Collecting New Media

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18 February
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Collecting the Surveillance State

In 2011, a jewelry store in Venice Beach, California sold to an American TV network surveillance video of Lindsay Lohan stealing a necklace. This year, an American restaurant, Boston Burrito Joint, posted surveillance video of a robbery on its Facebook site. And at least one vendor, Conus Archive, is now selling collections of surveillance footage gotten from satellite uplink trucks. Presumably anyone could buy it.

We are certainly in the midst of the largest and most organized surveillance activity in history. Surveillance is so pervasive that it might be said to constitute a culture. In December 2011, Wikileaks reported that 150 companies in 12 countries provided products to governments that are used to permanently record all of the phone conversations of an entire country, to provide real-time speed and GPS information from automobiles to the police, and to infiltrate widely used social media networks like Facebook. Given the covert nature of much public and private surveillance, it’s impossible to quantify the extent of surveillance activities that are currently in operation. But the amount of surveillance information now being generated must be enormous.

Will it be possible to one day collect some of this information or the devices used to record it? I imagine that celebrity footage, like that of Lohan, will be carefully archived by the network that bought it and will someday be part of a larger archive focused on television network history or celebrity footage or the like. But will surveillance video, or audio, or data, like the materials offered for sale by Conus Archives, one day be a collecting focus in itself?

A museum in Australia, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney  has a nine-item collection of surveillance equipment once used by the Australian Postal Service. Will other museums eventually put together collections of devices used to spy on private telephone conversations, or logs of surveilled Facebook accounts, or videos of riots or other civil disturbances caught by CCTV cameras?

There is certainly precedent for documenting security and surveillance practices.  Solzhenitsyn‘s Gulag Archipelago, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, the Black Book of Communism, and many other books and publications describe how repressive state apparati worked. And there are many worthwhile contemporary documentation projects focused on surveillance: the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But so far, these efforts focus on governmental surveillance, not surveillance in general, and are focused on documenting surveillance, not collecting surveillance artifacts.

I can imagine a collection that would try to acquire and organize a large variety of surveillance artifacts: audio, video, and still photography  collected by individuals, businesses and governments, both purposefully and accidentally, as part of surveillance operations; data artifacts, such as logs and data sets, collected during surveillance operations; examples of surveillance equipment; surveillance analyses, such as white papers, reports, memos; media coverage of surveillance issues; web sites devoted to surveillance topics; and, of course, printed material. But how would such a collection be assembled, given that surveillance is, by its nature, hidden? And would the collection even further violate the privacy rights of individuals who were the subject of surveillance?

The problems of such a collection are very large, but I think a major institutional effort, with serious funding, would result in a collection of significant importance and interest. Especially to the surveillers.



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