Abstract: Media and surveillance scholars often comment on the purported empowering quality of transparency, which they expect participatory media to promote. From its Enlightenment origins, transparency is related to accountability and legitimacy: its increase is believed to promote these. It has earned a position as an unassailed, prime normative value in contemporary liberal and social democracies. Though still valued, transparency is undergoing change in an era of ubiquitous surveillance. Publics still anticipate governmental and corporate self-disclosure and for such entities to operate visibly; but increasingly, deliberate and incidental surveillance by a range of sources, both institutional and informal, documents the activities of such authorities. More often, civilians participate in producing or amplifying transparency. This article explores this new transparency through a study of U.S. police, focusing on the discourse of police accountability activists and cop watchers to describe how their work adapts traditional notions of transparency. Recognizing the resilience of the police institution despite the new visibility of its violence, the article challenges the presumption that increased transparency will promote institutional reform or crisis. It concludes with a critical comment on prominent expectations that promoting the visibility of police can protect publics and ensure police accountability. This conclusion has implications for other forms of the new transparency, including whistleblowing (e.g., Edward Snowden) and leaking (e.g., WikiLeaks).
Keywords: accountability; Jeremy Bentham; cop watch; legitimacy; media participation; police; Jean Jacques Rousseau; sousveillance; surveillance; transparency