Who’s watching the watchers?

Demonstrators plan a worldwide protest of one million people against mass surveillance Open informant badge
The protests are planned on Guy Fawkes night ( November 5th), the anniversary of Fawkes’s plot to blow up the UK Houses of Parliament with gunpowder in 1605. It is a date when t people across the UK light bonfires and burn masked  effigies or ‘guys’, with fireworks and celebrations. Members of the Anonymous hackivism group  have adopted Guy Fawkes as one of their symbols. They will wear the masks as a badge of rebellion against the authorities and a way of laying claim to privacy and anonymity, which they say is threatened by law enforcement agencies, governments and big corporations who all use digital technology to snoop on citizens’ behaviour.  Since the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the extent of official phone-tapping and data harvesting there have been demonstrations in the USA and Germany The November 2014 event is being billed as a ‘million mask march to bring gridlock to the centre of London’ with parallel protests in other cities across the globe

Low numbers

Compared with other countries the UK has been slow to react against official snooping. A demonstration outside the Cheltenham headquarters of GCHQ, the Government listening post and spy centre, attracted fewer than twenty people according the the hacktivists and a statement from Gloucestershire Police estimates that only ‘half a dozen’ people attended. It was good-homoured despite an attempt to get one officer to drink from a potty filled with urine, ostensibly to show that GCHQ is ‘taking the piss’ or mocking the rights of citizens. Dozens of police were deployed as a far larger demonstration had been billed on social media – perhaps deliberately trying to pull police resources away from the NATO summit at Newport thirty miles away. The local police issued a statement: Chief Superintendent Neil Mantle said:“While the policing of the GCHQ was planned and delivered by local police it came under the policing operation for the NATO summit. This meant officers from other forces joined us and were available should an incident take place.Because of the low numbers at the protest we were able to deploy these extra officers across the county and they were of huge benefit in making arrests and defusing serious incidents right across Gloucestershire throughout the weekend.”

Open informant

Mask worn by Anonymous

Mask worn by Anonymous

Meanwhile in London the design studio Superflux is creating interactive badges (pictured above) in a more subtle attempt to raise the profile of the surveillance debate. The badges display text messages from the wearer’s smartphone and they are programmed to highlight ‘trigger words’, known to be used by security agents and their algorithms to indicate suspicious or possibly terrorist activity. Speaking on the PassWord with Peter Warren show on Resonance 104.4FM, Superflux’s Anab Jain says the badges – which display real-time data – represent an easy way to show dissent without risk. PassWord with Peter Warren the sister radio show of Future Intelligence and airs weekly on Wednesdays 1530-1600 and Fridays 1430-1500, presented by FI editor Peter Warren who chairs the Cyber Security Research Institute

Geiger counters

Anab Jain

Anab Jain of design agency Superflux

Superflux is also running its own big data projects, aiming to give citizens the power to carry out their own surveillance and to check up on the authorities. In one project they issue air pollution sensors to parents of young children, so that they can measure the quality of air that a toddler seated in a buggy is breathing. Details are posted on a website to warn other parents and carers. Another project of Superflux’s Internet of Things Academy provides do-it-yourself kits for building Geiger counters to measure radiation in the environment and atmosphere.These enable users to join a worldwide citizens’ big data project with twenty-one million datapoints all contributing measurements to the mapping exercise through an app called Safecast.  Anab Jain, Superflux’s CEO says this is the answer to mass surveillance by big corporations and government agencies. She calls it ‘little data’ – the statistics and measurements that ordinary people can compile themselves with user-friendly apps, to hold lawmakers, polluters and snoopers to account. Protestors against airport extensions at Frankfurt in Germany and London’s Heathrow have used the apps to measure noise from aircraft flying low overhead, with night flights disrupting sleep and – according to Jain – causing stress and cardio-vascular diseases. The Superflux agency is based in London, UK and Ahmedebad, India and runs projects in the Middle East.