One Nation Under Surveillance, Power and Privilege, Tech and Society

The Dystopian Path to Bicycle Safety

As an information ethicist who is generally skeptical about digital products and services whose business model is surveillance, I was struck with some serious itnernal conflict by a recent story about ‘Safe Lanes,’ an app for reporting cars and trucks parked in bike lanes. You see, in addition to being an academic, I am a regular bike commuter. Like other urban bicyclists in the United States, I experience a mix of exhilaration and fear on my commute where inattentive or obnoxious drivers and inadequate bike lanes can make biking feel very unsafe. I used to think risk-taking was the price of urban biking and took some pleasure in dodging cars and powering through my commute. But having racked up decades of scrapes and scares, my sense of adventure is waning. While Seattle drivers are relatively decent about giving way to bikes (it’s a pretty ‘sporty’ city after all), collisions–sometimes fatal–between cars and bikes are alarmingly routine. The city’s department of transportation has added a lot of bike lanes since I’ve lived here, but enforcement of the right of way of bikers is nearly non-existent in my experience. By way of example, an intersection by a police precinct in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood has a marked space reserved for bikes waiting for the light. That space is frequently occupied by drivers–in police cars. As I know from having had the privilege to bike in places like The Netherlands and Denmark, rigorously enforced bike lanes are a game changer for getting more people (all ages and genders) out of cars and onto bikes. The dramatic increase in bike lanes in US cities in the last few decades has been an incredible boon, but lax enforcement leaves many folks wary of using them.

Enter Safe Lanes, an app that uses smart phone hardware to capture the image and location of vehicles blocking bike lanes. The app uses technology similar to police license plate readers to identify the plate number of the car and sends this information to traffic enforcement. While options exist for bicyclists to report blocking cars through other means, like calling the police on a non-emergency number, most of us cannot be bothered to do this. It’s time-consuming, and even if one calls, there is a sense that nothing is likely to happen or not soon enough. While I am the kind of neighbor who reports litter and graffiti, calling in a parking nuisance is pretty unsatisfying. The idea of Safe Lanes is to make reporting bike lane blockers fast and easy, thereby increasing the likelihood that a report will actually lead to a ticket and maybe even change driver behavior. Even for a surveillance-averse person like me, the allure of punishing drivers who make me feel unsafe is very powerful. I was tempted.

But Safe Lanes doesn’t just stop at taking a user’s report and forwarding it to the authorities. Once a car or truck has been reported through the app, the image remains visible in the app for all Safe Lanes users to see, along with statistics about how many times a vehicle has been reported. In other words, it’s not just a reporting app but a shaming app. The persistence and display of the user-generated reports superimposed on a city map carries with it the implication that, in addition to being diligent citizens who report wrongdoing, we are also expected to join a community of fellow reporters and participate in communal rage by staring at the offending Priuses and UPS trucks reported by others with righteous indignation. And at the end of the day, Safe Lanes joins an alarming number of apps and systems that makes city streets into forums of monitoring and control. As discussed in a story about the app that appeared in CityLab, “The illusion of privacy in the public sphere may have always been an illusion, but with many more eyes and lenses trained on the streets, the age-old practice of ‘being seen’ can evolve quickly into being shared, and being stored. And perhaps being unfairly tried and convicted in the court of public opinion.”

Add to this that these apps are most likely to promote the values and worldview of a particular class of urban dweller: the much maligned “tech bros” amassing in places like Seattle, San Francisco, and other popular US cities. While the goal here, bicycle safety, is not particularly controversial or necessarily classist, it is troubling that we so easily trust some techie with programming skills with the authority to shape public behavior by releasing an app. There are myriad assumptions built into this app and its capabilities. One is that bicyclists have rights – I subscribe to that one. But let’s consider who the most likely targets of the app are: low wage ride share and delivery drivers. They are, after all, the folks whose livelihoods depend on hurrying people and passengers around on crowded city streets. I don’t want to excuse anyone making it unsafe to bike in the city; I do have actual skin in the game here, but in an age of rapidly gentrifying cities, there is something repugnant about affluent city dwellers naming and shaming people with much less social and economic power using information technology. All the ingredients are here for something that appears, at first, to be liberating for an arguably vulnerable group – bicyclists trying not to die. But it also joins an increasingly oppressive assemblage of information systems marketed to “concerned citizens” for the purpose of monitoring, shaming, and controlling others. Ugh! Safe Lanes, you had me at “improve bicycle safety,” but lost me at “participate in a surveillance dystopia in which no minor infraction goes unnoticed or unpunished.”

Perhaps this just what happens when we impoverish and abandon public institutions in favor of entrepreneurial techno-solutionism. What if, rather than hiding in our phones and relying on commercial products to mediate our participation in public life we actually spoke to each other and our elected officials – in actual public forums – where we could advocate for better bike lane enforcement, or demand money for driver education programs. What if rather than relying on apps to shame people into compliance with the behavioral paradigms imagined by technologists who happen to like biking we worked on being less suspicious and more patient with each other while also working on developing safe bicycle networks? I know, I know. This is asking a lot of humans – particularly American humans. But there has to be a better way of improving urban life than weaponizing information technology…doesn’t there?

