Deconstructing Surveillance Week 9 — Resistance and Making Change

Nick Rabb
9 min readOct 30, 2023


As a reminder, this is part of a series of write-ups based off a class I’m teaching at Tufts University called Data and Power: Deconstructing Surveillance. If you would like more of a description of what the class is, check out the post from Week 1. If you want to keep up with this series, you can subscribe to receive email updates or on Medium where the write-ups are posted!

This week’s content is a bit lighter, as we are featuring a panel discussion by local change-makers as part of our learning about how to make change, but it is not without potency. For our first class, we revisit Browne (introduction and chapter 1) and Guendelsberger (her section on soldiering), who both describe cases of individuals and groups resistance surveillance. Both recount stories of historical surveillance — one against surveillance supporting slavery in the U.S., and the other against worker surveillance and management. Each offers inspiration for acts of resistance against systems designed to control and dehumanize. To tie historical resistance to the present day, we also read about specially designed clothes that trick facial recognition systems.

We then turn to our change-makers, who will be discussing their strategies and experiences in a panel that will be broadcast over Zoom (you can RSVP through this form if you’d like to watch it). Since I don’t know what they will say in advance of the panel, I can’t share their thoughts yet, but I will try to include interesting parts of the panel in the discussion for next week.

Soldiering, Collective Resistance

While Guendelsberger’s description of workers “soldiering” may seem quite simple, there is an important lesson in it. She defines soldiering as “collectively work[ing] at an agreed-upon pace that was more relaxed than what [workers] were technically capable of.” Soldiering was one of Frederick Taylor’s worst nightmares, and he thought that naturally lazy, stupid, “phlegmatic” workers would always soldier, thwarting managerial dreams of perfect efficiency and productivity.

Within the act of soldiering are two important considerations: asserting control over one’s life, and the power of collectivity. Our culture today, at least in the U.S., is one where work is glorified as tied with one’s value — perhaps an outcropping of a Puritanical culture. Giving proper due to “the hustle” or “the grind” is essential in our modern working world. Particularly in the world of tech, the programmer who stays up all night pushing a feature out is valorized, somehow made out to be the ideal rather than a toxic relationship with labor. For this reason, the idea of soldiering is important, as it shifts the worker from someone who blindly, indeed gladly, follows the dictates of managers and directors, reasserting a degree of autonomy and dignity in the face of scientific managerial surveillance.

But this reassertion of control relies on collectivity: everyone has to do it in order for it to succeed. No one worker crosses the picket line because this form of resistance is only successful if all workers participate. To get to the point where all workers work at an agreed-upon pace, there had to be communication. Another aspect of modern U.S. culture is an individualism that is counter to this type of act. Workers, to subvert the surveillance of their managers, have to organize themselves, reach consensus, and stick to the plan.

In the face of other forms of technological surveillance we face today, are the same types of resistance possible? I believe that there are echoes of soldiering in our culture today. Quiet quitting, which became popular after people’s relationships with work shifted amidst the global pandemic, increased inequality, and increased workplace unionization, is a modern example of this. Unionization itself is a coordinated effort of workers to reassert control over their labor.

Notably, workplace unionization is a more easily conceivable act of resistance against the control of labor surveillance and management, but the proliferation of quiet quitting expands through the entire culture. Technology played a significant role in the spread of quiet quitting, as social media connected individual workers across space and time. Ironically, a platform that systematically surveils was crucial for the spread of an anti-surveillance practice.

These examples can inspire us to ask: what other forms of collectivity can be organized to subvert control via surveillance? What skills must be cultivated and practiced so that the surveilled can reassert their freedom and control in a coordinated manner? Those skills lie in the realm of the social, but we can also inquire about how technology can augment that social process.

How can technologies help workers, or generally the systematically surveilled, identify and counter their surveillance? D’Ignazio and Klein may suggest, as we read about several weeks ago, that collecting and analyzing data about the surveillance itself is a key part of using data science to challenge power. Then, educating others about the findings can lay a foundation on which organizing can be done. But then, what types of technology could facilitate organization of otherwise separate individuals?

Dark Sousveillance, Freedom Acts

Turning to the stories shared by Browne, we must stop to reflect on the unrelenting courage and desire for freedom displayed by those individuals resisting surveillance. Browne describes several enslaved people in the U.S., surveilled by lantern laws, wanted posters, by slave owners themselves and their patrols, and subjected to control even by the ships that transported them from their homes to a land of captivity. In each of these cases, people resisted.

