Color of Surveillance: notes and reflections thread

This is a thread to share our thoughts from the Color of Surveillance conference happening today at Georgetown Law in DC. I am attending and so is @SymphonyBruce and @sjbrown. I can’t remember if anyone else is going but if you are please check in here!!!

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The conference was great! Awesome to see @SymphonyBruce and @sjbrown and introduce them to each other. Here are some of my thoughts from the various sessions. I am very tired on Amtrak, please bear with me!!!

500 years of surveillance of workers and poor people whirlwind

I didn’t even get the full title of this talk because it was super long and the speaker was talking super fast but it was still very good! He discussed how everything we’re seeing today has deep deep roots and has always been about control of the working classes, enforcement of moral codes, and the racialization of poverty.

Quick timeline of laws:

  • Statute of Labourers 1351
  • Elizabethan Poor Laws 1598-1601
  • Poor laws in colonial America adopted a lot of earlier British practices. All of them regulated benefits and controlled the workforce/poor.

Other key points:

  • Poverty increased during the Industrial Revolution as much as 1/3 (between 1760 and 1820)
  • Asylums began as a new means of surveillance and control, extralegal prisons for “surplus” populations, “moral” treatment, mostly women, debtors, African-Americans
  • Then you have the prevalence of workhouses/poorhouses, very crowded (easy surveillance). Around this time Bentham says “poverty is the natural state of the laboring classes”.
  • Sometime after, creation of the Freedmans Bureau for surveillance of former slaves (registry, etc)
  • Later, surveillance of trade unions through the use of the army and state power. If your city has an armory, it wasn’t created to stop a foreign invader, it was created to suppress domestic insurrections by unions. Many spies within the labor movement, Pinkertons/private surveillance.
  • Childrens Aid Society to manage “the dangerous classes of New York”. Brought children into foster care, orphan trains shipping children of immigrants (who weren’t orphaned) to new families to live under surveillance of “good Americans”.
  • “Scientific Charity” concept to increase efficiency and control under cover of kindness. Recordkeeping of the poor as a form of surveillance.
  • “Friendly visitors” - upper class whites who came into peoples houses, intruded on the poor to apply “moral suasion”
    Conclusion: the means have changed, the purpose has not.

Transaction Denied: Xena Ni
This is an artist who created a large scale installation about a lawsuit about SNAP benefits. The system that DC uses for SNAP got upgraded a few years ago for $50 million and it was a huge disaster that resulted in tons of people losing benefits. When it launched it didnt work, 70% of applicants had to wait longer than a month for their benefits to come back, people went hungry, etc. There was a total lack of accountability for this failure on the part of the contractor and the government agencies, meanwhile SNAP applicants still had to fill out 16 pages of invasive questions to even qualify for benefits. An organization called Bread for the City sued on behalf of thousands of denied applicants and this art installation was about the whole thing.
The installation used plain language signs, personal stories, and thousands of receipts representing the people affected y the outage. They also had walls where people could respond and share their own stories. 10,000 people attended over 3 days.
Lessons learned: personal stories are powerful, especially if communicated in an intimate way; choose everyday objects with emotional resonance and multiply them to communicate scale; name the causes; collaborate with and direct attention to local organizations.

** Poor People and Privacy – Mary Madden **
This was some of Mary Madden’s research from her work at Data and Society and Pew about poor people’s attitudes about privacy. She found that poor people really care about privacy and in particular need to be surveyed in these big research projects because of the unique impacts on them. Data and Society did a survey with 3000 people, oversampling low income people, and found that those people felt both hypervisible (to policing and benefits) and invisible (eg online profiles not curated enough to get jobs). They also had overlapping digital and physical privacy concerns.

Unhoused, Watched: National Cneter on homelessness and poverty
Lack of privacy for homeless people is connected to the criminalization of homelessness. They lack legal rights to challenge searches to their tents, cars, and belongings, and sacrifice privacy in “designated” areas like shelters. No one knows how many people are homeless but of the undercounted estimates 60% are POC and 40% are Black. This law center tracks the criminalization of homelessness; for example sitting or standing still is a crime in most cities. Camping and living in vehicles is a crime in most cities. In Tacoma, for example, you can’t camp with a four-walled structure (this is very common elsewhere too). There are increasing laws against living in your car. The primary driver of these laws are complaints from businesses and individuals. In Portland, Oregon in 2017, half of arrests were of homeless people. Sweeps of encampments, tow/impounding of vehicles is increasingly common. At the same time, more lip service is paid to giving homeless people a parking lot to live in or whatever, and they have to be there under penalty of law.

After this speaker there was a woman named Kelly Miller who spoke about her own experiences with homelessness and surveillance, but I didn’t take notes because my hand was hurting from writing! Maybe someone else did.

I came back 5 min late from the break and missed the beginning of the next but I think I got most of it:

Housed, Watched: Schyla Pontdexter-Moore
This is the story of a woman fighting the installation of CCTV in her housing project. The housing project started installing these cameras and residents asked the housing manager why they were being installed, who was watching, etc. They never got answers, were only told it was mandatory. This was 80+ cameras for 200 units. The technicians had to go inside their homes to install the cameras and when Pontdexter-Moore refused, the housing authority police showed up and assaulted her and her son, then later arrested them both. They installed the cameras when the family was locked up at the jail. They still haven’t gotten answers about who exactly is watching and why, their grievances with the housing authority remain unaddressed, and they are struggling to get legal help. The cameras are still up.

