"Our Phones are Breaking (the) News; Please Don't Break Our Phones" by Lauren Guilmette and Robert Leib

Live-stream video apps are able to offer the world images with very different frames from those offered by 'official' media sources. Distinctive of nonstop “breaking news” since 9/11, these corporate frames include the ticker, with its banal urgency, and the security expert who explains, typically in a paranoid mode, the risks of the current situation, a brand of celebrity speculation that is often associative and analogical (as well as psychologizing) in its movements. By contrast, live-streaming social media apps—Facebook LivePeriscope—have only the arbitrariness and idiosyncrasy of whatever events people choose to film; nevertheless, insofar as phone-cameras can be protected as tools of 21st century citizenship (more on that momentarily), we believe these apps serve the needs of citizen photographers to instantly bear witness to events—a kind of collective responsibility that resists the paranoid movement of big media news broadcasts.

Watching the events in Turkey on CNN last week, we saw CNN turn to Periscope, Twitter’s live-streaming app, after the military faction briefly shut down CNN Turkey in the early morning of July 16th, taking broadcasters hostage in a failed coup that led to at least 265 deaths, 161 of which were civilians and police officers. In the coming days, weeks, and months, as the Turkish government has been extending suspicion of coup plotters from the military to universities and specifically educators, demanding resignations and restricting travel out of the country, alternative forms of media like Periscope may prove all the more important for the preservation of speech and press. Notably, Turkey has the second highest rate of Periscope users worldwide; thus, when the government “temporarily blocked” access to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube during the coup, with the corporate media furthermore taken hostage, citizen journalists used a different tool, capturing it live-stream and firsthand, with multiple, unedited representations of what that “firsthand” looked like.

This is not to suggest Periscope as a replacement for the contemporary social function of corporate media—i.e. to tell us the “important” things, and quickly—nor to is it to claim that much of what happens on Periscope is significant in this way. At once international and strangely intimate, the app enables users to stream live videos of, well, anything, and to engage (more or less anonymously, as one chooses) with the videos of others by clicking on available streams from a world map. Since its launch in March 2015, we have been skeptical of this app, thinking it—at best—useful for a new kind exhibitionism, or—at worst—a kind of wiretap violation. Yet, realizing that even CNN could be brought down by a society in turmoil clarified the true value of the app: It makes worldwide, critical citizen journalism possible in a real, if unwieldy, way.

At the start of the coup, CNN America was reliant on these citizen video feeds because of the military shut down. Quickly, however, CNN stopped its live stream and began looping selected moments, resuming its dominant mode of non-thesis driven commentary on ‘breaking news’, and its experts began trading in cultural assumptions about the ‘terrorist’, the ‘immigrant’, the ‘armed black man’, playing on inflammatory comparisons—to 9/11, for instance—and turning on the rhetorical power of “I’m just saying” in their expert analysis.

So, rather than watching Periscope through CNN, we downloaded it and scrolled the map over to Ankara, instantly able to watch from inside the city without this analysis. We saw police hunkered behind cars, exchanging gunfire with the military, heard the blast from a bomb set off under a nearby bridge. A little later, we saw citizens sitting on the abandoned tanks, waving their flags in a haze of an ebbing adrenaline. It was amazing to be able to witness the confusion of a country turning back upon itself without ‘expert’ commentary, edited film reels, repeating sound bites, or commercial breaks.

After CNN Turkey resumed its broadcast, we found a Periscope that was rebroadcasting their coverage. Anyone watching CNN in America that night would be familiar with the shot, repeated ad nauseum, of soldiers who had been occupying a bridge eventually laying down their weapons and flak jackets, walking away from their tanks with hands raised in surrender.  CNN Turkey incorporated this shot into its loop as well, but where it was followed by a general street view of confusion on CNN America, the Turkish counterpart continued on to footage from a Periscope that showed Turkish civilians rushing to the scene where the military had left its equipment, picking up assault rifles, and disappearing into the fray with them. This is interesting, insofar as CNN Turkey was relying on footage CNN America had obtained while their sister station was under military shut down. At the same moment that U.S. Army Major General James “Spider” Marks, was explaining to commentator Don Lemon that we were witnessing “an initial act of reconciliation”, Turkey seems to have been warning its citizens that violence was potentially on the rise.

