Panel: Where People and the Surveillance Society Collide


Note from a session at Computers, Freedom, and Privacy May 2, 2007



Lillie: new surveillance society is a mix of governmanl and private sytems and technologies, linked together.


Mara: NCTE is a social justice organization working on national policy issues relate to transgender people. It’s becoming increasingly evident that identity and documentation is of primary importance to transgender people.


Something that’s important to me and our organization is the need to be ‘out’. Some of us do well; others lose jobs, family members, health benefits. That being said, privacy really is autonomy for transgender people. Privacy is safety, both physical and economic; without safety, it’s hard to be autonomous. A lot of us are out so that people who can’t or don’t want to be out don’t have to be.




Topics I’ll cover:



Identification documentation: it matters not just what it says, but also what it refers to. “Imagine how my mother feels about me being out of the country with a passport that’s stamped on it “on Feb 13, 2003, this passport was changed to correct the gender from male to female”” I’m safe going to Canada, somewhat less so in the US; other countries, I’m not safe. In the US, at least one person a month is acknowledged to be murdered for being transgendered. Economically, too: we get calls from people who have lost or be denied jobs; in SF (the post trans-positive city), 50% of trans people are unemployed or have ‘fragile’ jobs.


Real ID act is viewed as one of the biggest problems in the transgender community in the US. Documentation is increasingly hard to get, especially for certain kinds of people (low-income, elderly, transgender, immigrant); and you need it for more and more things: starting a bank account, buying cigarettes … gender is recorded on the driver’s license; the fact of a name change is recorded on the 2d barcode – Mark to Mara, for me. Not sure about the gender change, but this is certainly in the database . Every time you go to a bar, you’re outed; in an airport. Maybe not such a big issue in a big city; what about in a small town – or where you know the TSA agent’s family?


Travel is increasingly difficult for trans people. I’ve never had any problems, but many people at conferences say with astonishment … you travel? The TSA has a policy on how to interact with “helper monkeys” (service animals); we haven’t gotten them release guidelines for transgender people.


Passports are becoming increasingly difficult for transgender people to secure. The question everybody focuses on is “has you had the surgery?” Only 5% have had surgery; a lot don’t want it, or are surgery-phobic, or don’t think that what’s between your legs defines your gender, or have one of the many medical contra-indications – and it’s very expensive. The argument we’re trying to make is two-fold; first of all, there’s no security interest in regarding me as male; secondly, it’s a privacy violation to require a letter fro the surgeon – we’re not having a lot of luck. Scatter-back XRay machines at airports scare us greatly; it’s not just creepy to expose our genitals, it’s dangerous.


Employment verification: database matching, which monitors immigrants, cause problems for trans people whether or not they’re immigrants. If there are inconsitencies, employers get non-match letters – it’s supposed to be only for name and SSN; there’s an optional data field for gender because “what’s the harm in that”, and so if the employer includes this, they’ll get a non-match letter on the gender mismatch: “please verify”. I had a heartbreaking letter from a trans man working in the steel industry who got outed this way after 20 years: his supervisor came up to him with this letter saying “the social security administration says you’re a woman – deal with it”. If you call the phone verification system, operators are taught to ask for gender.


Health privacy: a nightmare. We’re turned away from hospitals all the time. I got a call from a transgender nursing student (living stealth) who asked what to do with transgender people, and the instructor said “oh, when I was in New York in the ER, we just let those freaks die”. Prescription records are also important; for example, if my old male records are matched up …


RFID: People can see you’re transgendered from 30 meters away. We’re really freaked out about RFID health information implanted in people. Several years ago, a transgender person was in a car accident in DC … EMT people and bystanders stood and laughed. Ditto for passports. Even RFID chips in clothing put us at risk.


Data permanence: my friend Rick went to a hospital, they asked him what he was taking; he was on testerone … he was explaining this to the city council, and finally to make it clear he said “I am a man with no penis”. The paper printed it; it’s now the top google hit. Susan Stanton “I can’t get an erection”. A friend found a transcript from her parents’ family court proceeding identifying her as transgender when she was ten. Another friend, transitioned in the 70s, found a shoplifting condition from when she was 11; they also found another person who had used the SSN … “we found three people using this SSN, you, a male, this other person … it’s too much; you’re fired.”


Russell : I am 1047689. (The number has been changed to protect the innocent – me.) This number identifies everything about me: a Mohawk, my family, my children.


