On rejecting drones

There’s an all-too infrequently unquestioned assumption in a lot of popular and academic writing about surveillance, that surveillance just spreads and intensifies and that new surveillance technologies proceed in a teleological manner to fulfill their designed purpose. Sure, we have all read the science and technology studies literature and pay lip service to ideas of technological failure and we all keep searching for ‘resistance’ or even just ‘politics’, but even if, like me, we talk deliberately talk about ‘sociotechnical trajectories’ without trying to assign one possible direction to these trajectories, we very rarely make the retreat, diminution and easing off of surveillance the central focus of our work or our writing.

Drones have been the latest demonstration of this. Practically all my blog entries on the subject over the last few years have been telling a story of the seemingly unstoppable spread of drones from particular military applications to widespread military use, to civilian policing and thence to other government and private uses. So it is really instructive to see the introduction of drone surveillance stopped in its apparent tracks twice in one week. This is exactly what has happened in Seattle, Washington, and Charlottesville, Virginia this week. The Seattle Police Department had intended to implement a strategy of drone surveillance and had purchased two Micro-UAVs (MAVs). But rather than these following the CCTV route of government promotion and general public apathy or support bolstered the usual police surveys showing how ‘effective’ the new technology has been, instead, following massive public concern over privacy,  Mayor Mike McGinn this week returned the two drones to the manufacturer and put a stop to any further development. He stopped short of introducing any ordinance banning drones, as Charlottesville did in the same week with a resolution pledging that the city would not purchase any such technology and calling on the state legislature to introduce an outright ban.

However in many ways the Seattle decision might be more influential as it is a far larger metropolis and this could resonate in major cities across North America – and beyond, given that Seattle is an aspiring global city too. But how influential? We will have to see. Certainly the UAV manufacturers and police associations will try to fight back with renewed PR and sales pitches – I am fully expecting lots of ‘drone success stories’ in the media in the next few weeks and months as a result. But what these two decisions should do is remind us all that the domestic politics of drones is still open, the future is unwritten and there are many possible trajectories – which we should emphasize more than we do.

Science Fiction post-9/11 (Part 2)

This combined social science / literary analysis lark is harder than it looks! Frequently asked questions of scholars who look at books or films at conferences always include one or more of the following: ‘why these books?’, ‘how did you sample?’, ‘what makes these films significant?’ and so on – indeed I had a bit of a go at an unfortunate PhD researcher at a conference last year on exactly this basis (sorry, Michael Krause, your paper was actually really interesting). So I have been trying to be systematic. So the first thing I did was to compile a longlist of English-language SF since 9/11.  Basically, I went through all the major US and British SF award shortlists for novels from 2002 onwards. The awards I covered were: the Hugo, the Nebula, the John W. Campbell Memorial award, Locus, the Philip K. Dick, the Arthur C. Clarke, the British Science Fiction Association award and the James Tiptree Jr.

The reason for using awards was to address the ‘importance question’. I could also have used ‘best of year’ lists from a number of online publications and bloggers but where would you stop? In any case, many of these awards are already crowdsourced and fan-based, at least in their nomination procedures. Inevitably, some smart alec will say ‘but you didn’t include ‘award X’. Again, there’s a limit. So although the PKD (which only covers new paperback fiction) and the Tiptree (focused on gender) are relatively minor, they are well-regarded and expand the ground to include a lot more edgy and innovative work, whereas the Lambda award (LGBT sf) is pretty small. Likewise I did not include Canadian and Australian association awards because they tend to have a very restricted pool to draw on and the best authors from those countries are published internationally anyway and, in the case of Canada at least, are very influential in the international associations.

All the shortlisted novels for all the awards added up to about 350 novels: too many to do any kind of useful analysis of any more than the most superficial kind with the time I have – although I may come back to this longer longlist later. So I tightened my criteria to novels that had either won any of the major award or been shortlisted for at least two. This leaves me with 117 novels, about half of which I have already read. I am now in a dilemma. This is still too many to deal with. I did produce a shortlist of just award-winners, 68 novels (there were a few ties in some years for some awards), but can you consider a novel that won the only award for which it was shortlisted to be more ‘significant’ than a novel that was shortlisted for 2, 3, 4 or 5 awards but didn’t win any? And here I also got into questions of personal preference: with this selection, and this is even more the case if I reduce the list further to only novels that won an award and were also shortlisted for at least one other (38), a lot of the novels that I find most interesting and which I would like to discuss because 1. they are good; and 2. they actually make some interesting post-9/11 points, for example, Lavie Tidhar‘s Osama (nominated for the BSFA 2011 and the JWCM 2012 but not a winner) and Kathleen Ann Goonan‘s In War Times (the 2008 JWCM winner, but not shortlisted for any of the other major awards) drop off. So, somehow I am going to have to do make some broad considerations of the 117, and select within these on the basis of either representativeness with regard to some particular themes I identify from the broad survey, or just because I think they are worth discussing in more depth.

$100 to anyone who can find a ‘privacy-compliant camera’ in Canada

Actually, the headline (from the Toronto Metro free paper) is a little misleading as what my friend and colleague Andrew Clement is actually betting on here is that no-one can find a video surveillance system in Canada that is fully compliant with Canadian privacy law. Which of course may of may not be the same as ‘privacy’ in any other terms. But it’s an interesting challenge – that is largely to do with signage. Prof Clement and his team at the iSchool at UofT have been monitoring the way in which video surveillance systems in Canada are signed for quite some time. As their website, surveillancerights.ca (which is also where you can try to claim your $100…) says

“Signs should at a minimum clearly tell you:

  • who is operating the camera
  • who you can contact if you have questions
  • the purpose(s) of the surveillance”

The signs should also in themselves be clearly visible, not hidden away somewhere. There’s more detailed information about requirments here.

So, who’s going to take up this bet?

(Thanks to Matthias Vermeulen for the story and Aaron Martin for noticing the difference between privacy and privacy law.)

New Privacy Survey released

Simon Davies, AKA Privacy Surgeon, and the London School of Economics have a great new survey of privacy predictions for 2013 out now. Key quote from the press release:

“More aggressive action by companies to monetise personal information through advertising will inevitably fuel further controversy, while consolidation of markets such as social networking may induce emerging players to engage dangerous privacy practices.”

Whether 2013 is the tipping point in this regard that the survey suggests or not, it is certainly the case that various ‘lines in the sand’ are being crossed on a regular basis at the moment and if the public aren’t as concerned as the experts surveyed for this report, then privacy may even lose even its tactical utility as a way of opposing surveillance, let alone mean the same thing to most people as it used to.

Canada and Mali

I’m privileged to be supervising some great students at all levels, but Jeff Monaghan is something else*. Not surprisingly for someone who previously worked with the awesomely prolific and engaged, Kevin Walby (now over in Victoria – who may be the young researcher I most admire in surveillance studies), he mainly uses Access to Information and Privacy requests (ATIPs – under Canada’s freedom of information legislation) as a basic method, and as far as I can see he is constantly firing these things off and sorting through them for revealing nuggets. Right now, Jeff is working in the way in which Canadian development aid, like that of many wealthy nations, is becoming increasingly entwined with a security agenda, what he calls ‘security aid’. Anyway, he’s in the news today because one of his ATIPs has revealed that Canada was engaged in planning for military intervention in Mali, of some sort, over a year ago, belying their apparent public reluctance to get involved right now.