The class differential in privacy law – Michele Gilman

This was from a law practice representing low income people in Baltimore. She started by talking about how privacy laws were originally created for middle and upper class people, never intended for the poor. Case law example:

  • Wyman v. James 1971: Challenged constitutionality of welfare home visits. Wyman refused a home visit, was denied benefits and sued. The question was – is a welfare home visit considered a search under the 4th amendment? A 6-3 majority ruled no because “it’s consensual” (!!!). They also called welfare benefits “a charity” and the donor (!!!) has the right to see how the funds are used.
    A ProPublica investigation revealed that 39% of IRS audits in one year were just of Earned Income Tax Credit recipients (poor people). Most were in Black, Brown, and Native areas.
    Post-TANF (Clinton welfare reform), welfare home visits continue. The UN recently called all of this a digital welfare dystopia.
    The origins of the right to privacy reveal their upper class bias. Brandeis and Warren in the late 1890s were originally concerned with newspaper columnists publishing gossip or images of high society figures. Privacy torts are all based on this idea of “reasonableness” which fails poor people. Poor people have to interact with the state all the time.

The digital poorhouse - Virginia Eubanks

I was so excited to hear from the author of Automating Inequality and she did not disappoint!
She talked about the rise of the county poorhouse and connected it to the digital poorhouse, both of which serve to extract labor and dollars from the poorest.
1819 – depression, financial catastrophe, what did the elites do in response? they commissioned a study!

Studies asked: is the real problem poverty or “pauperism” – dependence on public services. And the answer they came up with won’t surprise you!
In response to these studies they invented poorhouses to incarcerate the poor as a condition for receiving benefits. If you went to the poorhouse, you gave up the right to vote and hold office (if you even had it) and the right to marry. Your children were taken from you and hired out as servants. Poorhouse death rates were up to 30% a year. They built more than 1000 of these around the US (intended more but they were soon realized as a failure).
This is the origin of the deep social programming tools of today. They decide who is deserving and undeserving, connect poverty management to the carceral state. The tools automate austerity (the lie that there isn’t enough for everybody) and create feedback loops of oppression. They make racist assumptions about what makes a safe family and build that into the tools. And the digital tools force an “empathy override” when you might get empathy with a real human.
The original poorhouses made conditions so bad in order to force people to take any kind of work instead. For profit farms used poorhouse labor for extractive profit.

Then we went to lunch and missed one session and came back when the next was already underway so I missed a lot and didn’t take notes (it was about migrant worker surveillance).

Surveillance of truckers: multiple speakers
I loved this one! The first speaker was the author of Semi-Queer, about the lives of trans and queer truckers. Why are there so many of them? Middle of nowhere lifestyle is appealing to a lot of marginalized people. However, these vulnerable workers are also submitted to more surveillance. Lots of AI and monitoring systems in use on the truckers themselves, including incremental timeclocks (hours of service) that force them to complete jobs in specific short intervals of time. There is also tons of waiting time as a trucker, and you aren’t paid for it. They basically make piecework wages, and this is all legal because theyre classified under the Department of Transportation, not the Department of Labor, and therefore lack basic worker protections.
Lots of the tech they’re subjected to is under the guise of “safety” and yet it all increases their pressure and speed and trucking is increasingly one of the unsafest professions. New tech has brought an increase in fatalities due to no flexibility in time.

Most of the conversation about automation/AI and trucking is about self-driving cars but we aren’t even close to that. Where the AI is is in monitoring truckers. What does AI look like in trucking today? Cameras in cabs trained on faces to detect tiredness, brainwave detection, heartrate detection. Narrative of driver safety not only actually makes drivers less safe but shifts liability onto the drivers. Only about 8% of truckers are unionized because of Taft Hartley, Janus, etc.

Technology and the Labor Process at Amazon – Brishen Rogers

Modern labor practices:

  • Automation, especially of skilled work
  • Neo-Taylorism: breakdown complex processes to de-skill
  • Algorithmic management: monitoring pace, automating discipline
  • Data-driven fissuring: outsourcing, but closely supervising through tech

Amazon does all of the above!!! Lots of this can be seen in the expansion of their warehouse labor. In the last few years, warehousing is the only area of the services sector that has increased productivity, (shitty) jobs, and hours.

Surveillance Ain’t Safety – Tawana Petty

This was a very short talk/poem but she did say one thing that I wrote down:

Detroiters want to be seen, not watched.

From Decarceration to E-Carceration – multiple speakers

State supervision (probation, electronic monitoring) is exploding as mass incarceration is on the decline. Electronic monitoring has increased 140% in the last decade. E-monitoring restricts job opportunities because of inability to travel or be flexible about time. Also people have to pay for the devices themselves.

ICE used GPS monitoring to plan a raid on workers fighting for better conditions.

I think I was too tired to take notes much more after that. I took a 5 am Amtrak!!! Thanks for dealing with my messy notes!


I get this rushing sound in my ears sometimes and realize again for the first time that things are not as they seem
thanks for this; put ‘Semi-Queer’ on hold…

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oh hey this book looks good. read a few zines about punk truck drivers. will def check this out too!

This is making me think about the tension and unfairness that may come from un housed folks trying to get access to a library system that requires proof of address. when and if denied access to the library, it’s just another instance of a publicly funded resource making people feel invisible. i don’t really know why the policy for getting a library card differs so much branch by branch/state by state - will try to look into it.

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They basically make piecework wages, and this is all legal because theyre classified under the Department of Transportation, not the Department of Labor, and therefore lack basic worker protections.

What? Seriously? HOW?

I’m so overwhelmed by what I just read… I don’t know how your brain could process all of that in a day. This has given me so much to think about & so much to look further into.

honestly my head hurts today!

also I don’t know the origin of the DOT classification stuff but it might be something interesting to look into.