“I have nothing to hide” was the war cry of Americans after 9/11, seemingly to sacrifice their innocence on the altar of ever-growing security measures and the legalities of the Patriot Act. The irony of such a statement, of course, resides in the hopeful innocence – not innocence as such. To put this more bluntly, the person uttering such a statement is no different from the person who utters “was I speeding, officer?” The “nothing to hide” argument rests on disavowing some thing. Julian Assange is right to argue “Mass surveillance is a mass structural change. When society goes bad, it’s going to take you with it, even if you are the blandest person on earth,” such unfortunate truths don’t seem to bother people. Rather, they are all but ignored entirely. The problem is captured in the title of Ignacio N. Cofone’s essay “Nothing to Hide, But Something to Lose.”
The truth is we all have something to lose, and whether or not we are aware of it, we have many things to hide. Just a few examples of what everyone has to hide are personal secrets, credit card numbers, social security information, medical history, and one’s whereabouts. When we consider (let alone, covet) such things, there seems to be an inconsistency in who we think the criminal is: normally this is someone who is after one of these items. Someone looking to take something from us or break into our lives and rupture any feeling of security. Yet, if we had “nothing to hide,” then we left with only a question of security and property. Simply stated, the criminal is someone who takes power over something, leaving one vulnerable. Yet we happily accept the same power dynamic from the state or “trusted” company like Amazon or ADT: it appears that the appeal to authority is more important than what that authority actually is.
The question we are left with is “are we in fact more protected under the constant gaze of state or company eyes?”
Cities across the globe have established surveillance projects that span entire metropolises. From New Orleans where cameras number more than 800 to Kansas City and Detroit where public-private projects are creating entire nets of capturable video, advancing surveillance equipment is watching us. India has projected that 100 of its cities will be “smart cities” for the sake of “security.” ShotSpotter, a surveillance technology that “listens” for gunshots and reports them back to police departments, is becoming very common in cities across the nation. The technology uses microphones and sensors that are placed throughout a city usually without disclosing the location of the equipment to city officials or police officers. At least part of the concern here is that the company is more likely to monitor areas that would yield more results (or, rather, areas that could show proof of effectiveness) rather than areas where safety is a concern for residents – i.e. gentrification hotspots are more likely to receive “coverage” than an area with too many “broken windows.”
Once a staple of science fiction, all-pervasive surveillance is becoming a reality whose nightmarish effects are already in play. It’s not just state apparatuses that are keeping an eye on things – the people are voluntarily “policing” others as well. By installing Ring doorbell systems, neighborhoods are quickly filling in the gaps of visibility and at the expense of the individual resident rather than the city’s budget. We’re already fully tracked and recorded by smart phones and TVs, Google Homes, Amazon Echoes, GPS systems, etc. Adding high-definition video surveillance to the mix expands the power of digitization over our lives. The irony here is that video surveillance and security systems are purchased to protect oneself from one’s neighbor, whereas, in reality, adding to one’s “security” makes one vulnerable to the ultimate Big Other: the all-seeing eye of the state or corporation.
Hidden surveillance projects are even evolving: areas where signage indicates people are being “watched” by hidden equipment have been shown to be highly effective on our streets and highways. However, the feeling of being watched without knowing for sure seems like a major compromise for the sake of slower speeds and an end to rolling stops.
With the rise of surveillance, the urge is to assume a proportional decrease of the public space. Ring sells personal information to Facebook – data that includes anyone within the optics of the device and reduces a neighborhood street to a frame. However, a public sidewalk or street isn’t simply reduced to privatized space: state control is on the rise, too. The state itself works hand in hand with corporations like Google. As Joel Wendland-Liu points out, several corporations are collecting massive amounts of data and then selling it to police departments for the sake of “predictive analytics.” These private-public partnerships are less a battling over the private and public spaces and more an attempt to “close the gap” between them.
So how are we to view projects like Detroit’s Green Light District or New Orleans’ Real-Time Crime Center, where we are seen on the outside of a company’s property on our own time? Are we to be on our “best behavior” at all times, as though we belong to that company? Unfortunately this is only part of the problem – we cannot simply avoid such a watchful eye.
What’s more is that the ubiquity of the state’s eye doesn’t create more control from visibility alone. This fundamentally alters objectivity as we (think we) know it. The state’s power will continue to favor its narrative. In short, the ideological effects will continue to push us in the direction of paranoid tradeoffs: for the sake of my “safety,” I will gladly forego my privacy; for the sake of a simple “truth,” I will happily risk my autonomy. When it comes to surveillance, these tradeoffs are no longer considered at the level of awareness. Rather, what we’re shown is simply accepted as “what happened” because of the frame of the footage. The “full story” can now be told from a body cam.
