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A web comic from Colombia discusses surveillance and gender in Latin America—to the rhythm of salsa

Categories: Advocacy, Human Rights, Privacy, Surveillance, Tech Industry, Women-Gender, Colombia, Latin America
Una de las escneas del cómic Tour Delirio: Salsa y Vigilancia. Imagen utilizada bajo una licencia Creative Commons Atribución-NoComercial-CompartirIgual 4.0 Internacional (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). [1]

“…Well, cameras are everywhere.” A scene from Tour Delirio: Salsa y Vigilancia [2] (Tour Delirio: Salsa and Surveillance). Image taken from Archive.org [3] and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) [4].

Cities are spaces governed by technology. This is not just true for smart cities [5], which continue to raise concerns about people’s privacy [6], but also for many urban areas. In such areas, nowadays, security cameras and ‘smart’ transport and energy infrastructures are rapidly proliferating, while the general population is increasingly adopting communication technologies that keeps them online everywhere and all the time.

Unfortunately, these trends reflect an issue that is at the forefront of the fight for human rights: government and corporate surveillance. And the issue becomes even more urgent when approached from a Latin American and gender perspective.

This led María Juliana Soto [7] to create a multimedia project entitled Tour Delirio: Salsa y Vigilancia [8] (Tour Delirio: Salsa and Surveillance), a webcomic that encourages dialogue about internet surveillance — set to the rhythm of salsa music.

I spoke with María Juliana Soto about surveillance in Latin America and the implications of state, corporate, and social surveillance from a human rights perspective. She says:

Promover el tema de la seguridad digital y la privacidad en internet ha sido un reto para mí. […] Las corporaciones nos han ganado, lo tenemos todo muy naturalizado. […] Pues tienen a su favor la facilidad de los servicios que ofrecen, por ejemplo, WhatsApp, la narrativa de lo gratis, de lo necesario, de lo indispensable. Mis amigas me miran raro cuando les digo que hablemos por Signal, por ejemplo. Tenemos que hacerle más preguntas a esas narrativas que naturalizan que entreguemos nuestros datos e información a terceros.

Raising awareness of online security and internet privacy has been a challenge for me. […] Corporations have tricked us into normalizing their practices. […] Because the services they offer work in their favor. For example, WhatsApp, which supports the narrative of the free, the necessary, and the indispensable. My friends look at me weird when I tell them to use Signal, for example. We have to ask more questions to those companies that normalize how we deliver our data and information to third parties.

Tour Delirio is an effort to bring the conversation to the people. As the comic’s creator indicated, there is a need to raise awareness about the importance of cross-examining services like Facebook and Google, which have faced criticism for collecting huge amounts of data about their users and then using it in not-so-transparent ways.

Con Tour Delirio lo que quiero es despertar esas preguntas, esa curiosidad de saber adónde van nuestros datos, o si alguien lee nuestras conversaciones. Despertar la curiosidad, y un poco la malicia frente al uso de tecnologías. […] Como ciudadanos nos falta más curiosidad y más perspicacia. […] A la tecnología le hemos creído todo.

What I want with Tour Delirio is to raise those questions about where our data is going or if someone is reading our conversations. Arouse curiosity, and a little savvyness toward the use of these technologies. […] As citizens we lack curiosity and deeper insight. […] We’ve bought into everything about technology.

What is not yet being talked about?

Surveillance is an issue present within several problems that are not new to Latin America. Hence the importance of discourse that questions surveillance and privacy:

No se habla mucho de finalmente a quién se vigila. Hay comunidades que se vigilan para que no les pase nada, y hay otras a las que se les vigila para tenerlos controlados. Es un secreto a voces que a unos se les cuida y a otros se les controla. La vigilancia ha sido equiparada con seguridad. En estos días cualquier candidato político habla de cámaras de vigilancia y de aumentar el uso de dispositivos tecnológicos para mejorar la seguridad en las ciudades. A pesar de que existen estudios y posturas críticas que demuestran la ineficacia de estas estrategias y el riesgo en el que ponen el derecho a la privacidad. Sin embargo, no hay una exploración crítica ni se cuestionan estas propuestas.

There isn’t much talk about who is being monitored. There are communities being actively monitored for safety purposes, and others that are monitored for control. It is an open secret that some people are taken care of and others are controlled. Surveillance has been equated with security. These days any political candidate talks about security cameras and increasing the use of devices to improve security in cities. Although there are studies and critical stances that demonstrate the inefficiency of these strategies and the risk they pose to privacy rights. Regardless, there is no serious widespread critical exploration and these proposals continue to go unquestioned.

