Good after­noon, MozFest. I’m Simone, and I research and think about and some­times write about sur­veil­lance, and also teach at the University of Texas at Austin. The way I approach sur­veil­lance can be encap­su­lat­ed in this image right here. 

This is a screen cap of a video from 2009. It is of Desi Cryer and Wanda Zamen. They call them­selves Black Desi and White Wanda in the video. And they’re two work­ers at a camp­ing store in Texas who are test­ing out a new HP facial auto­mat­ed track­ing sys­tem with the com­put­er. And one of the things that hap­pens in this video is that Black Desi says, Watch what hap­pens when my black­ness enters the frame.” And he’s talk­ing about the cam­er­a’s seem­ing inabil­i­ty to fol­low him or to pan or to zoom and fol­low his face. But when White Wanda gets in there, the facial track­ing sys­tem works. And so this ques­tion of what hap­pens when black­ness enters the frame can kind of neat­ly encap­su­late the ways I’ve been think­ing and try­ing to talk about sur­veil­lance for the last few years.

And so for exam­ple there is this. In 1966, Marie Van Brittan Brown, a nurse liv­ing in Queens, New York along with her hus­band Albert L. Brown invent­ed what they called a home secu­ri­ty sur­veil­lance sys­tem. This was 1966 CCTV. So Marie Van Brittan Brown was a nurse, and she would often trav­el home late at night.

It was quite intri­cate there. It con­sist­ed of a door­bell of that she could unlock the door from her bed, audio inter­com, and you can see this as a pre­cur­sor to mod­ern video door­bells or oth­er types of home sur­veil­lance systems.

And so I kind of also can see from the dia­gram the rob­ber there— Well, you can tell it’s a rob­ber I guess because of the striped shirt and the sparsely-populated beard and the hat. So you could almost think of it as a kind of abo­li­tion­ist tech­nol­o­gy. She was real­ly con­cerned about the slow police response to Queens and their home when­ev­er peo­ple would call in cas­es of emer­gency. And so this do-it-yourself take on sur­veil­lance is one of the ways that I think about how black wom­en’s work has been absent­ed from sur­veil­lance technologies—how we think about them, how we the­o­rize them, and in this case how they are cre­at­ed. So one of the key things I do is I ask how our past can allow us to think crit­i­cal­ly about our present.

And so on this is an image from a law from New York City in the 1700s. They’re lantern laws that required that black, mixed-race, or indige­nous peo­ple, if they were to walk around the city after dark and they weren’t in the com­pa­ny of some white per­son, they would need to have with them a lit lantern as they moved about the city. If not, they could be tak­en up, arrest­ed, and put in the gaols until some own­er” will come and get them. They could also be sub­ject to beatings.

So this makes light a sur­veil­lance device, a super­vi­so­ry device, but it also cre­at­ed cer­tain humans as the light­ing infra­struc­ture of the city. And so I took this to think about 200 years lat­er or so, we have omnipresent polic­ing prac­tices where light is used. High-intensity flood­lights are shone into peo­ple homes as a form of sur­veil­lance, as a form of pro­tect­ing and light­ing up cer­tain spaces.

And so you see here this image is some­body who had took to Instagram to talk about the violence—thinking about the noise pol­lu­tion or the sound pol­lu­tion that comes from a large gen­er­a­tor. So just this sum­mer, the American Medical Association put out a warn­ing on the effects of LED lights [via], high-intensity lights in the city, that might have effects in terms of chang­ing humans’ car­diac rhyth­mic­i­ty, intense glare, and also heart palpitations.

And so when I think about how the past allows us to ask crit­i­cal ques­tions about our present, I think about this light­ing tech­nol­o­gy, this infra­struc­ture, and the ways that 300 years ear­li­er in New York City, black, indige­nous, and mixed-race peo­ple were called upon or instruct­ed to car­ry lanterns with them as they moved about after dark. And you can think about what type of human life is val­ued as, or deval­ued as, infrastructure.

So for exam­ple in Austin, Texas in 2012 at the South by Southwest Festival, one com­pa­ny took it upon them­selves to cre­ate home­less hotspots, where peo­ple who were made home­less or under­housed were fit­ted with WiFi devices so that they could then be home­less hotspots for peo­ple who need­ed to have their tech read­i­ly available.

You have anoth­er way in which light is used as a form of dis­ci­pline. In cer­tain cities like Durham, North Carolina and also Tampa, Florida, there are ordi­nances put in place that man­date that peo­ple who are pan­han­dling or flier­ing are sup­posed to wear phos­pho­res­cent or glow-in-the-dark vests if they are to do so.

