US border surveillance pours billions into Boeing… and still doesn’t work

Federal Computer Week reports that the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) designed to provide secure and highly surveilled border systems between the USA and Mexico, is in trouble again. There have been major technological failures, cost overruns, and more with the result that the system is way behind schedule. Half the reason seems to be a political economic one. In many ways this system is a giant pork barrel for the Boeing Corporation, which has been sucking up US state subsidies for years and is taking literally billions of US dollars for this project and in unrelated federal recession subsidies. No-one seems to have really checked whether Boeing could really do the job, and like so many large state security and surveillance projects, and most things that have been tried on the Mexico border, it just doesn’t really work.

The article reports the new Director of the SBI, Mark Borkowski as admitting that “the program was first conceived as a quick implementation of existing off-the-shelf technologies […] In retrospect, it would have functioned better if a customized technology solution was developed to meet the requirements […] Some of the things we put into place, in hindsight, were not effective […] What we bet on, which was probably not a good bet, was that this was like buying a new printer for your computer. …We started the wrong way, in my opinion.”

The cost breakdown for the Department of Homeland Security is reported by FCW as:

$1.1Bn to Boeing ($620M  for SBInet technology and $440M for border-vehicle barriers and fencing).

$2.4Bn on construction of fencing and vehicle barriers along the southwestern border

$6.5 Bn longer-term to maintain, monitor and repair the fences and structures.

Of course the ridiculous costs are bad enough, but the wider issues here are with the obsession with controlling migration in an economic climate in which the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has progressively stripped Mexico of any economic autonomy and made its (and by extension the whole of Central America’s) working class a reserve of cheap labour for US corporations and its relatively increasingly wealthy, a market for US consumer goods. It’s not surprising that the Mexicans regard it as more than a little unfair that they have been forced into a subservient position, yet are not welcome to come into the USA, and are subject to such harsh security and surveillance to prevent them from doing so. Added to this, as the Mexican President made clear last year, relaxed US laws on gun ownership have resulted in a massively increased flow of weapons into Mexico from the USA, which has exacerbated gang conflicts which thrive in the atmosphere of inequality and exploitation. And of course, the violence just adds to the reasons why people want to leave and find opportunities in the richer, safer USA…

In many ways, what richer nations are doing is not only prioritising their own security, but also simultaneously exporting their insecurity.

Research as Espionage

There’s no doubt that academic research and military intelligence have a more tangled history than some would imagine, although in many countries in recent years ‘imperial disciplines’ like geography and anthropology have been through a long process of reevaluation and rejection the values that gave them birth. In the USA, however, geography remains intimately connected to the state and more particularly to current US military projects, indeed since 9/11 such ‘patriotic’ research has become more rather than less common.

z magazine has a very interesting article on a growing furore around first of a new US government cartography / geography program called the Bowman Expeditions. This half a million dollar project, México Indígena, has been mapping indigenous lands in Oaxaca, Mexico, where a popular insurgency has been growing in recent years. Local organisations under the umbrella of the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juárez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO) have rejected the activities of the expedition and claim they were duped by researchers.

A slide from a Powerpoint from the project reveals ideological connections to US military goals, but the links are material too.
A slide from a Powerpoint from the project reveals ideological connections to US military goals, but the links are material too.

And it seems they were right to do so: the grant scheme is associated with the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), which seems to be largely associated with so-called ‘open source intelligence’, in other words ‘leveraging’ academic mapping projects for military purposes, in particular the ‘cultural terrain’ for potential future counter-insurgency purposes, learning the lessons of failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. The academics involved, Jerome Dobson and Peter Herlihy from the University of Kansas, just down the road from FMSO, are now furiously backpedaling as previous denials are shown to be evasive and disingenuous…

US borders with Canada strengthened

There has been a lot of interest in the US border with Mexico in recent years, and rightly so. However, what not so many people have noticed is that the closing of the closing of the USA is taking place along the world’s largest land border between two countries, the border between the USA and Canada.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) already patrol the airspace (and at a low enough level that private flights have had to be restricted, thereby doing two security jobs with one technology). However, the most recent announcement concerned the installation of video surveillance towers to monitor waterways. This is all on the basis of very little information about whether this is either cost-effective or necessary; according to the AP article, the Border Patrol themselves admit this: “What we don’t know is how often that vulnerability is exploited […] if, in fact, there’s a lot more going on than we thought, then this technology will help us identify it and it will help us respond and apprehend those people in ways that we haven’t before.” So essentially, this is surveillance to see whether surveillance is necessary – it seems we are now in a surveillance double-bind, so you no longer need a strong reason to install cameras; they are their own justification and may be justified in retrospect whatever does or does not happen. If nothing is seen, they will be said to be a deterrent, if something is detected then they will be proclaimed as showing the need for surveillance!

