What does it mean to resist surveillance?

What does it mean to resist surveillance?

By Karen Levy

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If you talk to a long-haul trucker about why they chose their occupation, there’s a high likelihood they’ll mention autonomy and freedom—that they didn’t want someone looking over their shoulder all the time. But increasingly, truckers find themselves being monitored by surveillance technologies that fly in the face of this idea and change what it means to be a trucker. In my research studying the rise of digital surveillance in the long-haul trucking industry, resistance has been a central theme. Truckers engage in a wide range of practices to push back against the technological regimes used to monitor them—in particular, the electronic logging device, or ELD. ELDs, which are mandatory for long-haul truckers in the United States, are hard-wired into a truck’s engine and record data about drivers’ locations and how many hours they’ve been working (which are capped by federal law). Often, the systems are integrated with broader fleet management systems that record a plethora of additional information about truckers’ behaviors—things like how hard truckers brake, how much fuel they use, even their brain waves and eye movement.

Truckers, for their part, have developed a number of ways to push back against these technologies. Sometimes, this can be as simple and direct as destroying the digital monitor by smashing it with a hammer—sending a clear message to an employer about how welcome the “digital babysitter” is in the truck cab. In other cases, truckers exploit the inherent limitations of the devices—for example, using multiple sign-in IDs (what some drivers call “ghost logs”) to effectively double their driving time without exhausting their recorded hours. Resistance can take the form of organized protest against digital monitoring, as it has several times in trucking history—a “slow roll,” in which truckers drive very slowly on a major artery to snarl traffic and draw attention to their concerns, is an example.

Perhaps my personal favorite strategy is described in a YouTube video posted by one trucker, who demonstrates his derision for the “built-in snitch” of the electronic logging device. In the video, the trucker demonstrates how the ELD—which runs on a Windows operating system—can be “hacked” to play games. He shows how a sequence of keystrokes can be entered to bring up the games menu and play solitaire, even when that menu has been initially “grayed out” and made inaccessible. This may seem like a playful activity, but the trucker’s tone of voice in describing the workaround demonstrates just how significant it is. It’s an act of defiance—one that demonstrates a temporary but meaningful triumph over the constraints placed on him by the technology and the company that put it in his cab.

These are just a few of the many resistance strategies truckers use in response to digital surveillance. Considering the range of practices, a few lessons stand out. The first is simply how variable these practices are—they may be overt or covert; individual or collective; they may be designed to trick, destroy, or foil the technology. They draw on a wide variety of resources, including knowledge passed around among truckers at truck stops and on online message boards—as well as information provided by trucking firms themselves.

This last point may seem like a surprising one. But critically, resistance to digital monitoring in trucking isn’t only a bottom-up phenomenon, led by workers against the powers that be. In some cases, trucking firms require their drivers to break the rules, and give them explicit instructions about how to thwart the capabilities of the digital monitor. In one of my observations at a trucking firm, for example, I watched a dispatcher instruct a driver, who was out of legal driving time, to “roll” the remaining handful of miles to a pickup point at less than fifteen miles per hour—the threshold at which, the dispatcher knew, the digital monitor would register the truck as “driving.” Firms sometimes want to have it both ways: they benefit from the managerial oversight digital monitoring affords, but also want drivers to move goods at the pace of business—which can sometimes require breaking the rules about how much drivers can drive.

This invites another important question: how meaningful is truckers’ resistance? In many cases, resistance against digital monitoring doesn’t really disrupt the material or structural conditions in which truckers find themselves—it doesn’t always make them more money, or get them home to their families more frequently, or otherwise improve their lot in any easily measurable way. Worse, we could even understand some trucking resistance as a form of self-exploitation: it may further reproduce and entrench a system that requires truckers to work long, dangerous hours for minimal pay. The transportation economist Michael Belzer has compared long-haul trucks to “sweatshops on wheels” because of the labor conditions that the industry entails; are resistant truckers effectively signing themselves up to work additional hours in the sweatshop? Are their victories hollow in the absence of institutional change?

To my mind, the answer to this question is no. Resistance to surveillance in trucking is meaningful even if it doesn’t have systemic impact. The solitaire “hack” hits this point home. Playing solitaire might seem small and trivial: it doesn’t materially change the conditions truckers find themselves in. But it does accomplish something else: it helps the trucker re-assert his identity and his prized autonomy, even when the deck is stacked against him. It gives back the sense of control over one’s labor that the technology has taken away.

Surveillance technology is rapidly proliferating across all kinds of workplaces—not only the cabs of long-haul trucks, but warehouses, offices, hospitals, universities, even our own homes. As labor increasingly finds itself under the eye of management, we must be attentive to the ways in which it can impede workers’ autonomy and harm their well-being—but also how, and why, people push back.

Karen Levy is a faculty member in the Department of Information Science at Cornell University and associated faculty at Cornell Law School. She is a New America Fellow.