And so anoth­er thing that I looked at when I think about sur­veil­lance is the ways in which black women nego­ti­ate the TSA—the hair search­es as they go through the air­port. And they start with this: Solange Knowles, sis­ter of Beyoncé, took to Twitter a few years ago to com­plain about the discrim-fro-nation that she—when she was sub­ject­ed to a hair search by the TSA. And so you see that this social media site becomes the site of cri­tique of state prac­tices. And many oth­ers con­tin­ue to do so. They point to the ACLUs, they tell each oth­er to know their rights, and also form a gen­er­al­ized cri­tique of sur­veil­lance by way of Twitter and oth­er sites.

But I’m going to return to Black Desi and White Wanda to talk about bio­met­ric tech­nol­o­gy. You can think of bio­met­rics as doing a few things. They could be used for identification—so who are you in the face in the crowd, or even if you’re enrolled in a par­tic­u­lar bio­met­ric data­base. They could also be used for verification—so answer­ing the ques­tion Are you who you say you are?” And also could be used for automa­tion, in the case of Black Desi and White Wanda. So automation—is any­one there? And I looked at ear­li­er uses of bio­met­ric tech­nol­o­gy to see the ways in which peo­ple crit­i­cal­ly engaged and chal­lenged this mark­ing of iden­ti­ty on the body. 

One of the ways that I do that is to his­tori­cize bio­met­rics through think­ing about the brand­ing of enslaved peo­ple. This is a carte de vis­ite of Wilson Chinn from the 1860s. And you can see around his neck he has a met­al col­lar. It’s called a long­horn. What you can’t see in this image is on his fore­head he has a brand, VBM” brand­ed on his fore­head. And so he lib­er­at­ed him­self and escaped from slav­ery, but seem­ing­ly with this brand it was impos­si­ble to escape this mark­ing on his fore­head. And you can think about this mark­ing as a trau­mat­ic head injury. And this is not to say that brand­ing of enslaved peo­ple and bio­met­rics tech­nol­o­gy are one and the same, but it’s to ask crit­i­cal ques­tions about how bio­met­rics, if you think it’s sim­ply as body mea­sure­ment, has been applied and used and resist­ed historically.

Whites Only?”; YouTube user Teej Meister

And so we have this image from a screen­grab from last year of a sink that seem­ing­ly did not work for dark hands but worked for light hands. 

Jacky Alciné, Twitter

Or we have this image here, also from last year, of anoth­er automa­tion tech­nol­o­gy where some­one had uploaded images of his friend to a Google pho­to tag­ging or pho­to iden­ti­fi­ca­tion site, and [which] con­tin­u­al­ly cat­e­go­rized his friend, a black woman, as a goril­la. And so we have to con­tin­ue to think about what kind of train­ing data is used to pop­u­late these types of technologies.

I’m going to close with this right here. So, a cou­ple of weeks ago at the Georgetown University law school, they released a 150-page report on bio­met­rics and facial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­o­gy. One of the things that they found in this report is that in the US, over half of adult Americans have their bio­met­ric facial fea­tures in a database—one or more—that can be accessed by the police. And you can find this at www​.per​pet​u​alline​up​.org.

And so, when we think about the ways that the busi­ness end of sur­veil­lance meets the busi­ness end of polic­ing, I want us to con­tin­ue to be crit­i­cal about bio­met­ric tech­nol­o­gy, about algo­rithms, and who holds the pro­pri­etary data when peo­ple’s bod­ies, and parts and pieces of their bod­ies, or per­for­mances of their bodies—their biometrics—are held by—whether it’s Facebook or whether it is oth­er types of sites and policing.

So what I will do is close right here. But I will close with the ques­tion that I start­ed with to think crit­i­cal­ly about what hap­pens when black­ness enters the frame. Because I think it offers us some pro­duc­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties for our future. Thank you.

Sarah Marshall: So, any­body got any ques­tions for Simone?

Audience 1: Seeta Peña Gangadharan, London School of Economics. So I real­ly enjoyed your talk. Thank you so much. I think it’s real­ly impor­tant that these kinds of con­ver­sa­tions are had in a set­ting that is his­tor­i­cal­ly not inclu­sive of con­ver­sa­tions about race and the inter­sec­tion of race and tech­nol­o­gy. So thank you.

But one of the things that I’m won­der­ing about—because as Sarah had said when she intro­duced you that you’re sort of at the inter­sec­tion of pri­va­cy, secu­ri­ty, and dig­i­tal inclu­sion. I was just won­der­ing if you could expand upon the third aspect of that, dig­i­tal inclu­sion, and maybe touch upon some of these pos­i­tive or trans­for­ma­tive things that you were allud­ing to at the end of your talk with your provoca­tive question.

