Drones Over America

EPIC has obtained evidence under the Freedom of Information Act from the US Department of Homeland Security that is has fitted Predator drones with domestic espionage capabilities. The document, Performance Specification for the US Customs and Border Protection Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Version 2.4, dated March 10 2010,  includes the following technical requirements: infra-red sensors and communications, plus either synthetic aperture radar (SAR), Ground Moving Target Indicator mode (GMTI – tracking) or signals interception receivers (page 7). The UAV should:

be “capable of tracking an adult human-sized, single moving object” with sufficient accuracy “to allow target designation at the specific ranges.”(page 28)

“be able to maintain constant surveillance and track on a designation geographic point.” (page 28)

The section ‘target marking’ is redacted in EPIC’s version however the CNET website managed to get hold of a non-redacted version, which say that the system “shall be capable of identifying a standing human being at night as likely armed or not,”  and specify “signals interception” technology for mobile phone frequencies as well as “direction finding” which will enable the UAS locate them.

And in case people are wondering whether this is just for border patrol, the documents specifically states that it is for collection of ‘Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) data in support of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and CBP missions” (page 1). I hope all you US people know exactly how you can challenge drones flying at 20,000 feet up that might be breaching your 4th Amendment Rights…

War on Terror corrupts US justice

On January 1st this year, US President Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that, amongst other many other provisions, allows for the US military to indefinitely detain without trial anyone suspected of terrorists acts inside the United States and, the same for anyone captured in battle wherever it is in the world. Even the UK’s provisions, which were widely criticised, were nothing like this, indeed the argument was not about indefinite detention at all, but simply over how many days someone suspected of terrorism should be allowed to be detained without trial: 14 or 28. That’s some way short of indefinite.

Of course, the infinitely compromising and slippery Obama is trying to have his cake and eat by promising that he will not actually allow this power to be used except in strict accordance with the constitution. That may provide some temporary relief for US citizens accused of terrorism, at least and until a more gung-ho President is elected or Obama gives in to demands that he must use it – something military sources are looking forward to, it seems. However the provisions on the treatment of foreign captives effectively provide a legal footing in domestic law for the extrajudicial actions of former President Bush’s establishment of Guantanemo Bay and the associated global network of extraordinary rendition and torture / interogation sites. They undoubtedly contravene the Geneva Conventions (see 75 UNTS 135, for example)and several other aspects of International Law, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

But, this is far from the only current assault on the rights of those who remain innocent in law of any criminal act in the USA. In New York, for example, the New York Police Department in conjunction with the CIA was last year revealed as operating a secret surveillance program against Muslims, titled ‘Ancestries of Interest’. It is unlikely to be the only such program. Like Obama’s indefinite detention provision, this is a perversion of the constitutional rights of US citizens. US police forces from the FBI downwards are not generally permitted to use undercover agents without there being some kind of specific allegation or exisiting evidence of crime. Essentially, this makes a whole community subject to categorical suspicion and permanent infiltration and investigation. It seems that every level of policing and justice in the USA from investigation to trial to sentencing has been indelibly stained by the War on Terror.

But this has all happened several times before of course, and happily not everyone has forgotten their history. Now black Christian pastors who remember the FBI/NSA COINTELPRO operations of the 1960s against black radical and civil rights groups,  are reportedly joining with Islamic groups in opposing the NYPD’s racist and islamophobic surveillance program. Along with the challenges being mounted to Obama’s new law by ACLU and others, there are signs that Obama is no longer being given the benefit of the doubt by many of the groups who supported him first time around. How successful any of these moves will be is anyone’s guess but solidarity that moves beyond American Islamic groups having to defend themselves against the howling mob is something of a step forward.

Billions wasted on airport ‘security’

A new report from the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) say that the industry is wasting billions on unnecessary and ineffective security procedures which are slowing down travel and damaging the whole sector’s economic prospects, according to The Guardian. This comes only days after the German government decided not to introduce body-scanners after trials showed them to be unreliable.

The argument is not particularly surprising, but there seem to be interesting aspects of the issue (apart from the basic human rights problems which we should never forget). The first is that clearly someone is benefitting economically, even if it is not the air transport sector, and that someone is the security industry – although as it happens, a whole range of people and companies have benefitted from the aftermath of 9/11. The Guardian article mentions that UK-based scanning company, Smiths, has tripled its profits this year to near $1Bn, despite the problems with scanners. However, it isn’t all bad. In European domestic and regional markets, airlines have lost out to railway travel, and this can only be a good thing in terms of environmental concerns.

