Ethical Surveillance Design


Workshop on Generating Collaborative Research in the Ethical Design of Surveillance Infrastructures

June 8-11, 2006, Austin, Texas.

Surveillance may be understood as a set of processes of identification, tracking, analysis and response which organize social knowledge, social relations, and social power. Surveillance mediates everyday life. For example, internet "cookies," shopping loyalty cards, and mobile phone numbers all individuate and identify us. These identifiers are used to index databases recording our web surfing activities, our purchases, and our movements. The databases are subjected to statistical analysis in order to produce knowledge of demographic categories, typical patterns, or suspect behavior. This knowledge is then applied back to individuals in the population in order to assign each to a particular niche market or risk group, and to act toward them accordingly. Thus, through surveillance, knowledge is created, categories and types are produced, individuals are assigned social identities, and actions are taken that articulate those identities within a larger social order.

These surveillance practices are themselves shaped by overlapping and intertwined technical systems, laws, institutional configurations, and cultural understandings. This "infrastructure" of surveillance supports patterns of access to the resources of knowledge production, social visibility, and social position.

In June 2006 a three-day workshop will be held in Austin, Texas. The purpose of the meeting is to generate collaborative research projects exploring further

  • the social implications of surveillance practice,
  • the technological, legal, economic, and cultural infrastructures that shape surveillance practice, and
  • possible technological, legal, economic, or cultural interventions to reshape those infrastructures to desired ends.

The workshop will address this issue in the context of the following themes:

  • If surveillance mediates the production of categories and types of people, how can surveillance infrastructures be shaped to permit individuals, and groups of individuals, to coalesce around a particular identity?
  • How can surveillance infrastructures mediate the ability of groups and individuals to "perform" certain identities within certain contexts?
  • How can surveillance infrastructures mediate the ability of subcultures to generate and sustain knowledge of and for themselves?
  • How can surveillance resources be appropriately allocated to ensure that groups of many scales (the family, the subculture, the nation) are able to defend, protect, and nurture their own (perhaps conflicting) interests?

We seek participants whose interests and expertise complement and expand upon each other's work in social theory, information system design, business, and public policy, and who will be able to address issues such as:

  • the application of legal paradigms other than privacy to practices of information collection. We are particularly interested explorations of legal theories of cultural rights and information commons.
  • the application of novel information processing techniques, including, but not limited to, pseudonymity, digital rights management, and cluster analysis.
  • the application of social theories of identity, including queer theory and performance studies.
  • the intersection of market interests with ethical surveillance practice.

The workshop is intended to provide the initial venue for the production of fundable, collaborative, cross-disciplinary research proposals.
Participants will be expected to prepare a position paper for distribution one month prior to the meeting. At the workshop itself, we will identify synergistic interactions of expertise, fruitful research directions, and possible sources of funding. After the workshop, participants will be eligible to apply for seed money grants to complete collaborative grant proposals to pursue those projects. Participants will also be invited to contribute to an edited volume.

The project will provide meals and accommodation for workshop participants, and will reimburse reasonable travel costs. Please include a quote of lowest available airfare in your application. Participants from outside the U.S. are especially encouraged to apply.

Potential participants should submit (to proposals consisting of two parts:

(1) a 750-1000 word abstract, describing your area of research, its relevance to the conference topic, and a proposed presentation. The abstract should directly address a collaborative element - a cross-disciplinary or cross-professional alignment that would further the presenter's research goal.

(2) a one-page biography or curriculum vitae, listing your relevant publications and experience.

The deadline for proposals is March 1, 2006. Participants will be selected by March 20, 2006.

For more information, please contact David Phillips, or visit

This project is supported by the National Science Foundation under grant
#0551532 and by the University of Texas College of Communication and
Department of Radio-Television-Film.