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Bombs and Bus Uncle

>> An international conference at McGill deals with, among other things, the fleeting nature of privacy in the digital age


When the RCMP arrested 17 young Muslims in Toronto over the weekend, they told the media that investigators had been monitoring the suspects’ online chat room conversations for some time. While the content of their discussions hasn’t been revealed, the fact that they were picked up fairly easily speaks volumes about the ubiquity of technology, and how closely its use can be monitored by authorities, for better or for worse.

An international conference hosted by McGill this weekend will examine the role technology plays in our daily lives, with a focus on how it affects our notions of citizenship and discussions in the public sphere. Darin Barney, the Canada Research Chair in Technology and Citizenship at McGill will run the 2006 Technology and Citizenship Symposium, with over 130 academics from around the world offering their thoughts on the ever-growing role technology plays in our daily lives.

World Wide Watch

In light of last weekend’s arrests, Barney says that most people are willing to trade privacy for increased security. “That’s the wager we’re asked to make,” he says. Pointing to the possible aversion of a catastrophic terrorist attack in a major metropolis is the kind of “justification that can work for middle-class, law-abiding ‘normal’ citizens, but the people who are swept up and arrested in these kinds of things tend to be relatively powerless and marginal.”

A “perfectly legitimate discussion that happens to be critical of our actions in the Mid-East,” says Barney, may be construed as possible terrorist activity. And while he is in no way condoning the use of violence, “It doesn’t mean we have to endorse what could be a long-term loss of legitimate political discussion because it may be considered an act of suspicion. We always have to keep that negative possibility in mind.”

But what’s more disturbing to Barney is the lack of citizen input into how daily technology is designed, developed and governed. “In some ways, technology is like legislation,” he says. “It represents power, and it sets limits on our permissions and prohibitions. But it’s also unlike legislation because citizens rarely get to participate in it. Even if our democratic system is terribly imperfect, there are ways citizens can engage it. But not with technology.” Ideally, he’d like to see some sort of citizen advisory committee that would alert corporations to possible hazards in the technology they develop.

“Not yet resolved!”

There are literally millions of other individuals also capable of intruding on our privacy. All they need is a camera phone.

Take Bus Uncle. The most popular YouTube clips last month, Bus Uncle—who’s since been identified, according to Wikipedia, as Roger Chan, 51—was captured by a fellow bus passenger using a camera phone as he loudly, and obscenely, berated Elvis Ho, 23, who had tapped his shoulder and asked to keep the volume down on his cell phone conversation. “I’ll fuck your mother!” Bus Uncle yells at the younger man, after telling him that, “Not yet resolved! Not yet resolved! … I face pressure. You face pressure. Why did you provoke me?” It may or may not say something about Chinese culture, but it is funny to watch. And having become a cultural catchphrase in Hong Kong, Bus Uncle’s ranting will probably become a boon for camera phone marketers.

Jacquelyn Burkell, an associate professor in the faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, will be delivering a lecture at McGill on “Erasing Privacy: Camera Phones and the Marketing of Voyeurism.” She writes in an e-mail that advertisers are getting around legitimate questions about privacy by “making privacy concerns either invisible or irrelevant by showing how what looks like privacy violations may in fact be something entirely different … or may have few if any negative consequences.”

Regarding Bus Uncle—which she hadn’t seen when she e-mailed the Mirror—Burkell says advertisers can take advantage of potentially humiliating situations like that one by turning them into comedy. Also, they play up camera phone uses, like capturing someone committing an act of violence. “So we get two for one—camera phones make us feel good, and they do good things.”

In subsequent Hong Kong media Bus Uncle coverage, Chan was revealed as a welfare recipient living with five cats. Journalists reportedly took him out to dinner and karaoke bars after his attempts to apologize to Ho were rebuffed.