On March 3rd and 4th 2014, Centre for Criminology Research Associate, Dr Gavin Smith (The Australian National University), co-hosted an event with Associate Professor Rob Ackland (The Australian National University) in Canberra, Australia on 'Smart Sensing and Big Data Analytics: Governing through Information'.

Personal data emission, requisition and transmission are habitual procedures in today’s information saturated societies. A proliferation in deployment of sensing technologies such as the networkable 'smartphone' or 'smartcard' has revolutionized the means and ends of mass data capture and computation. Motion sensing units are programmed to capture the electromagnetic radiation emanating from socio-material flows and to circulate it in machine-readable formats. Detection devices are now widely dispersed and it has become impracticable for social beings to evade exposure as they transit. A toll road monitor, for instance, records vehicle details, a cookie logs web-browsing preferences, a biometric scanner measures biological materials, and a microchip recurrently stores swipe card transactions. Humdrum occurrences, like daily coffee intake, grocery purchases, travel patterns, leisure routines, and friendship networks, have been recalibrated as ‘character clues’ for the creation of data profiles. When aggregated with metadata arising in discrete governmental, work, health and consumption milieus, the dispositions and motivations of persons and populations can be retrospectively mined and then prospectively modulated. Practices of smart sensing, and processes of data convergence, are transforming profoundly techniques of knowing and systems of knowledge.

Probabilities are being ascertained from the systematic analysis of de-contextualised temporal, spatial and sensory data and these automatons are then subsequently applied to identify trends, risks and opportunities - and to optimise interventions and solutions. Boundless possibilities now exist for correlative determination, statistical modelling and preventive prognostication: for preemptively influencing an as yet unknown future. It is evident that ‘Smart Sensing’ and ‘Big Data Analytics’ are in vogue as prevailing organisational strategies in a multitude of domains, from health and education to law enforcement and economics. But what exactly do they mean and imply? How can they be used to revolutionize the ways we conduct research and execute services? How, for instance, might better understandings of the social body emerge through computational analytics? How might this improve welfare delivery and social justice? How, in contrast, might privacy rights be compromised by economic and governmental rationalities? How, in other words, are these techniques being presently utilized and how might they be reconfigured in years to come? It was these types of question that informed the symposium papers.

The symposium featured a multitude of papers that reflected on these circumstances from contrasting disciplinary perspectives. A mix of social scientists, computer scientists and legal scholars, for instance, were involved in an exchange of ideas. The event probed the social, political, economical, technical, cultural, legal, moral and policy repercussions of ‘Smart Sensing’ and ‘Big Data Analytics’ and it explored empirically and conceptually current applications in several intersecting substantive fields. It enabled a conversation to emerge on the socio-technical dimensions of an emerging 'sensor society', the potentials and the perils of this situation in terms of law, polity and culture. 

Speakers in the program included the likes of Associate Professor Mark Andrejevic (University of Queensland) who discussed the figure and logics of the drone as a means of thinking about how information collection operates in an increasingly sensor driven context of mediated activity. A recording of his keynote talk can be accessed here. Other participants included Professor Michael Smithson (Australian National University) who debunked some of the techno-utopian myths around Big Data analytics, Professor Deborah Lupton (University of Canberra) who focused critical attention on the quantified self phenomenon and Dr Lyria Bennett Moses, Professor Janet Chan and Professor Fleur Johns (UNSW Law) who explored how Big Data is influencing judicial decision making and law enforcement protocols. Dr Mamoun Alazab and Professor Rod Broadhurst (Australian National University) discussed their cybercrime observatory and its focus on analysing 'phishing', 'malware' and 'ransomware' communications, while Dr Emmeline Taylor (Australian National University) looked at the social implications of microchipping schoolchildren with RFID tags. There were also a number of computer science presentations, notably by Pascal Van Hentenryck (Australian National University), Associate Professor Rob Ackland (The Australian National University) and by Simon Barry (Data Science, CSIRO), that considered how computational optimisation strategies - and smart technologies - are changing the way we can access, know and regulate the social world. Overall, the event illustrated the need for criminologists and social scientists to engage more with how computer science logics, designs and programmes - and ubiquitous sensing technologies - are profoundly transforming territories of government and refiguring the embodied experiences of publics. It is envisaged that the papers from the event will be included in a special issue journal collection.