US border project cancelled… or is it just mutating?

Neoconopticon is reporting that the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) project is to be shelved and replaced with off-the shelf surveillance equipment (UAVs etc.).

The project which was based on contracts with Boeing and Raytheon, had been in trouble for some time. I reported back in 2009 how Boeing had basically wasted most of the money on the Mexican border projects on systems that didn’t work. Neoconopticon gives the figure of $3.7Bn for the project, but in fact estimated costs for the longer-term maintenance just of the Mexican fence component had spiralled to over $10Bn.

The original source for this news, Defence Industry Daily, has a good timeline.

I am left wondering however about whether this cancellation might have anything to do with the discussions that were recently revealed on the North American Perimeter project, which I blogged back in December last year. A complete North American perimeter might reduce the pressure to add further security to the US-Canadian border at least, and Canadian government funds and people could be leveraged by the US, as they were during the Cold War with the DEW Line and BMEWS. A summit on the issue between US President, Barack Obama, and Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, had been scheduled for January and was recently pushed back into February, which has given time for the decision on the cancellation of the SBI.

This could all be coincidence, but it is certainly interesting timing…

The New North American Perimeter

Canadians have been angered to discover recently that a deal to create a new US-Canada perimeter security initiative has been going on behind their backs. This plan has been some time in the making, as we uncovered during our current research on border security. In particular, alliances of major corporations and US and Canadian government organisations have been planning together in the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) and the North American Competitiveness Council (NACC) – who back in 2007 produced a document, Building a Secure and Competitive North Anerica (pdf), that seems to prefigure exactly what this ‘new’ soon to be announced plan will contain.

And already the state public relations machines have rumbled into place to prevent dissent. The government clearly has nothing but contempt for the Canadian Charter rights that this deal will damage (most notably those around information and privacy). And there seems to be no doubt that this deal will further embed US security priorities in Canadian-US relations, and effectively add an inner core of security to the economic layer of NAFTA (excluding Mexico, of course… no doubt the perimeter will continue exclude them, even while we exploit their cheap labour and resources). Indeed the ‘success’ of NAFTA (read: the success of NAFTA for business elites) is one of the reasons given for supporting this so-far unseen plan by five former Canadian ambassadors to Washington in an Opinion piece in the Globe and Mail today.

This first volley from the big guns seems to have come straight from the Ottawa PR stategy. There are references to ‘common sense’ and the ‘reassertion of sovereignty’ and attacks on ‘bellyaching’ and ‘knee-jerk anti-Americanism’. Indeed it is worth quoting the final paragraph in full because it is a masterpiece of old-fashioned continentalist propaganda combined with post-9/11 fear-stoking:

“Knee-jerk anti-Americanism is an indulgence without purpose in today’s interconnected, interdependent world. Our future economic prosperity relies on an efficient border, and we should welcome any agreement that smoothes the way for jobs and growth while toughening up our borders to security threats against both our countries.”

In this worldview, asserting sovereignty means giving it up, ‘interconnected and interdependent’ means allied with the USA rather than all the other multiplicity of friendships Canada had carefully crafted around the world prior to the Harper era, and security threats to the USA are seen as one and the same as those to Canada. In other words, we should hitch our wagon more firmly to Washington and prevent any return to that ‘indulgent’ Canadian emphasis on global security, peace-building, human development and human rights – you know, the values that once gained Canada respect around the world.

It’s quite eye-opening in a way to see former representatives of the Canadian state to the USA openly acting as US assets in Canada, clearly trying to educate the Canadian public in how to think and how to behave towards their rulers (sorry, slip of the tongue, of course I meant ‘neighbours’), and trying to preempt and predefine reaction to a plan that we haven’t even seen yet not least because people like this seem to think that Canadians don’t deserve to have a say in something that amounts to nothing less than the future sovereignty of their country.

(thanks to Harrison Smith for the NACC document and David Lyon for pointing out the Opinion piece)

Bigger than Brazil

So says a new IMS report on the surveillance market in Latin America, according to industry site, Surveillance Park.

Brazil’s emergence as an economic power means that there is increasing demand for surveillance both in individual applications and for larger infrastructure projects like the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. But Brazil already has what the report terms “an established eco-system of suppliers” so, in the face of this strong competition, foreign surveillance companies are advised to look elsewhere, particularly Argentina, Chile and Mexico, whose surveillance markets should provide “long-term double digit growth.

City of Leon to install mass public iris-scanning

The City of Leon in Mexico, if a report in Fast Company are to be believed, is going ahead with a scheme that goes far further than any other urban surveillance project yet in existence. They are already installing scanners that according to their manufacturers, Global Rainmakers Inc., an until recently secretive company with ties to US military operations, can read the irises of up to 50 people per minute.

Now, we have to be careful here. Gizmondo, as usual has gone way over the top with reports of ‘the end of privacy’ (which, if you believed their stories has already happened as many times as the apocalypse for 7th Day Adventists…) and talk of the ‘entire city’ being covered and ‘real-world’ operations (i.e. in uncontrolled settings). In fact, if you read the  Fast Company report, and indeed the actual description of the products from the company, they are far more limited even in their claims (which are likely to be exaggerated anyway). There is no indication that the iris scanners proposed will work in uncontrolled settings. When the company talk about the scanners working ‘on the fly’, they mean that they will work when someone is basically looking at the scanner or near enough whilst no more than 2 metres away (in the most advanced and expensive model and significantly less for most of them) and moving at no more than 1.5 metres per second (and, again, slower for the lower range devices). All the examples on the company website show ‘pinch points’ being used (walls, fences, gates etc.) to channel those being identified towards the scanner. In other words, they would not necessarily work in wide public streets or squares anyway and certainly not when people were moving freely.

