Madelyn Nelson of ASU interviews Katina Michael

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Professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering at Arizona State University

Katina Michael discovered something important when she started walking. 

“Everything happens in a flash, life happens in a flash. If we don’t stop this quick way of living, then we’re on this treadmill of constant flashes,” she explained. “But if you stop and just walk —  without headphones, without your cell phone — you hear people and see people. The risk of looking up and engaging with the world means that you might have to face the problem.” 

This idea of foregoing our comforts and our technologies in favor of slowing down and reflecting on life is the cornerstone of Michael’s work. She says, “We’re giving over control, to some degree, to the technology. And in doing so, we’re not developing the self. Technology can sometimes be used as an excuse to ignore the inward process of human development.” 

She researches predominantly in the area of emerging technologies, and has secondary interests in technologies used for national security and their corresponding social implications. Like many of her colleagues at SFIS, Michael realizes the importance of examining the risks and potential consequences of emerging technology and science. 

She has held visiting academic appointments at Nanjing University (China) and the University of Southampton (U.K.) and has taught at the Singapore Institute of Management, as well as overseeing UOW engineering and information science courses in eight campuses in five countries. In 2017, Michael was awarded the Brian M. O’Connell Distinguished Service Award from the Society for the Social Implications of Technology. She is the founding editor-in-chief of the IEEE Transactions on Technology and Society, which will be launched in 2020. 

Before finding her way to SFIS, Michael served as associate dean international at the University of Wollongong (UOW), Australia, where she was employed in the School of Computing and Information Technology. As for why she decided to pack up and move to the States to join the faculty at SFIS, she said: “I think I was always meant to be here. I grew up in Tempe, New South Wales,” she laughed. “But aside from that, it was the people here. And I’d been in Wollongong working at the same campus for seventeen years, so for me to leave, it had to be something really special.”

Questions About Uberveillance

When did you coin the word uberveillance?

Symbol designed by PhD candidate Alexander Hayes in 2011.

The word uberveillance, also written as überveillance, was coined in 2006 by Dr M.G. Michael who is presently an honorary senior fellow in the School of Information Systems and Technology. The concept was further developed, defined and expanded together with Dr Katina Michael a senior lecturer in the same school.

The first time the term was used by M.G. Michael was in a guest lecture he delivered on the “Consequences of Innovation” in the course Information Technology and Innovation. Michael and Katina had long been collaborating on the research, description, and trajectory of ‘beneath-the-skin’ technologies within the surveillance space that had the ability to not only identify but locate individuals as well.

The term simply ‘came out’ in a moment of inspiration, when Michael was searching for words to describe the trajectory of embedded technologies. He could find no other but to bring together the German prefix “über” with the French root word “veillance” to describe the exaggerated surveillance conducted by governments in the name of national security. At that very moment he was thinking aloud in terms of Roger Clarke’s work on dataveillance and Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. So it was what you might say one of those incredible moments of serendipity.

In the same year the term appeared in a peer reviewed conference paper on locational intelligence, the IEEE Symposium on Technology and Society, delivered in New York showcasing the potential for 24x7 tracking and monitoring of humans. After also appearing in a volume of Prometheus guest edited by Michael and Katina, on the “Social Implications of National Security,” the term was subsequently used in a national workshop sponsored by the ARC Research Network for a Secure Australia (RNSA). The 2007 workshop entitled: “From Dataveillance to Uberveillance and the Realpolitik of the Transparent Society” brought together academics and a class list of reviewers from different disciplines to discuss the subject. At this event, Professor Roger Clarke’s 20 year contribution to the field of surveillance and more broadly privacy in Australia was also celebrated as he delivered a keynote address titled: “What ‘überveillance’ is and what to do about it.” In the proceedings of the workshop, uberveillance was embraced by a number of authors, who saw it as an appropriate term to describe the current trajectory of ‘surveillance’ technologies. In 2008 a special issue on Advanced Location Based Services in Computer Communications also published an introductory note on ethics and uberveillance.