The technology employed against those tricky Canucks will be provided by the same supplier, Boeing, that has been so criticised for its failures on the Mexican border (and there have been plenty of failures down there). It seems that even when it comes to the trump card of security, which normally wins hands-down, the congressional pork-barrel remains the joker in the pack. Now, the Canadians and local firms along the US border have already been complaining about the post-9/11 restrictions that have begun to stifle cross-border trade on which many of those communities depend. In a recession, such considerations might be thought to count for something, but it seems that the mighty Boeing’s profits matter more…

Surveillance in Latin America

For the last three days, I’ve been at the Surveillance, Security and Social Control in Latin America symposium, organised by Rodrigo Firmino at PUCPR (with help from Fernanda Bruno, Marta Kanashiro, Nelson Arteaga Botello and myself). The conference was the first to be held on surveillance in Brazil and will be the start of a new network of surveillance researchers in Brazil and more widely across Latin America.

All of the presenters had something interesting to say and I learned a lot from the event, however it is worth noting some individual presentations and sessions that were really insightful. There were great keynotes from David Lyon, Luiz Antonio Machado da Silva and Nelson. Two sessions stood out for me: one on Rhetorics of Crime and Media which had an exceptional central presentation by Paola Barreta Leblanc, a film-maker and currently a student of Fernanda Bruno’s. Her paper (and films) on the way in which we impose narrative onto CCTV images argued cogently that we see CCTV with a (Hollywood) cinema-trained eye and consequently overestimate (or over-interpret) what we are seeing. The other papers in the session were also good, in particular Elena Camargo Shizuno on Brazilian police journal of the 1920s and how they trained the vision of middle and upper-class Brazilians of the time through a combination of reportage, fiction, and advocacy. The session as a whole left me with many new questions and directions of thought.

The other really sparky session was on the last day and was on the Internet and Surveillance. The first paper was from was Marcelo de Luz Batalha on police repression of community and activist networks at the State University of Campinas, which linked nicely into concerns I have been following here on the surveillance of activist networks in the UK. Then there was Hille Koskela’s theoretically sophisticated and searching paper on the Texas-Mexico border webcam system (that I noted back in January) which explored the ways in which this participatory surveillance system both succeeded and failed in inculcating an attitude of patriotic anti-outsider watchfulness and responsibilization of citizens. Finally there was an interesting if not entirely successful film from Renata Marquez and Washington Cancado which used Charles and Ray Eames’ famous Powers of Ten, one of my favourite bits of pop-science ever, as an inspiration for an exploration of the uneven gaze of Google. They provoked some very interesting thoughts on the ‘myopia’ of the new ‘god-like’ view we are afforded through interactive global mapping systems. I think their approach could be very fruitful but it is still missing some key elements – having talked to them, I am convinced they will turn this into something really excellent. I have asked them and Paula to submit their work to Surveillance & Society’s special on Performance, New Media and Surveillance, because I think both are exactly the kind of explorations we are looking for. If Fernanda Bruno’s excellent paper on participatory crime-mapping has been part of this session, it would have been perfect! See Fernanda’s thoughts on the seminar over at her blog – she was also Twittering throughout the event but I’m afraid I just can’t get on with Twitter!

Other memorable papers included Danilo Doneda’s on the new Brazilian ID system, which sparked our post-conference considerations on where to go with this new network, which will probably be a project on Identification, Citizenship and Surveillance in Latin America. Nelson Arteaga Botello has already generously agreed to host the next symposium on this theme in Mexico City next March! Fernando Rogerio Jardim gave a passionate paper on the the SINIAV vehicle tracking pilot in Sao Paulo and I was most impressed with the careful Gavin Smith-style CCTV control-room ethnography by one of Rodrigo Firmino’s students, Elisa Trevisan, and Marta Kanashiro and Andre Lemos both gave insightful presentations too – I’ve already come to expect both care and insight from Marta in the short time that I’ve known her. I hope we’ll be able to work more closely together in the future. Let’s see…

The event as a whole was a great start for the study of surveillance in Latin America, despite the disappointing lack of Spanish-language interest. This is just the beginning, and the new networks of scholars here will grow. I was just happy to be there a the start and play a small role. As for my keynote, I took the opportunity to do something a bit different and instead of doing my usual tech-centred stuff, I gave a talk on the emotional response to surveillance and how this might form the basis for reconstructing (anti-)surveillance ethics and politics. I have no idea whether it really worked or what people got out of it…

Surveillance and the ‘Open-source Insurgency’

Hierarchical, national and corporate bodies are profoundly afraid of the openness, apparent lack of interest in conventional goals and absence of obvious leadership or deference that is represented by the new collaborative networks like Open-source. They are not ‘under control’. The answer for the military-industrial complex is a consistent one, and as usual it combines strategic military and economic goals. This answer is surveillance.