In this country as well, the ability to instantly open one’s camera feed to the internet has recently proven to be an immensely powerful tool for resisting institutionally sanctioned forms of racism—capturing acts of violence, on the one hand, and subverting illegal search and seizure, on the other. Or both, as when Diamond Reynolds—under trauma we cannot imagine, watching the love of her life dying next to her—had this foresight; moments later, she would find herself handcuffed, her possessions (including her phone) taken, then held at the jail until early in the morning. If Reynolds had not uploaded these moments to Facebook Live, we cannot imagine it could have been preserved. This brave act and others like it in recent years (notably Ramsey OrtaKevin Moore, and recently Christopher LeDay and Abdullah Muflahi), have brought national attention to something not new but finally receiving serious attention because, now, the public can see and hear it.

In a scenario where the citizen and law enforcement officer find themselves at odds, the citizen’s ability to distribute that footage instantly can make all the difference; otherwise, the footage can be all too easily destroyed or lost in bureaucratic paperwork. As we have argued in independently-written articles for this blog, “Appearing Unsuspiciously” and “Filming on the Front Lines (in America)”, emerging regional regulations mandating that law enforcement officers wear body cameras do not provide a sufficient answer to this problem because they are inherently biased—not only for the ‘first person’ perspective they assume, through which the citizen always appears in the suspect position, and as the object of police action—but also for the ways that body cameras can “become dislodged” or footage can be withheld from the public under the auspices of an ‘on-going investigation’ or ‘national security.’ In some cases, if the footage can be withheld long enough, the officers involved can escape disciplinary action by virtue of a statute of limitation.

This is just what happened this week in Austin, Texas; it is not yet clear how Austin-Statesman reporter Tony Plohetski got the Austin Police Department (APD) dashcam footage from June 2015, but it showed 26 year old elementary school teacher Breaion King’s excessively violent arrest as well as the overt espousal of racist views from APD officers, all for going 15mph over the speed limit on her lunch break. Though the APD has been apologetic since the footage surfaced on Thursday, Police Chief Art Acevedo says his hands are tied, under state civil service law, for further disciplinary action against the officers (beyond a written reprimand) because the incident happened over six months ago.

Last year, the ACLU released a series of apps that empower those facing a potential civil rights violation to film and quickly upload the footage to ACLU servers, preserving the footage for later investigation. The Mobile Justice app was designed to work quickly since, at the time of its development, law enforcement officers were taking bystanders’ phones and deleting pictures and videos without warrants (sometimes unsuccessfully). In 2014, the supreme court decided that 4th amendment protections would be extended to a person’s phone; this meant that warrants would be required to confiscate and/or browse the contents of a phone, even when the person is under arrest. Despite this protection, we still hear reports that evidence of misconduct is being confiscated or destroyed.

This is precisely why a petition forwarded to us this weekend is particularly troubling. The petition, begun by Julie Mastrine, asks Apple not to allow police to disable IPhone cameras, something now made possible by the use of infrared emitters. As an Apple spokeswoman explains:

An infrared emitter can be located in areas where picture or video capture is prohibited, and the emitter can generate infrared signals with encoded data that includes commands to disable the recording functions of devices. An electronic device can then receive the infrared signals, decode the data and temporarily disable the device's recording function based on the command.

While Apple claims the new encoded camera was designed to protect copyrighted content—such as concert performances and movies—Mastrine, with not undue skepticism, sees the potential abuse of this technology. As she writes: “The release of this technology would have huge implications, including the censoring of political dissidents, activists, and citizens who are recording police brutality.

Please sign the petition.

