05 May 2015


'Mediating the Med. Surveillance and Counter-Surveillance at the Southern Borders of Europe' by Huub Dijstelbloem comments
Opening up the political dimensions of surveillance and counter-surveillance 'mystery guests' as well. These invited guests work for the airport, directly or indirectly, and their task is to test security measures. Schiphol also receives uninvited guests trying to test their level of security. One of the best known of these is SBS reporter Alberto Stegeman, who regularly tries to prove that security measures at Schiphol are inadequate; by successfully forging a KLM ID-card for instance. Less well known perhaps is the case of the American artist Rozalinda Borcila. As part of her project Geography lessons, she aimed 'to intervene in apparently controlled spaces that are policed through technologies of visualization and information management' (Amoore 2009, 26). Unfortunately, she was deported after being caught making videos of Schiphol's airport security.
The undercover guests acting on behalf of Schiphol itself are mainly an internal business affair, but Stegeman's activities are part of the regular undercover media repertoire. Borcila's case, however, touches upon a different category of action. Hers is neither just a form of civil disobedience nor of artistic expression. Instead, her project relates to a type of political question, and to reflection on the public and private side of technologies and their role in the inclusion and exclusion of citizens and aliens in today's mobility circus. In contrast to the surveillance regime of the airport, she performs a certain kind of counter-surveillance.
As a category of all kinds of empirical examples, counter-surveillance concerns a broad spectrum of forms and meanings, varying from initiatives of so called 'inverse surveillance' or 'sousveillance' (Mann, Nolan and Wellman. 2003) and the development of apps to support migrants, to initiatives in radical geography concerned with mapping and counter-mapping. As a concept, counter-surveillance is related to both a culture of resistance and to a broader account of the role of protest and the control of state power in liberal democracies
An adequate definition to start with is Monahan's (2006, 516), which defined counter-surveillance as 'intentional, tactical uses, or disruptions of surveillance technologies to challenge institutional power asymmetries'. He explained that such activities can include 'disabling or destroying surveillance cameras, mapping paths of least surveillance and disseminating that information over the Internet, employing video cameras to monitor sanctioned surveillance systems and their personnel, or staging public plays to draw attention to the prevalence of surveillance in society' (Monohan, 515).
Monohan has investigated different kinds of interventions in the technical and the social faces of public surveillance. He has described initiatives of the Institute of Applied Autonomy (IAA), a collective of technicians, artists, and activists engaged in projects in 'productive disruption and collective empowerment' and of the group RTMark which advocates a more radical and direct approach - namely destroying cameras. In addition, he has analysed Steve Mann's Shooting Back project, which utilizes high-tech devices to take video footage of security personnel, and the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP), a New York based, ad hoc acting group. The analysis led him to the conclusion that 'current modes of activism tend to individualize surveillance problems and methods of resistance, leaving the institutions, policies, and cultural assumptions that support public surveillance relatively insulated from attack'.
Although Monohan's definition creates a certain kind of sensitivity for what counter-surveillance is about, his conclusion leaves room for some questions. To say that Borcila's project at Schiphol did not touch upon the 'institutions, policies, and cultural assumptions that support public surveillance' suggests that something important has not been taken into account. To clarify the kind of political space that was opened up by her project - and the kind of political realm that has been created by many other forms of counter-surveillance to which I will refer in this chapter - we also need to open up the concepts of both surveillance and of counter-surveillance in order to better understand their meaning and their mutual interaction.
The concept of surveillance is usually applied to state activities and technologies that aim to register and control certain populations (e.g. Foucault). However, as Rosanvallon (2008) clarified, the concept of surveillance has historically referred to the initiatives of citizens to control state power as well. According to him, 'surveillance constitutes a hidden and protean aspect of modern politics' as does the inverse phenomenon; namely the surveillance of power by society (2008, 31-32). In this chapter, I will focus on this democratic dimension, and share 'counter-surveillance' under the umbrella of what Rosanvallon called the 'counter-democracy', i.e. all forms of controlling governmental power. As such, 'counter-surveillance' is rooted in liberal democracies both historically and conceptually.
By opening up the notions of surveillance and counter-surveillance, more insight can be gained into what exactly is at stake in the confrontations between state initiatives to protect borders against unwelcome migrants, and the actions of various groups to create more public awareness of today's border drama; to circulate information about it, to visualize it, to make it a public issue, to protest against it, to sabotage it or to use it as an opportunity to mobilize public support for migrants and to take care of them. This chapter is structured in the following way. Section 2 will deal with three transformations seen by Europe's borders and the resulting surveillance regime. Section 3 will present some examples of counter-surveillance as initiated by a number of European NGOs, activist groups and researchers which react and reflect on these transformations and aim to 'mediate the Mediterranean', i.e. they visualize the Med as a place of contestation that not only seems to consist of a humanitarian drama, but of a technologically mediated drama of conflicting representations as well. In addition, I will introduce an analytical framework based on Pierre Rosanvallon's account of counter-democracy as to understand the conceptual, historical and political background of counter-surveillance. In section 4, I will use Rosanvallon's notion of 'powers of oversight' to evaluate current initiatives of counter-surveillance. Section 5 continues the search for the political dimension of public actions related to surveillance by elaborating on the writings of Hannah Arendt, specifically on the idea of a 'portable public realm' (Ring 1991) apparent in her work. Using Louise Amoore's (2009) notion of 'lines of sight', section 6 investigates the nature of the representations, such as images and maps, that both surveillance and counter-surveillance provide us with. The last section, section 7, presents the conclusions