So is this what is being proposed? Well, there are two phases of the partnership with Leon that the company has announced – and we have as yet no word from Leon itself on this. Phase I will cover the settings in which one might expect levels of access control to be high: prisons, police stations etc. Phase II will supposedly cover “mass transit, medical centers and banks, among other [unnammed] public and private locations”. It is also worth noting that the scheme’s enrolment is limited to convicted criminals, with all other enrolment on an entirely voluntary basis.

I am not saying that this is not highly concerning – it is. But we need to be careful of all kinds of things here. First of all, the Fast Company report is pure corporate PR, and the dreams of the CEO of Rainmakers, Jeff Carter (basically, world domination and ‘the end of fraud’ – ha ha ha, as if…) are the same kind of macho bulltoffee that one would expect from any thrusting executive in a newish company in a highly competitive marketplace. Secondly, there’s a whole lot of space here for both technological failure and resistance. The current government Leon may well find that the adverse publicity from this will lose rather than gain them votes and that in itself could see the end of the scheme, or its being limited to Phase I. In addition, without this being part of wider national networks, there may in the end be little real incentive for anyone to enrol voluntarily in this. Why would banks in Leon require this form of identification but not those in Mexico City or Toluca for example? Will the city authorities force everyone who use public transport to undergo an iris scan (which would make the ‘voluntary’ enrolment a sham)? This could all end being as insignificant as the Mexican companies offering RFID implants as a supposed antidote to kidnapping, it could be the start of a seismic shift in the nature of urban space, or it could be a messy mixture.

I hope my colleagues in Mexico are paying attention though – and I will try to keep updated on what’s really going on beyond the corporate PR.

2nd Surveillance in Latin America Symposium

Following the success of the first Surveillance Studies symposium in Brazil last year, here is the call for the next one, this time in Mexico next year.



In modern societies, identification systems have been used as an important mechanism to govern, manage, classify and control populations; in other words, to surveil them. This has meant the employment of certain technologies (passports, national identity letters, RFID, among others), providing interconnected data base systems with information according to specific institutional protocols. In this way, we define identification as visibility and verification of specific details of people’s lives. Likewise, these identification systems have responded to various functions: security, migration control, goods and service administration, as well for territory, space and group access.

The historical, social and politic contexts shape the particular purposes to which each identification system responds. Large-scale surveillance systems to identify the population have been installed in Latin America after decades of colonial, military and single-party governments In addition they have been prompted by increasing multiculturalism in cities, Population growth, migration rates, the perceived rise in terrorism, public security and health risks, as well as the creation of public policies (to aid poverty and unemployment) and globalization.

These conditions have caused the harmonization and articulation of corporations, institutions, technologies and specific protocols for citizen identification in Latin American countries, , depending on each country or region’s particular situation, and its relationship with other regions worldwide. Nevertheless, the Latin American environment allows us to consider the construction of privacy, identities, forms of government and the possibility of resistance policies.

Paper Proposals

In line with this analytic framework, the University of the State of Mexico, Faculty of Politics and Social Studies, hereby invites scholars, analysts and activists in Latin America and worldwide, interested in identification and surveillance, in relation to such matters as cultural or ethnic identities, privacy and data protection, new identification technologies (biometrics, RFID, etc), public policies, security, communication, ethics, law, or modes of critique or resistance; to participate in the International Symposium “Identification, identity and surveillance in Latin America”, by sending a lecture proposal.

Please send an abstract, 300-500 words long, Arial 12, space line 1.5, to the following e-mail:, before October 30th 2009. Due to the nature of this event, the abstracts and papers are to be accepted in Spanish, Portuguese and English.

Note: There is no registration fee for this event. All participants are expected to seek their own funding for travel and accommodation. A number of rooms will be reserved with reasonable rates in a nearby hotel. More details to follow.

Main subjects

1. Governmental and corporative policies of identification

2. New technologies for identification and surveillance.

3. Purposes of identification systems in Latin America.

4. Communication and information technologies.

5. Privacy and transparency.

6. Identification, identities and subjectivities.

7. Relationship between global and local, in identification systems.

8. Postcolonial logics and political regimes.

9. Identities, surveillance and resistance.

10. Identification, identity and surveillance in Latin America: new theories?

Important Dates

Call for Papers Publication: July 30th 2009.

Abstract reception deadline: October 30th 2009.

Accepted lectures list publication: December 15th 2010.

Complete paper remittance deadline: February 15th 2010.

Complete program publication: February 28th 2010.

Second Symposium on surveillance in Latin America: March 16th, 17th y 18th 2010. University of the State of Mexico, Faculty of Politics and Social Studies. Toluca, México.

Organizing Committee

Nelson Arteaga Botello

Roberto J. Fuentes Rionda

Faculty of Politics and Social Studies, University of the State of Mexico

Rodrigo Firmito

Postgraduate Program in Urban Management, Pontifical Catholic University of Parana, Curitiba, Brazil

Fernanda Bruno

Postgraduate School of Communication, Federal University of Río de Janeiro, Brasil

Marta Kanashiro

Further Studies Laboratory of Journalism and Knowledge, Technology and Market Group, University of the State of Campinas (UNICAMP), Campinas, Brasil.

Danilo Doneda

De Campos Faculty of Law, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

André Lemos

Federal University of Bahia, Brasil

With the support of:

David Lyon

David Murakami Wood

Department of Sociology, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Proposal reception, Information and Contact