Mass surveillance. Hacking. Whistle-blowers. The interconnected world of technology and national and international governments is complex, fraught with illegal activity and dubious justifications. At times is hard to believe that these occurrences aren’t merely a storyline of a Hollywood… Read more
Mass surveillance. Hacking. Whistle-blowers. The interconnected world of technology and national and international governments is complex, fraught with illegal activity and dubious justifications. At times is hard to believe that these occurrences aren’t merely a storyline of a Hollywood film, but our reality. Nevertheless, given the task of conducting an immersive experience drawing upon the core components of this largely hidden world, I along with three of my classmates began deliberating what we would do.
At first, we were somewhat perplexed. How would we draw upon our studies of this topic area given that it is so entrenched in technological practices that are not only difficult at times to understand, but also virtually impossible to recreate? Even Fred Turner states that it is a language very few can understand! One suggestion was to infiltrate the University of Richmond’s security room, and somehow incorporate this means of mass surveillance into a game of hide and go seek, monitoring our classmates every move. However, we soon realised the inherent difficulties of this lofty ambition given the various codes of conducts put in place by the University to protect student’s privacy (If only this were the case outside of UR!). After a few more somewhat unrealistic suggestions that required skills beyond our reach (hacking our classmates Facebook profiles), we finally arrived upon an idea. Taking inspiration from our quiz, I had begun thinking of a sort of role-playing game in which each classmate would assume the identity of one of the prominent figures we have been studying (Edward Snowden, Wikileaks, the NSA, etc.) That is, a simulation on a micro level of what has and is taking place in the digital world. By doing so, we would each essentially be walking in their shoes, trying to understand these events from their perspective. While initially we imagined the experience taking place outside, whereby everyone would stand up and move around to discuss tactics to other characters (in a way emulating the ability of such worms as the STUXNET in manipulating physical things), the logistics of doing so proved tricky. Thus, we agreed to remain in the classroom (in a model UN fashion) and utilise a PowerPoint that would act as a visual aid, guiding participants though our experience.
Let the games begin…
Having drawn out characters in the previous class, it was wonderful to see that everyone really jumped on board with our role-playing concept. The props/costumes were great and I felt that they added both an element of playfulness and enhanced the notion of getting into the mindset of one’s character. For instance, as Russia, I decided to draw upon the nation’s relationship with Edward Snowden to inform my visual cues (see image below).
Snowden’s Russian passport (with an additional sign reading ‘+3 years’ in reference to the recent extension of his immunity), a welcome sign and a typed sheet of notes on Russia for the experience.
After debating “Which is more valuable, cyber freedom or cyber security?” (Part 1) in the guise of each character, the experience shifted into part 2: Simulation. Again, we wanted everyone to remain in character to reinforce the notion of thinking and seeing these situations from their point of view. However, given the structure and layout of the questions there were two possibilities offered each time. There would always be a more logical response of the two (see example below). However, in order to avoid a simple yes or no answer, we added a guideline that required a justification of one’s decision.
This segment of the experience revealed the vastly different mindsets of the players. As Glenn Greenwald noted, Snowden sees his role as a whistle-blower as a matter of principle, one that isn’t informed by a motivating factor such as money. Thus, during the experience it was interesting to note the contrast between this highly moral mentality and that of Silicon Valley. For instance, when posed with a choice between giving the government its customer’s information and having to pay an incredible fine (a simulation of the 2007-08 Yahoo case), Silicon Valley ultimately sold out in order to ensure the continued success of their business. (Click the link below to hear audio)
Digital America Experience – Sound recording
Having successfully journeyed through the simulation, we arrived at our conclusion: the hypothetical simulation (part 3). Essentially an extension of part 2, here the aim was to encourage more creativity and freedom in responses to the hypothetical questions we created (i.e. “Snowden is tracked down and captured by the NSA…. What do you do?”). There would be no right or wrong answers. Although questions were still directed at a particular player, we hoped that they would only initiate the response with others contributing as well.
While for the most part the experience ran smoothly, there were at times lags in the conversation. This required a bit more prompting from myself and my other team members in order to enhance and develop the topic at hand. Also, given that some characters were more prominent in the events, this meant that certain class members were provided with a greater opportunity to become immersed in the experience. Nonetheless, we managed to sustain our experience for the hour – a task that is much harder to achieve than one would expect! The experience also revealed just how difficult it truly is to navigate this murky area of technology and mass surveillance, affirming Mark Poster’s assertion in Information Please: Culture and Politics in the Age of Digital Machines of how traditional forms of power are becoming more complicated and less reliable. I found that it was often hard not only to justify my decisions as Russia but also to ensure that those decisions would ultimately further my own objectives. Moreover, I’m sure many felt victimised during the experience, particularly the NSA who constantly had to defend their actions to multiple parties. It was not difficult to understand how sovereignty could be ‘opened up’ to new and intense forms of critical public scrutiny (‘Leaky Geopolitics: The Ruptures and Transgressions of Wikileaks’).
In regards to the documentation process, we decided to try and emulate the covert techniques favoured by such government agencies as the NSA. Thus during the experience I, along with other group members, recorded the whole conversation using the voice memo app on my iPhone. By doing so, we hoped to emulate the invasive technology employed as a means of mass surveillance by the American government and their affiliated bodies (listen here for another snippet of the experience recorded -> Digital America Experience -Sound recording). Moreover, the audio proved useful in triggering my memory of how the experience played out. I also took profile shots of each participant before the experience commenced as a means of enabling the reader to see how everyone approached their prop assignment (pictures can often be more telling than text alone -see end of post for images). Of course, the additional effect of black and white helps to recreate the air of mystery and tension that has always surrounded the world of espionage. Yet, in using my iPhone I was reminded of the opposing forces between freedom and transparency in our digital age. Although my phone provided a sense of freedom in recording the experience in a multitude of ways, I too was essentially using it as a means of surveillance.
Class members as their assigned ‘character’
Ultimately, despite ebbs and flows in the conversation, the underlying ideas coupled with the enthusiastic participation of all involved brought our experience to life. While Edward Snowden argued his position stating that, ‘You can’t wait around for someone else to act’, perhaps only those with his level of intellect and know how can indeed act within this dangerous environment. After all, as our experience revealed, at the end of the day the NSA/US government will stop at nothing in the name of “protection”.