Outside references to the term in IT-related blogs and academic papers the term has also been featured in Forbes Magazine by Robert Ellis Smith, Quadrant, National Post by Craig Offman, ABC America Online, Yahoo!Canada’s Home Page, The Inquirer by Nick Farrell, the Edmunton Sun by Alan Findlay, The Sunday Times Online, WIN News and Southern Cross Channel 10. It has also been highlighted in a number of interviews such as on ABC Illawarra with N. Rheinberger. The term was also given a special mention by the keynote on the final day of the 29th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners.

How did you come up with that word?

That’s a good question… it certainly did come from very close collaboration, especially over the last 7 years, bringing disparate fields of study closer together. We believe the influence came from our cross-disciplinary studies in a number of fields including Philosophy, Languages, Theology, Ancient History, Information Technology and Law. Most certainly it was MG Michael’s long affinity and love for words having studied linguistics early on in his career, and having had a number of poems published in some of Australia’s leading poetry journals, such as Southerly and Westerly.

Surveillance as a ‘word’ just did not describe the full extent of the technological capability available today. For instance, there are commercial organizations now chipping people (willing participants) for a variety of applications, including Alzheimer’s, entry access, and employment for the purpose of automatic identification.We needed a word to describe the profoundly intrusive nature of such technologies and it was no longer about Big Brother ‘looking down’, but rather about Big Brother ‘on the inside looking out’. “Uberveillance” also has an onomatopoeic ring to it as well- when one says the word out aloud, its meaning is suggested. Uberveillance is piercing, intrusive, unrelenting, pervasive, constant, and embedded in the body, and in its ultimate form what is captured cannot be edited, reversed or removed. In specific technological terms uberveillance can be described as an omnipresent electronic surveillance facilitated by technology that makes it possible to embed surveillance devices in the human body.

Uberveillance takes that which was “static” or “discrete” in the dataveillance world, and makes it “constant” and “embedded”. It has to do with the fundamental “who” (ID), “where” (location), “when” (time) questions in an attempt to derive “why” (motivation), “what” (result), and even “how” (method/plan/thought). Uberveillance can be a predictive mechanism for one’s expected behaviour, traits, characteristics, likes or dislikes; or it can be based on historical fact, or something in between.

What does it mean to you to have the word officially recognised in the Macquarie dictionary?

While the German prefix ‘uber’ was popular in the 1990s for slang terms, the connection between uber and the French veiller came about through many long hard years of research. We sort of were already describing uberveillance a long time before Michael conceived of the word. The word just summarized it all very neatly. The use of the German prefix “uber” shows that we are not just talking about typical surveillance, and that inherently in this new state of surveillance we are entering unchartered territory.

Uberveillance had previously made it onto several online dictionaries including the Webopedia.com and Merriam-Webster.com but to get it recognized in Australia’s official dictionary was for us an absolute thrill. It was also a vindication not only for us, but also for a larger group of colleagues both in Australia and internationally with whom we must also share this distinction .It clearly evidences to the impact of our work over a sustained period of time, especially given the list of words is international and includes terms that have been in use for much longer. We do not know who nominated the word, or how it got onto the list, but it is without a doubt one of the outcomes we will hold as a major achievement.

What sort of uberveillance research is UOW currently doing?

Stay tuned- we are not far from launching a web portal on Uberveillance which will showcase our research, that of our students, and fellow academic and professional collaborators. Till now our focus has been on ‘proving’ how invasive some technologies can actually be, providing avenues for public discourse and promoting the use of safeguards.

Uberveillance is not just a ‘cute’ word, there is history and substance behind it as can be seen for instance in some of the projects we are currently engaged with, and this is what most find really fascinating. Such as the study on the privacy, trust and security implications of chip implants (e.g. Alzheimer’s patients); the link between exaggerated surveillance and forms of mental duress (e.g. in this instance virtual surveillance conducted by other citizens using web cams, blogs, social networking sites); location based services regulation in Australia to supplement the Unified Privacy Principles (UPP) in the Privacy Act; the ethical implications of the electrophorus (i.e. the bearer of electric technology); discovering the motivations behind underground implantees and why they are embedding technologies under their skin on their own accord; and studying the trade-offs between privacy, value and control in RFID applications, such as e-passport and e-tollways.