Although the use of existing cellphone and Wi-Fi signal jammers—devices that can render mobile communication inoperative within a certain radius of the jammer—are unquestionably illegal in this country, they have been proposed as a tool of both terrorism and national security, at least since President Obama’s inauguration. In 2014, the FCC had to release a brief re-affirming their illegality, with special reference to local and state law enforcement. Yet, the very nature of the device makes its use inherently difficult to detect.

If the newly patented infrared ‘kill command’ is allowed to be incorporated into future versions of the iPhone under the auspices of copyright protection, this will be a first step toward making signal jamming use acceptable in public spaces. It is not yet a part of the iPhone’s hardware or software architecture but, once it is, it seems unlikely that citizens could find an easy work-around without physically altering their smartphones, an option Apple has already planned against.

There is a much lamented function of iPhones and iPads commonly referred to as “Error 53”, a spring 2015 update to iOS9 that will brick an iPhone (even retroactively) if the iOS senses that the screen, flex cable, home button, or other sensitive parts have been altered. This is necessary, an Apple spokeswoman says, to protect the finger print data stored in the phone from being skimmed by “a malicious touch ID sensor” installed by non-Apple technicians.

Apple never warned its customers that attempting to modify the phone’s hardware would disable it permanently, and thus, a class action suit regarding Error 53 was filed this spring (now dismissed). However, nowhere has Apple or any court claimed that the prohibition against altering your phone’s hardware is, in itself, illegal. The point at issue in the suit was simply monetary loss of unfortunate customers. Even so, Apple won’t come near to making such a mistake a second time. So, once the infrared emitter sensor is installed in your shiny new iPhone 7, please read the license agreement. You should know whether, buried somewhere deep in the legal agreement, are the seeds of some ‘Error 54’.

We worry that these technology updates, staked out though they may be in the language of security, consumer privacy, or copyright protection, present a means for the abuse of power. Earlier this year, Apple made headlines for dramatically refusing the court order to unlock the phone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook for the FBI, on the basis that this would compromise the privacy of other iPhone customers; ultimately, CNN says, the FBI quietly and mysteriously cracked the security barrier without Apple’s help. The possibility that this new infrared disabling device will become a condition of having a phone—and thus of remaining a citizen photographer—however, makes us think twice about the eerily quiet way that this battle over civil liberties withered away, and what was really at stake there.

While the installation of malicious touch sensors is a possibility, the extreme measures taken to mitigate this ‘security risk’ seem unwieldy,  especially considering that hackers can now access your iPhone data via a simple iMessage. The point here is to say that we should be very suspicious of the way in which new security features are incorporated into our phones and other devices. The incorporation of fingerprint sensors into over 500 million iPhones (since 2014) arguably creates more of a security risk than the one it aims to mitigate. Most security mechanisms do this. What we need to pay attention to here are the liberties that are being limited by these mechanisms as 'mere collateral damage.' If the price of giving a device your information is government or corporate prohibition against protecting yourself, devices such as infrared emitters and Bluetooth beacons will continue to impede our civil liberties.

On the bright side, the sale of more than 500 million iPhones means there are potentially that many citizen journalists, that many points of contact to real events, and that many more times the likelihood that abuse, misconduct, and injustice will be open to the world’s view, without expert analysis, and without censorship. There are so many cellphone cameras on any given street corner today that once citizens decide that encounters between the police and community should be monitored closely by the people, following a model of redistributed responsibility rather than authoritarian security, it will become very hard for the police to take or destroy them all when misconduct occurs—unless we stand by and let Apple make it impossible for us to use cameras for this kind of monitoring in the first place.

Photography is a second amendment right. Please sign the petition.

Thank you to Charles Rice for drawing our attention to the footage from Austin, and to Michael Horswell for forwarding us Mastrine’s petition.

Lauren Guilmette is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy who works on feminist affect theory, the philosophy of photography, and ethics at Florida Atlantic University. She can be contacted here.

Robert Leib is a PhD Candidate in Philosophy working in social and political philosophy, the philosophy of language, and ethics at Villanova University. He can be contacted here.