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Spring 2021 - Tuesdays 6:00-10:00 ET

Surveillance Studies: Contemporary digital videos and The State CINE-GT 2836

Syllabus 4.0

(make sure you are viewing the latest version of the syllabus, which is always at

Instructor: Howard Besser         Office Hours via Zoom (sign up on the Office Hours google sheets, or email to schedule your slot): Tues 4:30-6:00 & at other times by appointment
Important links to Zoom addresses, online course books and films, etc. are in NYU Classes | Surveillance Studies | Resources | Important-Links

Note: All class sessions will be online in real-time (synchronous) via Zoom.

WARNING: The class will look at a number of disturbing short videos of violence at protests.

Course Description:  This graduate seminar will explore video, social network, and other technological developments employed by those advocating or demonstrating for social change and by state entities they may or may not confront. Objects of study will include cellphone videos of police misconduct, police bodycams, surveillance videos, "Karen" videos, drone videos, videos used to illustrate human rights violations, Smart Cities, etc.

The class will study the software and hardware development that made these possible, as well as how these digital objects circulate and become part of political discourse. The course will examine this type of digital object within broader issues of privacy, surveillance, policy, documentation, and how "ephemeral" videos can contribute to history. The class will also cover issues of archiving and preservation of this type of unedited material. Techniques such as facial recognition, gait recognition, artificial intelligence, and analysis of Big Data will also be explored. The class will also examine the ethical issues around circulation of these videos (such as the sensitivity of families of murder victims when explicit videos of the murder are screened before hundreds of thousands of people).

The class will include case studies of Black Lives Matter, the Occupy Movement, Smart Cities, and the surveillance of Uighur communities.

Required readings:  Only one full book and chapters from two other books are required, but there will be many shorter readings. Everything is available online:

 • Zimmer, Catherine (2015). Surveillance Cinema, NYU Press, DOI:10.18574/nyu/9781479864379.001.0001  (available online through NYU Scholarship Online or ProQuest E-Books Central.) We will read this entire book (though chapters 4 and 5 will be optional).
 • Doctorow, Cory (2021). How to Destory Surveillance Capitalism, Internet: OneZero Medium (available to read for free online, but with limited number of access times; E-Book or print edition available from the author). We will read the entire 146 page book.
Zuboff, Shoshana (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, NY: PublicAffairs, DOI:10.1080/24701475.2019.1706138  (available online through ebscohost) We may or may not read one chapter of this book.
 • Ferguson, Andrew Guthrie (2017). The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement, NYU Press (available online through ProQuest E-Books Central.) We will read two chapters of this book.


You will watch a variety of films on your own time schedule. The films are available through NYU Libraries Course Reserve under CINE-GT2836:
As a class, we may or may not watch these film or segments, but you are free to watch on your own:
       NYU Classes This learning management system may host some of the readings for the course . Access classes.nyu.edu with a valid NYU Net ID and password.  Readings that are not available on the open Web may be available in the "Documents and Readings" section of our NYU Classes site.  Note:  The list of required readings is always on your syllabus.  The syllabus should be your guide to what you need to do, and sometimes the links on the syllabus are to the latest versions of readings (where the NYU Classes site may contain older versions).  There may be readings on the NYU Classes site that are only recommended (not necessarily required).

Objectives:  After completing the course you should be able to  …

Requirements:  Course grades [A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C, C-, D, F] will be determined by performance in the following areas.

Attendance and Participation (25%)  Attend all meetings of the course.  Participate actively in all discussions.  All assignments and readings will be listed on the syllabus on the date they are due, so be sure to scan ahead on the syllabus

Documenting Security Cameras (10%)  Choose a mall, a commercial or residential neighborhood, or a  large building. Find security cameras there and document where they are, whether or not they move, whether they cover all areas, etc. In 1-2 pages of text, speculate why they are there, and what would happen to you if you were to take photographs of the cameras or ask security staff questions about who was watching the cameras and how long they keep the recordings. DO NOT actually take photos of the cameras or ask questions about camera monitoring unless you both live in the US and you are willing to take risks (like having someone call security authorities, or being kicked out of the building). Turn in both a written version of this, and give a short oral report to the class. Due Feb 23.

Present video  (5%)  Find a video of a police action, a protest, or surveillance. Present this video to the class along with your analysis about the video from the perspectives of policy, access, ethics, etc. Should the video have been made public? Who is helped by the existence of the video and who is harmed?  Should this video be widely accessible? Should it be preserved as part of the historical record? (and if so, who should be responsible for preserving it?) Due Mar 9.

Either Sub-topical Summary or Summary of Global Uprisings webinar and webpage  (10%)    Due Mar 23. Do just one of these:

Present a book to the class  (10%)  Read at least 1/3 of a book on surveillance, artificial intelligence, privacy, facial recognition, policy & ethics, etc. Present a 10-minute oral-only summary of the book to the rest of the class, along with a series of questions for class discussion. Below are books you could choose from, or suggest a different one to the instructor. Due in April.