Akwasasne is about 60 miles from Montreal – 13,000 Mohawks, scattered on islands, spanning the US/Canadian border. Spans five separate jurisdictional districts: Ontario, Quebec, New York. Going from one Canadian residential district to another, you need to go through the US. Visiting your family becomes an international affair: “Where are you going, how long are you going to be there, what are you transporting, can I look in your bag, please open your trunk”. Ditto going to work. It’s anywhere between 15 minutes and 90 mnutes … it makes for a long day.


Different districts have different policies. For example, a child wearing a bicycle is legal in one area, different in another.


The most disturbing aspect is that we’re being profiled. As you go over bridges, you can clearly see surveillance cameras.


There’s a Canadian customs agency on Cornwall island; there’s a lot of resentment. We wonder why they put the line in the middle of of our community; it smacks of Berlin.


If I want a building to be serviced in Snye, Quebec, the servicement need to come from Cornwall Island Ontario. It takes them a couple of hours to get through the border – and time is money, so it costs me extra.


We were here before the US and Canada, before there were any lines on the map; when they drew the lines, they said “they’re not for you”; and yet….


I do not like the process of being criminalized.


The Americans say “we’re doing this for border protection.” But is this really necessary? Do we need this surveillance – or are there other possibilities.


We have an open case with the Canadian Human Rights Commission with the abuses we have to deal with – especially the young people. When my daughter shows up driving my nice car, she gets an extra amount of questioning from the customs guards. True, there has been a lot of movement of contraband; is profiling the answer? In one case, they tried to force a young woman who was pregnant through an XRay machine; when she said no, they tried to physically force her. People in line came to her assistance; there was almost an international incident.


Issues like this come up from time to time. We try to convince the community that the government isn’t trying to burden you – but it’s a difficult sell, when the government is putting up razor wire. The American guards are generally easier to deal with; the Canadians seem to have more of an attitude.


For us, scrutiny – and an overbearing amount of security measures – is an unavoidable fact of daily life. When I leave today, I’ll be subjected to the usual questions: where did you go, what did you do?


I have a Canadian passport, even though I identify as a Mohawk – a much older nation. Our passports aren’t recognized. My wife was born in Indiana; so she needs to get an American passport – even though she’s never lived in the US. When she applies for a passport, she’s encouraged to lie: she has special status.


The system doesn’t work for us. There are too many rules; we fall through the cracks. For many years, we’ve been trying to build our own sets of rules; we call it a nation-building process. We view it that we have responsibilities to the US an Canada to work with them as their societies develop. We need to work together, to apply the Law of Peace. We’re mandated to do this as a people; and we’re also mandated to look seven generations into the future. I think we all need to look at something like that.


We have foun that when we exercise the highest degree of autonomy, we achieve the greatest success. So we’ll continue this.


I grew up in a time when privacy wasn’t an issue. Now society has changed so much. It is difficult to do so many things because the web of rules has tightened so much. Our pharmacist buys things from Ontario; his store is in Quebec; he travels through New York … he has to have certification from all three.


We’re looking to move forward and establish partnerships. Always extend your hand in friendship and peace; I’m happy to do that here. Please come visit sometime if you ever have the opportunity – I‘m sure you’ll find it a very progressive community.


Dave – I used to write for Washington City Paper, an alternative weekly. I covered crime; last year I was at a low-income housing project on an unrelated story. I was talking with a 9-year-old boy whose apartment complex had been refurbished; how did he like it? A lot – except that the cameras and speakers were telling him what to do. I didn’t understand what he was talking about; his mother, very involved with the tenant board, told me that a new state-of-the-art security system had been put in that came with speakers as well as cameras. The operators issued commands over speakers if they thought people were violating the codes.


One mother, Alicia Robertson, told me that her children were playng outside the apartment. “Hey you in the red shirt, step away fro the window, this is private property – you’re under surveillance.” Same for her nieces and nephews.


There were a series of buildings looking out over the courtyards, with cameras over each door. It’s a Section 8 low-income complex in an area that’s rapidly gentrifying.


People were being scolded for various offenses, most commonly for “loitering” on the steps – which kicked off a semantic debate because they lived there. You kind of take it for granted that you’ve got the right to have a cigarette


The management company Edgewood out of suburban Maryland didn’t want to give a lot of information away, but I found two other low-income complexes where they had put similar systems in place in DC. From what I can gather, they’re watching screens for multiple properties at their headquarters in Maryland.


I called Lillie, because I had a feeling that privacy folks might have something to say. She told me about the panopticon. The idea was that you wouldn’t know that you were being watched, so you’d toe the line all the time. What I was seeing at this complex was a real-life panopticon.