The US military-industrial complex is always trying to identify new threats to bolster its budgets. There was a minor outcry a few years ago when US military powerpoint slides on strategy seemed to indicate that it regarded international civil society organisations, including the Red Cross, as a potential source of such threat. Then came 9/11 and the war on terror and for a while it didn’t need these phantom menaces as there were real global enemies, and fortunately for the military-industrial complex, it seemed that those enemies might be infinitely expandable and malleable into what was briefly termed the ‘long war’.

But the war on terror isn’t what it was. So there seems to be some effort to resurrect previous threats. One of these is ‘the war on drugs’ now rebranded as ‘narco-terrorism’ or ‘narco-insurgency’. And the particular focus of the concern is closer to the United States: Mexico. Writing in the self-proclaimed ‘capitalist tool’, Forbes magazine, Reihan Salaam argued that Mexico’s ongoing struggle with drug-related violence was a major threat which could ‘blind-side’ the USA. Now, Republicans like Salaam are struggling to find anything important to say when its obvious what the major global problems are, and the US electorate has decided that the Republicans aren’t the people to solve them. He is of course correct that there is a serious situation in Mexico – and indeed elsewhere in Latin-America: the drug-trafficking gangs are also the major problem for the Brazilian government in any attempt to include their excluded favela communities. However, he makes no mention of the other underlying cause of destabilization in the USA’s southern neighbour – the way in which NAFTA has transformed Mexico into a subordinate economic role to the USA as source of cheap production facilities and cheap labour, all the while being told that its people are not wanted in the USA. The EU has its critics, but at least its building of free-trade has been accompanied by a far greater degree of free movement of people and reciprocal political rights. Nor is there any reference to the consumption of cocaine and crack in the USA that is driving the trade (as the first comment on the article notes).

Instead Salaam tries to analyze the Mexican situation using a recent strategic theory, and one which is profoundly worrying in its implications. In an essay in the New York Times in October 2005, John Robb argued that the Iraq war had turned into what he termed an ‘open-source’ insurgency, “a resilient network made up of small, autonomous groups”. He argued that those resisting the US occupation and other armed groups were like open-source software developers in that “the insurgents have subordinated their individual goals to the common goal of the movement”. (Never mind once again, that there is an obvious underlying common goal – that of getting rid of an occupying foreign power!).

Now of course, in many ways this was just a restatement of the whole post-Cold War, network-centric warfare hypothesis. There are also echoes back to the kind of language which has been used to describe ‘eastern’ or ‘foreign’ peoples for centuries – the British in India being unable to tell ‘them’ apart, the faceless and numberless ‘yellow peril’, the ‘godless communists’ who subordinated their individual will to the collective, and the ‘clash of civilizations’. It’s the hive-mind, the fear of humans who don’t appear to act ‘like us’. Without the overt racism of course: this is Orientalism 2.0, the politically-correct version!

However the addition of the label ‘open-source’ is no accident. Hierarchical, national and corporate bodies are profoundly afraid of the openness, apparent lack of interest in conventional goals (profit, advancement, etc.), and absence of obvious leadership or deference that is represented by the new collaborative networks like Open-source. They are not ‘under control’.

So how to bring them ‘under control’? John Robb’s first (and rather refreshing) answer was that in many ways you probably can’t and that in Iraq, the US should have probably ‘let them win’. But this is an unpopular response for the uneconstructed military-industrial complex. For them the first answer is a consistent one, and as usual it combines strategic military and economic goals. This answer is surveillance. For the Internet, we have seen, and continue to see, attempts in multiple countries to attack the basis of what makes the Internet creative and free, in the name of all kinds of ‘risks’ (mainly terrorism, identity crime, pirating and paedophilia). Of course these risks are no greater on the Internet than in the material world, but the Internet is still for many people, and many politicians in particular, a vast, unknown terrain which they do not understand: ‘here be dragons’ as the old maps used to have it of any such ‘terra incognita’.

For countries afflicted by the new ‘open-source insurgency’, the answer is the same. The Defense Industry Daily today starts off its story on Mexico with the apparently uncontentious statement that “Mexico needs surveillance.” It then lists with the usual kind of techno-pornographic relish of these publications, all the mainly Israeli UAVs and surveillance craft that the Mexican state is buying. We are supposed to cheer. We are supposed to think that this is evidence of Mexico’s growing maturity. Soon Mexico will be monitored and ‘under control’. No evidence of whether surveillance ‘works’ (even in military terms) troubles these kinds of stories. That is taken as self-evident. And certainly there is no question of whether this could in any way be the wrong approach, or even a counterproductive strategy. As the Brazilian parliamentarian to whom I was talking yesterday said, about the favelas, the only answer to both crime (because, let’s not forget that’s what ‘narco-terrorism’ really is) and the poverty on which it feeds, is in the long-term (and that means starting now not later): sanitation, schools, hospitals, transport, jobs – in other words providing the poor with access to the same society that the wealthier enjoy. Extending intensive high-tech military surveillance across the global south is not only a complete failure to address these underlying issues, it also diverts much-needed money away from social priorities. It is the wrong answer to the wrong question… except for the defense industry.