Paper/Project Proposal  (5%)  A proposal for your final paper or project, including preliminary list of sources and a summary of what you intend to do and how you intend to do it.  (2-4 pages--can be less if you've discussed the topic extensively with the instructor). 

Individual Final project  (35%)  A substantive, in-depth, individual project or paper. (Most papers will be approximately 15 pages long, but this depends on your topic and approach. Length will be negotiated in response to your paper/project proposal.) This project or paper could be an expansion of one of your previous assignments. This project will have a written component (due the last day of class), plus you will be graded on your class presentation of your project during the final class session. Class presentations will be 10-15 min, with an additional 3-5 min for questions/comments. (You will be cut off at 15 min; do not go any longer than that!)


Tu Feb 2  Introduction to course (week 1)

Topics covered:

Tu Feb 9 Cinema as Surveillance  (week 2)

Assignments due before class:
Topics covered in class:

Tu Feb 16  First Person Cameras, Compulsion to Document, Cinema as Forensic Evidence (week 3)

Assignments due before class:
Topics covered in class:

Tu Feb 23  Surveillance of Public Spaces, Social Media (week 4)

Assignments due before class:
Topics covered in class:

Tu Mar 2  Vast Deployment of Digital Cameras: Drones, Street Cams, SpyCams, Police BodyCams, Software  (week 5)

Assignments due before class:
Watch: Poitras' Citizen Four, 113 min (2014)
Watch: Peeping' drones spying on people in St. Louis, KSDK News, May 3, 2018 (3 min)
Watch: How Peeping Drones Could Be Spying On You Without You Knowing It, Today Show, May 9, 2018 (4 min)
Watch: Interview on Surveillance and AI with Kade Crockford (ACLU Massachusetts), Jan 3, 2020 (20 min)
Listen to: Jon Fasman, Surveillance & Local Police: How Technology Is Evolving Faster Than Regulation, Fresh Air, Jan 27, 2021 (49 min)
Read: End Two Federal Programs that Fund Police Surveillance Tech, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Jan 25, 2021
Read: Drones. AI. Bodycams. Is Technology Making Us Safer?, Government Technology, 2019
Topics covered in class:

Tu Mar 9 Turning Cameras Against State Actors (1), Public Circulation of Digital Videos (week 6)

Assignments due before class:
Present a digital video (of protest, confrontation, or surveillance) to the class (see Assignments)
Watch: Stone' Snowden, 134 min (2016)
Topics covered in class:

Tu Mar 16 Dealing with massive amounts of Surveillance data (week 7)

Assignments due before class:

Watch: Kantayya's Coded Bias, 90 min (2020)
Topics covered in class:

Tu Mar 23  Turning Cameras Against State Actors (2) Adding to Public Discourse and to the Historical Record:

Case Studies of Black Lives Matter, Occupy Movement, Arab Spring, Human Rights (week 8)

Assignments due before class:
Topics covered in class:

Tu Mar 30 Landlord Surveillance [Guest Erin McElroy, NYU AI Now Institute], Surveillance Capitalism (week 9)

Assignments due before class:
Look over these websites
Topics covered in class:

Tu Apr 6  Karen Videos; Ethics of Watching; Case Study: Police BodyCams | Guest Snowden Becker (week 10)

Assignments due before class:
Read (or look over):
Topics covered in class:

Tu Apr 13  Journalism in the Age of Cellphone Video, Journalistic reconstructions; review of Human Rights from Mar 23 | Guest Haley Willis, NY Times Visual Investigations Unit (week 11)

Assignments due before class:
book summary--Twitter & Tear Gas-Clara
Topics covered in class:

Tu Apr 20  Case Study: Surveillance of Uighur Communities, "predictive policing"  (week 12)

Assignments due before class:
book summaries
Watch Spielberg's Minority Report, 145 min (2002)
Watch: Mass Rapes. Sweeping Surveillance. Forced Labor. Exposing China’s Crackdown on Uyghur Muslims, Democracy Now, Feb 4, 2021 (20 min)
Topics covered in class:

Tu Apr 27  Private Sector joins State Surveillance--Case Study: Smart Cities, Smart Homes--Guests Maria Esteva and Sharon Strover (week 13)

Assignments due before class:
Topics covered in class:

Tu May 4  Final Classroom Presentations (week 14)

Assignments due before class:
Topics covered in class:


Standard Language Required for CS Syllabi


Tisch Policy on Academic Integrity
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Health & Wellness Resources
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anna.mccarthy@nyu.edu and/or Administrative Director Ken Sweeney kcs1@nyu.edu for help connecting to resources.

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Staff at NYU Libraries has prepared a guide (http://guides.nyu.edu/c.php?g=276579&p=1844806) covering services and resources of particular relevance to graduate students. These include research services and guides by topic area, subject specialists, library classes, individual consultations, data services, and more. There's also a range of study spaces, collaborative work spaces, and media rooms at Bobst, the library's main branch.

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