It was obvious why this was being done: it was a cheap way to handle security. One guard could be watching multiple complexes – and didn’t even have to watch all the time. Sure enough, people adjusted their behavior since they didn’t know when they were being watched.


Somebody at the company told me that the company had these systems in about 10% of their 130 properties.


In the UK, ABC did a story about Middleborough. “I borrowed a bike and rode down a street. Suddenly, a tinny voice came over the mike. ‘Could the gentleman in the brown jacket please dismount?’ I did, and the voice said ‘thank you’”


In another complex in DC, a teenage girl ignored several directives to get off the block, at which point the voice said “get your fat ass off the corner” – in front of all her friends. I’m sure she’ll remember that for the rest of her life.


There’s a bit of a race dynamic. A number of people told me that the believe the voices are white. A lot of people have been in this complex for 20+ years; to suddenly have a system put in place where it sounds lke white folks are telling you needd to do can be disconcerting.


When groups of people milling about ignored directives to disperse, they’d play music: “Bad Boys”, the reggae song from cops. “Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do when the cops show up” (or something like that), threatening the police woul show up


The company told me to expect more of that. They told me “we’re gonna do this in luxury complexes too”, although the cynical side of me says “yeah right”.  Some people make the argument that “you always have the right to move if you don’t like it”, but that’s a little tricky on Section 8 – there’s a long waiting list.


More generally, last year was a big year in DC. The department put up 48 cameras; there’s nobody watching them, they just record, hoping that police can go to the video if a crime happens. Also happening in Baltimore (100+ cameras), Chicago. DC has a very high crime rate. Last summer, after 14 homicides in two weeks, our police chief declared a crime emergency – happens every summer, people call it the “annual crime emergency”.


Most of the early cameras went into poorer neighborhoods where crime was more prevelant. A lot of ambivalence; young people tend to despise them, many (especially older) feel safer, a lot of people don’t care, the police love them. When they were talking about puttng up cameras in the capitol area a couple years ago, a lot of council members expressed privacy concerns; in response to crime, there was a lot less opposition – the most recent vote was 9-2 in favor of the cameras.


It’s hard to look at the data. In Chicago and Baltimore, they’ve rarely captured violent crime – which is the idea. In Baltimore, 40% of the cases that were brought were thrown out; most of the ones that were successful were quality-of-life. In Baltimore, in the two years, they’ve only been used in one homicide. In cities, they tend to displace crime; there’s a short-term immediate deterrent factor, but that decreases over time.


These cameras are really expensive. DC’s spending $4-5 million; I don’t know what you’re going to have to show for it in the end. I was in one low-income project where the camera had been hung right over the courtyard; one guy pointed over to the rec center, which was shuttered, and said “look at that, it’s been closed for years … how much did this camera cost?”


There have been some abuses with these cameras. In SF, a cop got busted for ogling women; in New York, some footage from a death wound up on the internet. So there are privacy concerns as well – and I’d just question how effective these are from an effectiveness perspective.


[Dave’s Washington City Paper story on this is Speaker of the House]




Question. Russell, I thought that there had been a US Supreme Court ruling in the 30s that the Iroquois were a nation and so have travel rights.


Russell: the case recognizes self-government; international travel is regulated by a treaty that Canada (or Britain at the time) didn’t ratify.


Question: Mara, you expressed concern about whether previous name/gender would be recognized on RFID chips. I’ve got on the current structure from ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization), and it’s not there. In general I’d strongly suggest that especially with the Open Skies treaty (which would mean that ICAO regulations will trump US/EU law) to be working directly with


Question: Russell, I’d be interested in hearing your perspectives on privacy. How Do western notions of privacy sit with first nation’s perspectives?


Russell: interesting question. To understand, go back in time to long before modern technologies. For firt nations’ matriarchal societies, everything you did was for the benefit of all people. If you want to talk about individuality, the adversarial Eurocentric viewpont goes very much aganst our view, which is much more in terms of harmony. In any situation where there’s a breach, we always try to restore the harmony – “complete the circle once again”. If harm is done, we look first to the person who was harmed, to try to restore harmony, rather than exacting a pound of flesh. If you do something, it’s public knowledge; a court, especially in a far-off city, it eliminates the element of shame. There are some elements of the constant scrutiny that David talked with. Privacy in keeping with inividualaillty


Question: has there been any history of attempts to destroy the cameras?


Dave: as far as I know, there hasn’t been any – the police tell us they’re bulletproof. In the complexes, a few of the surrounding condo owners who are very disturbed have approached the complex owners; the tenants themselves are organizing.