A silent walk through an observed city
Every journey starts with a single step. In 2016 mine was finally getting around to sorting out my crappy online passwords. I took a short cybersecurity course and decided to pay it forward by offering help sessions in a local café. This grew into The Interrogang – a monthly reading group for data issues. In 2017 I became an ‘Ingenius’ at The Glass Room London, an interactive exhibition into data privacy visited by 20,000 people. I wanted to bring this home to Birmingham so I started a newsletter called Observed City which ran for a year. Together with Open Rights Group Birmingham, we set up a mini version of the Glass Room exhibition at my local library.
Now this series of steps has moved from activism to art in the form of a walk commission by The Dazzle Club – a research collaboration which explores surveillance in public space. For the Birmingham Dazzle Walk, I proposed using age-related camouflage as counter-surveillance measures to walk silently and invisibly across the city.
In the style of a surveillance report, here is the walk log.
Birmingham city centre, 18 March 2021
6.15pm the Electric Cinema, Station St
I meet my walk guest – the neurodivergent, experimental artist and writer, Kruse – to lead her through a city that was once the UK’s CCTV capital, with an estimated 100,000 CCTV security cameras in 2020. I am only allowed one walk invitation due to lockdown restrictions. The city is empty. I find this perturbing, threatening; Kruse finds it bliss.
In my bag is make-up to help erase the shadows and features that demark my face. Kruse applies a white foundation. We look like blank ghosts. As women over 50, we are already invisible in society. We enhance that with low-contrast clothing – a beige mac, a light hat, jumper, skirt and gloves.
We take a single photo of our beigeness, blending against the station wall, and turn off our phones so we won’t be digitally tracked by the data emitted from our devices.
We are now silent.
We start to walk.
6.30pm Birmingham Media Eye 1, Grand Central / New St Station
The walk begins in twilight under one of three huge 'Media Eyes' staring out from Grand Central shopping centre above Birmingham’s main New Street train station. Each eye targets and scans humans for demographic and emotions-based data in order to serve ads. These Orwellian Big Brother eye-shaped screens look down on public space, profiling us for its own commercial profit. The largest screen is 28.80m wide x 5.28m high. Somehow they have passed the city’s planning process. My references for these are not benign or benevolent: they represent dystopia, control and a removal of freedoms.
How is it ok that they face out from the shopping centre into public space? How is it ok to profile the public for profit without public consent?
6.30pm New St Station
We walk through the station, which drips dome-shaped cameras from the ceiling. They blend in surreptitiously, looking like lights that aren’t on. Last summer I took a photo of them – it seemed a fair exchange as they took images of me. An official challenged me and said she’d have to report me. Apparently I needed a permit to take their photos but they don’t need a permit to take footage of me. I explained what I was doing to two police officers, who were unconcerned. This is where being a white woman over 50 offers privilege.
6.35pm Birmingham Media Eye 2, Stephenson St
We emerge under the largest ‘eye’, which is off or just not displaying ads. A soft-lit emptiness lets us see behind the black screen. There is a single green light – it is on. We watch the watchers for a short time then we remove our masks and head into the city’s main shopping streets.
6.40pm New St to Corporation St
It is eerily quiet except for the occasional screaming of the trams and some gulls far overhead. A man further ahead claps a beat to fill the silence. The auditory soundtrack of an empty city is intense. We blend into the walls and pavements but in the darker areas feel exposed and vulnerable in our beigeness.
I lead but we walk side by side. This is the ‘grey man’ theory of invisibility – don’t act unusually, blend in with the crowd. The ability to remain unseen can be a powerful protection, particularly to women walking at night. The case of Sarah Everard has raised the hackles of every woman. I am glad to be walking with Kruse in the empty streets. The last time I came to town in November I was followed briefly – on a Saturday at 5.30pm in Brindleyplace, a highly surveilled and patrolled area. Cameras do not protect and they are not always a deterrent.
6.45pm Great Western Arcade
At night the cameras are less visible but they are still there in trees, on buildings, integrated into street furniture, behind digital billboard screens, on strategic street corners. It’s harder to spot the cameras as the walk progresses but I am becoming attuned.
In the Great Western Arcade, the tech is there at the start and end of the 545m-long Victorian walkway. It is deserted. I can hear our soft heels tapping on the tiles and our ghostly images reflect in the closed shop windows.
6.50pm Colmore Circus Queensway to Priory Queensway
The Gaumont Cinema used to be here. I saw The Sound of Music there as a child, six times, and remember standing in the long queues. It was full of life and people. Now it is empty office blocks and paved walkways. I spy a Victorian-style lamppost but with domes where there should be lights. Like us, are the cameras trying to remain unseen?
Town used to be a place to come to escape and enjoy the pleasures on offer. Now we are watched and recorded and followed everywhere we go. How does this change how we act and how we feel about coming here? Does it feel safer or oppressive? What has been lost? What has been gained?
In our youth, my generation had the freedom to walk without relentless surveillance and tracking, and this freedom has been lost – a loss normalised and embraced first with CCTV and now with digitalisation and smart city initiatives. There is no choice in this.
Town used to be about people, now it is all about technology. Is it in service of its citizens or other interests?