Simone Browne: Okay. So I think that the TSA exam­ple of peo­ple talk­ing to TSA is trans­for­ma­tive. Someone link­ing on Twitter to the Know Your Rights cam­paign is talk­ing about not only using these tech­nolo­gies to think about what hap­pens with the secu­ri­ty the­ater in an air­port. And so I think of myself as more of a gad­fly. I think we have a par­tic­u­lar set of skills, and mine is not—you know, I’m not one of the peo­ple that are cre­at­ing or devel­op­ing these tech­nolo­gies. So I left with that thing about what hap­pens when black­ness enters the frame, and I think that black women using their Twitter to for­mu­late a cri­tique of the state is about inclusion—using the dig­i­tal to have a more equi­table kind of way in which we move through an air­port space.

And so my sug­ges­tion is not to say well, let’s teach young black girls how to code so that they could be more eas­i­ly exploit­ed when they get old­er into the dig­i­tal labor force. But to con­tin­ue to have these types of dis­cus­sions about what’s at stake when 50% of American adults have their face in a data­base that is acces­si­ble to the police, and when we think about the over- and hyper-policing of black peo­ple and peo­ple of col­or with­in the US and glob­al­ly, what does this mean for the ways in which bio­met­rics could be linked to crim­i­nal­iza­tion practices. 

Marshall: Good ques­tion. Anybody else got a ques­tion for Simone? Yes, I can see a gen­tle­man at the back. 

Audience 2: So, a cou­ple of the exam­ples you gave—the sink, the facial recog­ni­tion algo­rithm, and I think I read that Microsoft Kinect has faced sim­i­lar issues—are quite obvi­ous­ly not mal­ice, most like­ly, but rather… Microsoft, for exam­ple, in the Kinect case said, Well, we test­ed it on our employ­ees who were like 95% white.” So obvi­ous­ly it’s clear that when test­ing these things, things like QA depart­ments will have to say, We can’t do every­thing. Some peo­ple are hand­i­capped. They might be hard to rec­og­nize if they’re facial­ly deformed or some­thing like that. But there’s a bunch of races and things like that that obvi­ous­ly there’s a lot of peo­ple that are going to be using this. We should be test­ing with that.” Do you see a change in that? Do you see com­pa­nies being more aware of this when they’re work­ing on biometrics?

Browne: Yeah. And I think there’s a lot of capac­i­ty with how these com­pa­nies do and cre­ate and research and devel­op these things, so I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have the knowl­edge to track whether there’s a change. But it seems to me that the way that the white body becomes read as the default set­ting or pro­duced as neu­tral, as a kind of pro­to­typ­i­cal white­ness, con­tin­ues to hap­pen. And so you would have some­one use YouTube to say that a sink does­n’t work in 2015. Or in 2009 say that the cam­era does­n’t work. Or Kinect, or the one with the goril­la in 2015

So every year or so, it seems that the same type of white neu­tral­i­ty seems to be used as the kind of pro­to­typ­i­cal body when devel­op­ing these things. And so it comes to the con­sumer or the users to use a place like Instagram, or Twitter, or Facebook to offer a cri­tique of who’s enter­ing the con­ver­sa­tions and the devel­op­ment of these tech­nolo­gies. And so per­haps it might not nec­es­sar­i­ly be the con­sumer’s job to show peo­ple how anti-black these tech­nolo­gies are.

Marshall: And to pick up on your point, then, part of the prob­lem is diver­si­ty in tech­nol­o­gy, in the work force, do you feel?

Browne: Yeah, I guess it could be diver­si­ty. But we could have a diverse amount of peo­ple and we could still have an anti-black frame into how these things are devel­oped. So I think it needs diver­si­ty but also equi­ty as well.

Marshall: Okay, any oth­er ques­tions for Simone? I have one more ques­tion I’m eager to ask. In your university—I mean, you’re here talk­ing to a bunch of tech­nol­o­gists, large­ly. And I’m guess­ing that the sub­jects you teach back in Austin, I’m guess­ing that you’re main­ly not talk­ing to tech­nol­o­gists. Or do you talk to tech­nol­o­gists about this, too?

Browne: Yeah. So, I have a vari­ety of stu­dents in my class, from elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing to wom­en’s stud­ies and also black stud­ies. And so we can come togeth­er in a quite col­lab­o­ra­tive and inter­dis­ci­pli­nary way to talk about these tech­nolo­gies, yeah.

Marshall: Great. Okay, if there are no fur­ther ques­tions then let’s thank Simone.

Browne: Thanks so much.

Marshall: Thank you.

Further Reference

MozFest 2016 web site