The second aspect is that IATA is using this to push the revival of integrated ‘trusted traveller’ plans coming out of the USA. Many countries have bilateral schemes, but the idea is for travellers with ‘nothing to hide’ to submit personal information to a central body that would validate them without the need for time-consuming checks on the airport. So far, such schemes have been largely restricted to business-class passengers, raising the strong possibility of confusion between really improved security and simply buying more convenience. However, there is another problem from the point of view of security here too: one of the major concerns for security is so-called ‘clean skins’, terrorist who have never triggered any suspicion because they are either entirely new converts to the cause, or have been deep undercover for years cultivating an unblemished record.

In any case, it appears that the security companies are trying to get past the criticism by producing new seamless and less intrusive scanning technologies that would not require long waits and would be integrated into the architecture of airport corridors etc. Of course, the delays and inconvenience of obvious security and surveillance procedures have a purpose and are not just by-products. There is, theoretically at least, a consciousness-raising effect of what Bruce Schneier calls ‘security theater’. If these new gadgets work, and the German trial suggests that there is often more smoke than heat in claims about effectiveness, this effect would be diminished in favour of speed and convenience for an as yet unknown proportion of travellers and much greater inconvenience for the remainder. It’s an interesting conundrum for the authorities…

Norway, After the Event

I grew up in Norway until I was about 7, and so it’s hardly surprising that I’ve been thinking a lot about the country and its people following the recent attacks. I’ve spent some time over the last few days reading the manifesto of the self-confessed killer, but I’m not going to spend any time going over that farago of confused reactionary stupidity here.

What I am primarily interested in is how the country reacts, especially as we are now coming up to ten years after the 9/11 attacks -and the world is still living in the aftermath not only of the attacks themselves but of the reaction of the US and its subordinates. Surveillance Studies, along with many other research fields has documented and analyzed the turn to righter security and increased surveillance, and the corresponding weakening of longstanding individual liberties and collective rights.

But, if Norway’s Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, has anything to do with it, Norway will not be going down the same destructive, counter-productive and vengeful path. Even though he himself and many people he knew were the targets of the attack, he has been emphasizing since that Norway should not compromise its openness and democratic values, on the contrary they should strengthen their commitment to those ideals.The New York Times today quotes him as saying:

“It’s absolutely possible to have an open, democratic, inclusive society, and at the same time have security measures and not be naive. […] I think what we have seen is that there is going to be one Norway before and one Norway after July 22 […] But I hope and also believe that the Norway we will see after will be more open, a more tolerant society than what we had before.”

Let’s hope so. My thoughts remain with the families and friends of the victims, and all the people of Norway. I’ll write more about the wider European reaction tomorrow or over the weekend.

UK Control Orders to be replaced by Surveillance Orders

There has been a lot of speculation in the last couple of weeks about the fate of the ‘Control Orders’ that have been placed on various people (largely British Muslims) who are strongly suspected by the authorities of involvement with terrorism, but who have not committed any crime that would likely lead to a successful prosecution. These orders tend to amount to forms of curfewing or house arrest without trial, and banning them from using all forms of telecommunications, and needless to say, have been immensely controversial with civil liberties groups arguing that they subvert the rule of law, and that if there is evidence of terrorist activity people should be investigated and charged with such offenses. This has also been a test case for the willingness of the Conservative- LibDem coalition to take onboard key Liberal Democrat priorities and to go further in rolling back the creeping authoritarianism that characterised the final years of the New Labour regime.

So what will replace them? Speculation had centred around the replacement of the order with a system that allowed suspects to move around relatively freely but placed them under intensified ongoing surveillance. Now the BBC is claiming that it has details of what are likely to be called ‘Surveillance Orders’. These, they say, will give the security services the power to:

  • Ban suspects from travelling to locations such as open parks and thick walled buildings where surveillance is hard;
  • Allow suspects to use mobile phones and the internet but only if the numbers and details are given to the security services;
  • Ban suspects travelling abroad; and
  • Ban suspects meeting certain named individuals, but limited to people who are themselves under surveillance or suspected of involvement in terrorism.

Some of this is hardly new: those suspected of involvedment in football hooliganism in the UK have been subject to travel bans since the 1980s, and it seems to be from this that precendent is taken for at least this part of the new place. It is also almost funny that certain locales are seemingly specified as being difficult for surveillance – and I know this won’t be in the actual Bill – but, surely it is actually quite useful for real terrorists to know this? 😉

But this is all very interesting not least because it uses ‘surveillance’ as a supposed replacement for ‘control’, or as something synonymous with increased freedom. That may be so in physical terms, but the constant monitoring suggested under these new orders creates something very far from freedom. However in many ways it constitutes simply an intensified version of the kind of low-level constant monitoring or mass surveillance that is characteristic of contemporary surveillance societies. It is not so much that there are the ‘unwatched’ and the ‘watched’ rather there is a spectrum of surveillance between the lightly and heavily monitored. The new ‘Surveillance Orders’ would merely seem to push the dial for an individual into the category of heavy monitoring.