One Nation Under Surveillance, Our Corporate Overlords, Tech and Society

Consuming Surveillance

Our consumption habits are the root cause of pervasive surveillance, the erosion of democracy, and the threat of environmental disaster. It is the main culprit driving the digital invasion that seeks to gather data about every aspect of our lives, from our browsing habits to our heartbeats. How is this so? Let me break it down. First, consider that the biggest source of surveillance for most (not all) people is advertising. All that logging, tracking, and predicting going on through the use of seemingly every device and at every transaction is designed to hone micro-targeted advertising and other forms of precision marketing. Every search, website visit, every app on your phone, that wearable device measuring your steps and your sleep, the chatty digital assistant that plays your favorite songs and dims your lights, social media (of course), your “cloud,” all these are all sites of persistent and increasing collection of what Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff calls our “behavioral surplus.” As we act in the world, the evidence of those actions is gathered up. That is the “surplus” and it contributes to what Zuboff calls a “hidden text” that describes the movements of our lives like a shadow. What is contained in that text is invisible to you and me, but luminous and valuable for others.

The reason for harvesting our behavioral surplus is to sell things – to us and to people we resemble. And not just the things we need, plus a few things we want, but an ever-increasing amount of these things. As it happens, our personal rates of consumption have been steadily increasing for at least a century. So much so, that by the end of the twentieth century, Americans were consuming more than 17 times what they did in 1900, leading us to consume, at present estimates, between one-fifth and one-third of the world’s resources despite having only about one-twentieth of the world’s people.

The United States is not alone. As many formerly low-consumption countries have become wealthier, they have dramatically increasing their consumption as well. This follows a certain logic: An increase in aggregate wealth provides the incentive for businesses to provide goods and services in what free-market fans would term a “virtuous cycle,” where profitable production creates the financial capital to pay higher wages which leads to more disposable income and demand for more goods and services. This apparent lifting of all boats might be fine if there were infinite resources to use as raw materials and as fuel for transportation and production, but there are not. Industrial growth has decimated the planet; depleting its resources, polluting the water and air, and just generally leading us to ecological disaster. And yet, we carry on as if this were not the case. The boats are indeed lifting, but only because of the runoff from melting glaciers.

But how does this lead to surveillance? The phenomenal growth in consumption has been accompanied by a similarly phenomenal growth in consumer choice. In virtually every product category, there could be dozens or even thousands of options. Each producer or service provider really wants your dollar, and they have to fight for it. Advertising is a multi-billion-dollar industry designed to help close this deal and many developments in information technology have been brought to bear as the tools of this particular trade. The development of increasingly invasive and secretive surveillance techniques to capture the minutia of our online and connected lives has been especially useful. As Zuboff tells it, Google pioneered the exploitation of behavioral surplus by employing sophisticated techniques, including artificial intelligence. First, it was to analyze search queries. Search, as we now well know, turned out to be a remarkable wellspring of information about what people think, do, and plan to do. Google’s ingenuity led the company to figure out how to go beyond merely observing our habits to making very good predictions about them. They appear to be working on plans to go further and simply command our choices through manipulating what we see and when we see it, and they are not alone. Just as Google and its parent company Alphabet have developed a wide range of quality online tools and services, from maps to translators, to word processing and data storage systems to keep tabs on us at all times, Facebook has similarly figured out how to keep us glued to our screens as a (last) means of maintaining social ties while also harvesting, and then trafficking in our behavioral surplus.

It is no coincidence that the rise in consumer surveillance has been accompanied by new and troubling forms of state surveillance. It makes sense really. Technology companies, having discovered how to write the hidden text of our lives, found a willing customer for that text in our increasingly paranoid governments. Most of the surveillance technology used by local law enforcement is bought off-the-shelf from commercial firms large and small, including Amazon. The company built to service our every consumptive whim and need, has expanded well beyond its retail position to sell all manner of surveillance equipment. In particular, the company is actively trying to corner the market in selling facial recognition systems to federal agencies, who are enthusiastic buyers. Meanwhile, recordings picked up by Alexa have found their way into criminal trials, demonstrating the effective demolition of the public/private divide through always-on, connected home devices, especially those standing by to take your retail orders. The phones we carry, the smart appliances in our homes, the vehicles we ride in, all these and more offer up the details of our lives to any buyer, public or private. Quaint concepts like search warrants and the expectation of privacy just wither away while we buy buy buy. Meanwhile, federal law enforcement has been contracting with Google, Microsoft, and other tech giants for technical services for decades. All of these companies are banking on both the commercial and governmental business opportunities made possible by the stuff they specialize in: machine learning, facial recognition, data analytics, and so on. The techniques they designed to target advertising are easily converted to techniques for even darker forms of targeting. Predicting what you’ll buy is not all that different from predicting what else you’ll do and oh-so many people want to know.

None of this is your fault of course. There are economic and social forces well beyond our individual control that have created the retail-surveillance state we now find ourselves in. What is true is that you, me, and everyone we know, were easy marks. We like want things. We crave convenience, efficiency, services, systems, tools – anything to impose order on a demanding world. Our lives are busy and our social connections have gone digital. Our health is concerning, so we track our fitness. Stores are a hassle and they’re disappearing anyway, so we shop online. There are too many movies to choose from so we let Netlflix choose. And of course, only the bravest or most stubborn among us can live without a smartphone. As we appear to gain a little space, a little human contact, a little leisure, we also lose – our privacy, our agency, and our planet. We live our life stories tucked into the bosom of our technological affordances and retail pleasures. Yet, the story of our lives only seems to be written by ourselves. The rest of the story is a second text, a hidden text.