The conversation then turned to what privacy might mean within a Latin American context:

¿Qué es la privacidad en un barrio popular de una ciudad como Cali, en Colombia? Donde las casas son de puertas abiertas, donde familias numerosas comparten una misma casa, donde la gente está afuera, en el barrio, contándose todo. Hay una idea de privacidad que se rompe todo el tiempo. Otras culturas son mucho más distanciadas. Así se arman las comunidades en estos territorios. Muy de puertas pa’ fuera. Lo que queda adentro es mucho menos en comparación a otras sociedades. En este contexto, hablar de la importancia de la privacidad supone un esfuerzo distinto, una estrategia distinta.

What is privacy in a popular neighborhood of a city like Cali, in Colombia? Cali is a place where people keep their front doors open and large families live together, where people spend a lot of time outside in the neighborhood, conversing. There is an idea of ​​privacy that breaks all the time. People are much more distanced from each other in other cultures. This is how our communities assemble in these places, there’s very much an “open door” policy. We stay inside much less than other societies. In this context, talking about the importance of privacy is a particular effort, a directed strategy.

The intersection of gender and surveillance

All of the people in Tour Delirio are women. The intersection of spying and women—or gender issues—along with differences in social classes and ethnic discrimination are core issues in a broader conversation about surveillance and privacy:

El tema de género apareció con la música. Yo empecé jugando a hacer una playlist con una amiga, con canciones que podrían habernos dedicado Google o las oficinas de vigilancia de Estados Unidos. Era un juego. Pero escuchando las letras caímos en cuenta de que había algo más. Estas canciones hablaban de mujeres. Más allá del chiste de que “every breath you take” parece escrita por la NSA [National Security Agency, por sus siglas en inglés], nos dimos cuenta de que esto es sobre un hombre que vigila a una mujer. Y de ahí pasamos a la salsa, que es la música que nos conecta más fuertemente con nuestra ciudad, con Cali. En la salsa encontramos una representación del amor como una relación de propiedad. Por generaciones hemos cantado y bailado canciones que dicen que somos propiedad de alguien y en esa medida, somos susceptibles a ser vigiladas.

Estas relaciones culturales entre violencia y género han sido un tema abordado por las feministas desde hace rato. En cuanto a la música, las críticas y los análisis se han enfocado, especialmente, a revisar el reggeatón. ¿Pero y la salsa? Ahí le pusimos más cuidado a las mezclas y a la playlist. Hemos usado un montón de metáforas para hablar de privacidad y vigilancia: el gran hermano, por ejemplo o el panóptico… Pero estos son imaginarios heredados, de activismos que han surgido en Europa o en Estados Unidos y en consecuencia, no tenemos la misma conexión con ellos. Tour Delirio propone utilizar metáforas que salen de acá, de nuestro contexto cultural. Un contexto en el que además de ser sujetos de vigilancia, si se es mujer esto puede ser muchísimo más peligroso y constante. Las historias de vigilancia que cuenta Tour Delirio son historias cotidianas que nos invitan a reflexionar sobre la relación que tenemos con nuestros teléfonos, con las cámaras de seguridad en las ciudades o con las redes sociales que usamos a diario. Además, nos invitan a cuestionar las prácticas de vigilancia social que existen en nuestro contexto latinoamericano y que se reflejan en expresiones culturales como la salsa.

The gender theme appeared with music. I created a playlist with a friend with songs that Google or the US surveillance offices could have dedicated to us. It was a game. But when we listened to the lyrics, we realized that there was something else. These songs talked about women. Beyond the joke that “every breath you take” seems like it could be written by the NSA [the United States’ National Security Agency], we realized that this is about a man that spies on a woman. And from there salsa came along, which is the music that connected us more strongly with our city, with Cali. In salsa we find a representation of love as ownership. For generations we have sung and danced songs that tell us that we are the property of someone and to that extent, we become more susceptible to being controlled.

These cultural relations between violence and gender have been a topic addressed by feminists for a long time. As for music, criticism and analysis have focused especially on reggaetón. But what about salsa? Here we put more care into the mix and the playlist. We’ve used a lot of metaphors to talk about privacy and surveillance: Big Brother, for example, or the panopticon… But these are inherited imageries, passed down from activism that sprung from Europe or the US, and consequently we do not have the same connection with ours. Tour Delirio proposes to use metaphors that spring forth from here, from our own cultural context. A context that, aside from being subjects of surveillance, if the subject is a woman, she can be subjected to much more persistent dangers. The history of spying that Tour Delirio tells are daily tales that invite us to reflect about the relationship that we have with our phones, with security cameras throughout the city or with social media we use daily. Besides, we invite them to question the social surveillance practices that exist in our Latin American context and that are reflected in cultural expressions like salsa music.

Ángel Carrión [9] collaborated with the creation of this article.