has some sort of meaning. I am, like I set out to during the term, using the abundance of data to discover things that were previously unknown. The data now has use; a purpose.
Listen to all the interviews in this 16 minute audio clip: https://soundcloud.com/harryjamesmcgill/surveillance