Watch out: you’re on candid camera

Public surveillance in Canada is a forefront issue for Nandita Biswas Mellamphy, a professor of critical and radical political theory at the University of Western Ontario.

By Rachael Kelly

Smile for the cameras: hidden cameras located in downtown Halifax. (Rachael Kelly/Peninsula News).
Smile for the cameras: not-so hidden cameras located in downtown Halifax. (Rachael Kelly/Peninsula News)

Public surveillance in Canada is a forefront issue for Nandita Biswas Mellamphy, a professor of critical and radical political theory at the University of Western Ontario.

In her lecture for the contemporary studies department at the University of King’s College Friday titled “The New ‘P.R.’: Posthuman Rationality in War, Cognition and Culture,” Mellamphy touched on ideas of politics, technology and emerging digital frameworks that collect, record and archive data.

[pullquote] “Think of your cellphone as having eyes, ears and skin. It’s listening and watching as you touch it.”  – Nandita Biswas Mellamphy [/pullquote]

Between closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras and metadata caches (outputs from cellphones, tablets, email accounts, etc.), information is being collected from the average Canadian 24/7 in regards to their website browsing, online shopping and social media practices.

“We should think of our devices like camouflaged operatives. They’re spies,” said Mellamphy, who emphasizes that devices collect data even when turned off. “They have agencies. They have intelligence. They’re not just inert objects.”

Increased used of CCTV cameras could be a part of Canada’s future, said Mellamphy, because Canada is “already enmeshed in policies and paradigms that are motivating cyber-terrorist legislation. Canada can’t deviate from what the big powerful nations are doing.

“This (surveillance state) is a global phenomenon.”

A lone camera on the side of a building in downtown Halifax. (Rachael Kelly/Peninsula News)
A lone camera on the side of a building in downtown Halifax. (Rachael Kelly/Peninsula News)

CCTV and the HRM

The HRM has installed more than 200 cameras throughout the city on street corners and public travel terminals for buses and ferries to “ensure greater security for its passengers and operators,” according to the HRM website. Supt. Sean Auld, with Halifax Regional Police, says there are no plans to add more cameras downtown.

Mellamphy says she doesn’t believe that the implementation of CCTV cameras leads to increased safety at all. In fact, she refers to these cameras as “cunning” and “predatory” devices that increase the power of the state over the individual.

“In the ‘free world,’ we seem to be fine with being surveilled all the time in the name of security. But the actual fact is that I don’t think having CCTV cameras makes us more secure. In fact, what it does is make us more insecure because we are constantly reminded of all the dangers out there. It’s the politics of fear,” said Mellamphy.

Because of technology’s constant recording potential, Mellamphy doesn’t own a cellphone – it’s her “little act of resistance.” But she knows she’s still on the grid. Her tablet and email account make sure of that.

“I wouldn’t be able to do my job without email. These technologies force us into their nets because we have to make a living. Societies are about control in many ways, but in our society, this tool of subjection is also a tool of freedom for us. It’s kind of a confusing thing.”

Technological surveillance: for and against

Emma Reid, a contemporary studies major who attended Mellamphy’s lecture, agrees that people should be careful when using these devices.

“I think we treat [technology] as something we objectively control, when it’s a much more symbiotic relationship. I don’t know if we stop and think about its capabilities and influence as much as we should,” said Reid.

Erica Guy, a second-year student at the University of King’s College, doesn’t have such a black or white stance on the issue.

“Part of me thinks [the cameras] are unnecessary because there are so many other forms of surveillance out there,” said Guy. “But then again, what if someone was attacked downtown and the police were better able to help that person because the attack was caught on camera? Then who wouldn’t want them?”