Browne coins the term dark sousveillance, which she defines as “the tactics employed to render one’s self out of sight, and strategies used in the flight to freedom from slavery as necessarily ones of undersight.” The tactics enslaved people utilized included spirituals, songs warning of approaching slave patrols, counter-postering warning of notorious slave owners, fiddling, dancing, forging papers, passing as white and as a free person. She recounts refusal on slave ships as refusal to eat, suicide, and organizing to collectively rush to one side of a ship and capsize it. She uplifts stories of slaves who disguised themselves, painted their faces white, posing as each other’s owners, and flat out refusing to speak. She even describes pranks that enslaved people would pull on slave patrollers, including stretching vines across roads and bridges to trip their horses and have them be thrown off.

One aspect of these acts of refusal, radically asserting freedom and subverting systems of control, is that the stories described are of people who embody the height of bravery, creativity, and determination to will their freedom. How willing are we to embody this degree of resistance? The people described are willing to take on incredible risk so that they can fight against a system that oppresses them. For their acts they likely could face beatings, harsher forms of control, even death. Despite this, they resist. What lengths are we willing to go to so that we may resist control?

Another theme in these writings is that these acts are purely creative. This should make us remember Benjamin and Davis’ calls to us to imagine as an act of change. Tactics like disguising information in the form of song, imitating freed people to escape, and covertly pranking captors are incredibly imaginative. When we say that we cannot think of ways to stop or subvert the systems that surveil and oppress us, are we perhaps just not being as creative as these individuals?

Of course, we should not equate the forms of surveillance and discipline that enslaved people in the U.S. were subjected to and similar powers we are subjected to today. There are varying types of surveillance that different groups experience, so we should also not paint with a broad brush, and remember that some forms of surveillance and discipline may mean life and death. But the point of grappling with Browne’s stories is not to say that surveillance capitalism is the same as surveillance against enslaved people. The point is to uplift tremendous and brilliant resistance, and to ask ourselves how willing we are to assert our freedom in the face of different punishments.

What would it look like to play pranks on the modern, technological forms of surveillance that we face? Could we forge our own versions of papers so we gain access to the world of the oppressors and undermine it? How we imagine ourselves hiding our identity, engaging in dark sousveillance, informs our relationship to surveillance systems. If we imagine that subversion tactics are possible, and take part in freedom acts, we chip away at the seeming impenetrable nature of systems of control.

We also uplift and discuss some modern examples of sousveillance in the form of masks that trick facial recognition systems. Protesters in the U.S. and Hong Kong have deployed these masks as ways to avoid being surveilled while in the streets. The different masks may not be perfect, but they are an assertion of the desire for freedom from surveillance. In the eyes of facial recognition systems, the masks and skillful makeup allow one to pass as a non-face.

Resistance to surveillance is a constant desire throughout history. From soldiering, to escaping slavery, to fooling facial detection AI, we should inspire ourselves and learn from the acts of resistance of others. Their actions not only subvert the systems of control, but they signal to others that they can do the same.

Panel of Local Change-Makers

A reminder that this week, we are hosting a panel with local change-makers in the Boston and Greater Boston area! As we learn about resistance and change, these individuals can help us see those lessons being exemplified in our world. Register for the panel to get the Zoom link, and come by to hear our wonderful speakers.

For next week

Readings and reflections

In light of the material we interacted with, we can reflect on our view of how change works in society.

What do you think your roles and responsibilities are in your respective communities? Your neighborhood? Your workplace? Since surveillance technologies (and digital technologies writ large) interact with us in these spaces, how do those roles & responsibilities interact with technologies?

For next week, we will look at surveillance in the Occupied Territories in Palestine and at the collective resistance by Google employees who didn’t want their work to be used for oppression. Because the topic is quite heated right now, I am providing more readings than usual so appropriate background can be given, broken into several categories:

Google’s work on Project Nimbus, and worker resistance

Facial recognition surveillance in Palestine

Background on Israeli checkpoint system in Palestine

Language from the technology creators & implementors

I encourage reading as much of this as possible, as it paints a multifaceted picture of what’s going on.

We also will loop back and discuss ethical technology design, and how technology workers can think about positioning themselves in the world. Here again, we will read several works to try to spark visions in our mind about what just technology looks like. We will read:

Thanks for reading along, and as a reminder, if you want to keep following these weekly updates or share them with friends, either follow my blog on Medium, or subscribe to the email list via this Google Form.



Nick Rabb

PhD candidate in Computer Science and Cognitive Science at Tufts University, organizer w/ Dissenters, MA Peace Action, formerly Sunrise Mvmt. Philosophy nerd.