Lisa Parks Former Senior Fellow

Lisa Parks
May-July 2018


Lisa Parks is Professor of Comparative Media Studies and Director of the Global Media and Cultures Lab at MIT. Her research is focused on three areas: satellite technologies and media cultures; critical studies of media infrastructures; and media, militarization and surveillance. Parks is the author of Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual (Duke UP, 2005), Rethinking Media Coverage: Vertical Mediation and the War on Terror (Routledge, 2018) and is co-editor of: Life in the Age of Drone Warfare (Duke UP, 2017), Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures (U of Illinois, 2015), Down to Earth: Satellite Technologies, Industries and Cultures (Rutgers UP, 2012), Undead TV (Duke UP, 2007), and Planet TV: A Global Television Reader (NYU, 2003). Her research has also been published in numerous collections and peer-reviewed journals.

Parks has held invited visiting appointments at the Institute for Advanced Study (Wissenschaftskolleg) in Berlin, McGill University, University of Southern California, and the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. In recent years she has been a PI on major research grants from the National Science Foundation and the US State Department, supporting research in Mongolia, Turkey, and Zambia. She is committed to exploring how greater understanding of media systems can inform and assist citizens, scholars and policymakers in the US and abroad to advance campaigns for technological literacy, creative expression, social justice, and human rights. Before joining the MIT faculty, Parks was Professor and former Department Chair of Film and Media Studies at University of California-Santa Barbara, where she also served as Director of the Center for Information Technology and Society.

Dated from 2018

Fields of research

Media history and theory; satellite technologies; media and globalization; media infrastructures; surveillance; experimental methodologies

IKKM Research Project

Mobile Phone Eavesdropping: Historicizing and Theorizing the Cell Site Simulator

In the wake of the U.S. Patriot Acts and the Edward Snowden revelations, new details about surveillance technologies rarely seem surprising. Many have grown accustomed to Constitution-violating “sneak and peak” practices, biometrics-creep, and sensors that make anything monitor-able, no matter how large or small. Despite this, surveillance studies scholars have yet to discuss a gadget of growing concern – an eavesdropping and interception technology known as a cell site simulator or IMSI catcher. Known as a “man in the middle” device, an IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) catcher simulates a cell phone base station and is able to lock on to mobile phones in a given vicinity, intercept data from and/or remotely reconfigure or operate them. Cell site simulators first hit the global market during the early 1990s and since then have been used by military units, state agencies, law enforcers, spies, hackers, and criminal organizations. Vernacularly referred to as Stingrays or dirtboxes, the technology was relatively secret until recently, since organizations have used these devices surreptitiously and some manufacturers require their clients to sign non-disclosure agreements, forbidding public discussion of the technology’s use or operation. Over the past decade, a series of US lawsuits were filed in connection with IMSI catcher use and civil rights organizations and journalists began to ask questions. Hackers also began to figure out how to detect and build their own devices. The cell site simulator is now part of a lawful interception industry that is expected to be worth $1.3 billion by 2019, up from $251 million in 2014. In short, cell phone eavesdropping could become as common as cell phone use.

Building on scholarly research on the history and philosophy of communication and surveillance, this project details the cell site simulator’s historical emergence by pointing to its manufacturers and divergent uses in different parts of the world. The project also offers a discussion of critical issues elicited by the cell site simulator’s globalization and use, addressing its relation to the politics of cynicism, paternalism, and repression.

Recent publications (selected)

Lisa Parks. Rethinking Media Coverage: Vertical Mediation and the War on Terror. London & New York: Routledge, forthcoming 2018.

Lisa Parks & Caren Kaplan, co-editors, Life in the Age of Drone Warfare. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

Lisa Parks, Hannah Goodwin & Lisa Han, “‘I have the government in my pocket’: Social Media Users in Turkey, Transmit-Trap Dynamics and Struggles over Internet Freedom,” Communication, Culture & Critique, 10(4), Dec 2017, 574-592.

Lisa Parks & Rahul Mukherjee. “From Platform Jumping to Self-Censorship: Circumvention Practices and ‘Internet Freedom’ in Zambia,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 14(3), 2017, 221-237.

Lisa Parks. “Reinventing television in rural Zambia: Energy scarcity, connected viewing, and cross-platform experiences in Macha,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 22(4), 2016, 440-460.

Lisa Parks & Nicole Starosielski, eds. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015.