6.55pm Corporation St
It is almost fully dark now. As night falls, invisibility brings power in remaining unseen but also powerlessness in having to hide from potential predators. Being a woman, the night often feels shut off, but this walk feels good as we reclaim the space. Often I clock eyes with people when I walk because I am hypervigilant and always on alert. But now we weave unseen like ectoplasm through groups of people at bus stops and outside takeaways who don’t seem to register us at all.
7pm Birmingham Control Centre, Lancaster Circus
The turning point of the walk is the Birmingham Control Centre, one of the leading CCTV control centres in Europe with commercial clients across the city and also direct links to West Midlands Police.
Its Google profile images are straight out of a Hollywood movie. Four watchers (men?) monitor several hundred screens and the scene is bathed in electric blue. Another stylised purple has a single man walking (stalking?), casting an ominous shadow with his footsteps. A third in red has someone typing in a code to enable (disable?) an alarm. In reality, 1 Lancaster Circus is brutalist Birmingham 1970s concrete. On every corner, top and bottom, a camera points.
We cross underneath the Aston Expressway and look up, watching them knowing they are watching us. Then we turn and stand with our backs to it, instead overlooking the subways that subjugate pedestrians to walk below the city.
I imagine myself appearing on their screens, visible but indefinable. I feel subversive, a citizen spy in a beige mac. A female Bourne. Maybe a Hollywood response is how data privacy becomes a more sexy topic to engage with rather than one that is always at the bottom of the to-do list.
Akiko Busch, in ‘How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency’, says: “Invisibility can be corporeal or ethereal. It can be chosen or conferred. it can be power or powerlessness. It can be desired or despised. It can be ambiguous and full of intrigue, or straightforward and even banal.”
This walk also walks this line.
7.05pm Aston University campus
We enter the campus, another highly surveilled area. It is well lit. They are well versed in privacy and offer degrees in cybersecurity. I once came to a cybersecurity conference here. There are countless cameras.
We follow behind three young female black students who are dressed head to toe in black. They are our mirror opposite and seemingly in perfect disguise against the night. But they are more at risk of biases in facial recognition algorithms than any other demographic. Facial recognition systems consistently show the poorest accuracy in subjects who are female, black and 18-30 years old. I want to invite them to walk with me.
As an older women I am becoming increasingly invisible as my value to society declines. I am also discovering age-related biases that manifest digitally and ultimately exclude. Last year, my UK passport application failed the automated check saying ‘we can’t find the outline of your head’. My slowly whitening hair against the white photobooth background had confused the system – not for the first time. At the data privacy exhibition The Glass Room London in 2017, Adam Harvey’s facial recognition exhibit MegaPixels often failed to register my face at all – or, if it did, it produced matches that were only 60% accurate.
A middle-aged white women misidentified in a white space is not a big deal, but…
7.10pm Wattilisk, Birmingham Crown Court, Newton St/Dalton St
This gift of age-related camouflage – greying hair, pale features and low-contrast clothing – offers a natural ability for non-detection against my home city’s well-known prevalence of cameras.
If cameras struggle to find either the outline of a head or facial recognition markers from my blonde facial features then perhaps I am free. I am a human female ‘Wattilisk’ – a city sculpture that abstracts the head of city engineer James Watt until it is becomes unrecognisable as an individual. Or, working in the opposite direction, I can decide to become visible and identifiable once more.
The Wattilisk embodies the simultaneously empowering and disempowering nature of invisibility. As a symbolic totem pole of facial recognition, it also offers an interesting discussion point.
7.15pm Dale End
Dale End is a road valley that dips between the law courts and the main high street shops. It is less well lit and one of Birmingham’s crime spots. It is also the busiest section so far with small groups gathering outside McDonald’s and cycle couriers collecting takeway food. Here is life and a glimpse of the city as it was. For middle-aged women needing to pee, it is also the only place we find that offers a comfort break.
As we enter the high street, the digital advertising infrastructure increases in volume – two tiny cameras on either side of each.
7.20pm Birmingham Media Eye 3, front of New St Station.
The walk ends at the third and final Media Eye. It posts government Covid-19 messages about ‘Hands, Face, Space’ then advertises a mattress then goes black. The system is broken. Perhaps we can build back better. Insert your own LOL, according to your opinion on this.
The station plaza has street lamps and tree sculptures with a dozen or so dome-cameras hanging from them. I stand underneath and blend.
Kruse is incredulous: “There are so many cameras.”
…but hardly any people for them to watch.
It is night and it is lockdown but I am filled with the strongest vision that this is our future – a city devoid of citizens – because who wants to go somewhere to be profiled, predicted and exploited? All that remains are orange or turquoise-branded delivery cyclists dropping food supplies at speed to the outskirts where there are fewer cameras endlessly watching and to where Birmingham's citizens have retreated.
I turn my phone back on and on multiple apps my ID pops up.
I am back in the digital matrix.
I am logged.
Fiona Cullinan is a writer, editor and a co-founder of Walkspace, with an art practice exploring themes of infrastructure, privacy, diaries, memory, feminism and ageing. Further writing can be found at: fionacullinan.com.
The Birmingham Dazzle Walk also appears on The Dazzle Club Instagram.