To be sure, surveillance isn’t simply about what is “seen” – it’s also about what goes “unseen,” either as the unnoticed, “normal” functioning of background processes, or what we expect yet ignore. Much of what is purposely pushed to the invisible spectrum is seemingly benign but at its core regards something we would rather disavow or ignore. Some examples of this would be keeping trans people working in back-of-the-house roles; a University covering up sexual assaults by staff or students to maintain “credibility;” Ford celebrating the announcement of an “all green” plant in Tennessee while Flat Rock, MI was evacuated from a gas leak at a local Ford plant; or changing the name of the House Committee on Un-American Activities to the House Judiciary Committee. The same goes for security: there are neighborhoods, properties, and people “worth” watching and those that are subjected to a different logic.
Surveilling our “free time” is not just a matter of acting properly – whether we are showing good behavior or not is of any necessary consequence – it's a matter of proscribing all that goes “unseen” as “outside.” This “outside” is regarded as something conspiratorial – some sort of enemy or threat to the American “way of life” – or a non-priority. We all know that with surveillance comes censorship, limitations – thus surveilling our so-called free time is about establishing the very border between the “inside” (company property, real estate hotspots) and the “outside” (blighted neighborhoods). These can be distinguished by “outside” as being where other comes from. It’s all within the ideological framework meant to serve the public-private partnership. Our so-called free time is the supplement to our working lives – what we do during this time is what ultimately impacts our productivity and our work impacts how much energy we have left over to act “freely.” To state this ideology simply, the view is that those “inside” fully participate in the system and those “outside” are a threat to what that system “offers” us. What makes such an ideology so attractive (and thus so efficient) is that it not only allows the view of ourselves as the innocent “good” people in the equation; it also is an active disavowal of what makes us guilty – e.g. denouncing excessive prison sentences for petty crimes yet installing a Ring doorbell system to protect any delivered Amazon packages.
The camera supports the belief that this form of security is for protection and safety – missing the point that, at its core, it is necessary for owning property. The footage shown back to us supports this belief by appealing to some predetermined concern: consider any news story featuring b-roll of pedestrians or crimes happening on security cameras. The point of this footage is not to show us “what’s really going on” in the world but to establish an unquestionable “matter-of-fact” that this is what’s going on in the world, substituting the viewer’s gaze for the camera. Indeed, these are real people doing what actually happens, but this reality is meant to obscure a much more sinister truth: our free time is not surveilled to register our whereabouts and movements but rather to get us to believe that the images we are shown contain the same truth that we as individuals would experience if we were there. This is the situation we find ourselves in today: relying on security footage to help tell the story we were not around to witness.
Body cameras are an expected “next step” both away from a stationary security camera and to blur the line between what is seen and what is witnessed.
The body camera doesn’t function as a way of holding cops accountable. Instead it puts us in the driver’s seat, ready to assume a shared guilt under the guise of an objective view of “what happened.” Taking the footage as our own personal gaze undermines the very idea of witnessing something in the act, yet the reflex of taking what we are seeing as what actually happened is presupposed. This is the case not simply because the footage itself feels candid – i.e. having uninterrupted footage gives the appearance that no one is controlling the narrative and what we are seeing is purely unpredictable – but also because the camera’s eye keeps the “beholder” out of frame. In short, the body camera functions precisely to allow the viewer, whomever they may be, to identify with the position of the police officer.
This shared guilt should also not be ignored. In fact, it would appear we only have two choices at that point: 1) take the self-flagellating approach or 2) side with police power, which appears way more activating than the former as we’ve seen with the rise of Blue Lives Matter flags, Punisher emblems, and the mutual respect between Neo-Nazis and law enforcement.
What we have here is a shift in the “objectivity” of what the body cam shows. No matter what “actually” happened, the camera’s footage starts from a position of authority – and, should other footage or an investigation show otherwise, the imperfect, Black victim has to climb out of the hole dug for them. Counter to what we may differentiate as objective and subjective, it is what we end up believing-through-practice which gives the footage its most “objectivity.”
It’s important to note what Susan Buck-Morss says about the rise of new technology and the witness. “The technological revolution of hand-held internet devices has enabled an explosion in possibilities for eye-witness reporting of events…the reporting itself becomes a weapon of resistance….But what is remarkable is how reliable such information-sharing has been.” Later Buck-Morss observes, “cell phone videos keep citizen protest and state violence in view.”
Although video recording is an attempt to hold law enforcement accountable by recording traffic stops, it has inherent limitations. Buck-Morss is quick to point out: ”the viewing of violence towards the powerless evokes an affective, visceral reaction from global observers who, precisely because the scene is taken out of context, respond concretely, and with empathy.” At first this empathy would seem to point toward the ever-growing list of Black victims of police violence. However, we must understand the limits of this supposed weapon of resistance. After an incident of police brutality or murder, images and stories of cops “empathizing” – whether kneeling or, in some cases, hugging – with protesters rise quickly to the top in order to humanize police. The point of such imagery is, of course, to follow the “few bad apples” logic and, in a word, victimize police as people who “are just doing their jobs.” This is not so different from when landlords claimed they were the victims during the pandemic. This reversal of empathy back toward the police appears to be imminent the moment we empathize with the actual victim. It’s important to remember how the demands of “abolishing the police” fell back into “defund” and then “reform” and finally into arguments of “being realistic.”
It’s from the fragility of this empathetic view that we must acknowledge and accept the truth that there is no frame big enough, no single all-seeing camera that will give us the full, objective picture. So why does the law come out on top so often? And, more importantly, how does the frame of the footage – the existence of surveillance – go unquestioned as inherently authoritative?
To fully understand how the law holds all the cards, we must first understand the role of ideology with regard to the law. Slavoj Žižek, invoking Peter Sloterdijk, points out that cynicism places a decisive role in accepting ideology, insofar as “[we] know very well what we are doing, but still, [we] are doing it” or, more clearly, “one knows the falsehood [of ideology] very well, one is well aware of a particular interest hidden behind an ideological universality, but still one does not renounce it.” This is to say we actively suppress, ignore what we know as not true in order to uphold some sort of ideological fidelity. Later, when interrogating why we obey the command of the Law, Žižek finds the repressed character in the truth of the law itself: “We must obey it not because it is just, good or even beneficial, but simply because it is law.” Thus the repressed character of the law is the fact that “its authority is without truth.” Indeed, we accept the authority (the form of the law) first and then consider its particular interests, the law in action (the content of the law).
Applying this cynical view of the Law to our state of surveillance today, we can say that the suppressed piece of the body cam footage is not some hidden or lost footage – in fact, every piece of imagery is always incomplete, and we are left asking if we were given the full picture – but rather its ability to establish truth. The camera’s necessity is already presumed, and we go a step further by blurring this “necessity” with “ability” to tell us the truth. Surveillance today gives us the feeling of being in an authoritative position, acting as both witness and judge.
In short, we don’t ask why we are being shown the footage – we don’t ask “why were the cops there to begin with?” – rather we already buy-in to the story. The question of “is this the full picture?” does nothing to stall the narrative nor reveal anything deeper.
Indeed, security footage could clear someone accused of a crime. However, what gets missed here is the fact that we hold the idea of objective footage to be sacred. We preemptively accept the possibility that there is surveillance without narrative. The truth is there is always an ideological narrative to surveillance and it is this that we are asked to ignore in order to accept what we are seeing as “natural” and “objective.” Because there cannot be surveillance without a narrative to it, the ability of footage to determine guilt or innocence should be concerning. Given that we take such footage as “objective” means we are always-already accepting of whatever that determination is.
The narrative of footage will always favor the reason it was implemented in the first place. It should surprise no one that Ring doorbell footage and private building surveillance alike are used to resolve legal disputes over minor property (such as Amazon packages getting lifted from one’s porch) to place blame for physical altercations. The irony of the ubiquity of surveillance has come full circle with the curious incident of Judge Odinet of Louisiana, who was recorded saying racial slurs while watching her own security camera footage which caught a burglar on the premises.
The lesson here isn’t that we need to be more cautious of what we say because we don’t know who’s recording, but rather that (the control over) objectivity is not on our side. “What happened” can be used as much for us as against us and those ensuring the camera’s frame exists and goes unquestioned will determine that. Technology is no different: so long as we accept a “pure” objectivity of surveilled footage and data, we will identify with the frame of the footage. This is to say that we will suppress the fact that this “objective” footage is arbitrarily authoritative and accept whatever the ideological narrative of the footage itself says.
We often hear people say we need more “objectivity” today and that it will save us from some (misinformed) threat. However, “objectivity” in the sense we typically use it becomes the excuse for not questioning, for not keeping a critical eye on what we’re shown: what is “objective” is pure, above questioning, and in a sense perfect. This call for objectivity today tends to mean less questioning arbitrary authority of state-sanctioned murder and more “equitable” criticizing of Black victims of that very authority and murder. As ruminated by poet Too Black, “it is because of the alleged imperfections of these victims that they now belong to the dead.”
 Pandemic 2, Slavoj Žižek p.65-68
 The Idea of Communism 2: The New York Conference, p. 66-67
 Ibid. p. 72
 The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 25-26
 ibid., p. 35-36
Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based out of Detroit. He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.