Governments will find it harder and harder to stand up to this kind of pressure from the growing security economy – all the companies grown fat on the War on Terror
Two recent stories of the cancellation of airborne surveillance programs should remind us that the route to a surveillance society is not an inevitable technological trajectory.
One is a classic tale of secret budgets disguising incompetence and disorganisation rather than efficient espionage. The US Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) has ended an experimental air surveillance program, following almost total equipment failure. The planes, in short, didn’t fly, or didn’t fly much. Almost $15 million US down the drain, and no accountability because this was an ultra-secret, need-to-know, maximum deniability, ‘black earmark’ project…
The other is a more courageous story of a government finally standing up to the pressure or its larger ‘allies’, and the fear-mongering PR of arms companies. In this case, the Australian government has withdrawn from the BAMS Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program. It has cost the country $15 Million AUS, but this will save almost $1 Billion AUS. It also puts a small dent in the massive expansion of UAVs, now being used everywhere from the skies of Afghanistan to the streets of Liverpool. This decision did not make the military-industrial complex very happy and the story in The Australian shows clear evidence of corporate PR spin at work – the emotional blackmail of claiming that this decision could cost Australian lives in the event of more bushfires (or in other stories, it would leave Australia open to terrorism).
Even in a recession, governments will find it harder and harder to stand up to this kind of public pressure from the growing security economy – all the companies grown fat on the War on Terror that have the ear of the military and are backed by US-led consortia. It is to their credit that the Australian government has not given in – as for the US DEA, well, that is the opposite lesson – secrecy and the assumption of necessity can lead to massively wasteful state procurement and an absence of real security. The question is whether either lesson will prompt wider leaning…
Ok, so I know it is a provocative and incomplete question, but it’s one I am forced to ask this morning as a case in Australia, where a badly implemented video surveillance system in Sydney airport is being blamed for the failure of a court case over a brawl in which a man was killed.
According to reports, the police are quoted as saying that they were “hindered in their search for images of the alleged offenders by an outdated and fragmented surveillance system”. They claim that the four or five different uncoordinated systems in and around the airport, all with different recording locations and formats, make it difficult for them to gather evidence. When you look closer however, it does seem to be the that the only real problem relates to one of the systems which was very old and could not record from more than one of its camera simultaneously.
Although it notes that there are other ‘community concerns’ than just having complete surveillance (of course…), the newspaper seems to be accepting the objectivity of claims that this is a problem of a lack of centralisation. Fear of terrorism is as usual the motivation for this, although the unlikely occurrence of terrorist events and the fact that the incident in question is a biker brawl (i.e. a domestic gang issue) means that this link is tenuous. It also should lead one to question why such a violent disturbance was allowed to progress to the point where someone was killed in an airport. That has very little to do with poor CCTV and much more to do with a failure of more basic security and a lack of care for passengers on the ground more generally. Perhaps the real issue should whether we are becoming so reliant on technological systems of monitoring that we are forgetting the protective purpose of security and the rather more human ways in which this could be improved.
The police apparently also have eye-witnesses, so you have to wonder what the agenda is here. Is it simply a case of police frustration? Would it really help if the systems were all joined up and run centrally? Or is this just a problem with one system? Is this case being used deliberately to try to create a wave of public outrage upon which more intensive joined-up video surveillance can be implemented? I don’t know the answers, but someone in Australia should be asking rather more searching questions than just ‘why don’t the cameras work better?’
(Thanks to Roger Clarke – who does indeed ask difficult questions – for pointing out this story)
Some good news for once. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the heinous plans that the Australian government had for surveilling and censoring the Internet have been iced. The plans would have introduced mandatory filtering of the Internet in Australia despite the technical impossibility and political and ethical objections. The fight over these proposals had been vicious with opponents even receiving death threats, but the side of both sense and liberty appears to have won an important victory.
Now, let’s see if similar good sense will prevail in other countries which are advocating similar, if not quite as extreme, China-style net-disabling proposals like the UK and Brazil…
(Thanks to bOINGbOING who’ve been keeping us up to date on this one)
If mass surveillance (through CCTV and huge databases) is often ineffective, then surely targeted surveillance, through judicially-approved orders warranting the use of high-tech secret cameras, listening devices and tracking, must at least ‘work’. However, The Canberra Times reports that in Australia at least, this does not appear to be the case.
In fact out of 311 such warrants issued in 2007-8, just 86 individuals were prosecuted and only 10 criminal convictions resulted. Now we don’t know exactly why this was in each case, however it does suggest that Bill Rowlings, the Civil Liberties Australia chief executive is right to describe the conviction rates as “appallingly low” indicting that the many if the warrants for targeted surveillance are “fishing expeditions” by the police, rather than backed by serious evidence.
It would be interesting to see how the Australian figures compare to those available for similar countries, particularly the UK (if indeed the figures are available and comparable).
For many supposedly liberal politicians and bureaucrats the Internet is just a library of information, and we all know that libraries must be quiet and orderly, used responsibly and under the supervision of trained librarians…
It is no accident that the EFF campaign in Australia makes reference to their government´s plan as a ‘great wall’. The first government to do this was, of course, China with its jīndùn gōngchéng (‘Golden Shield’) system which was exposed by Greg Walton.
As Naomi Klein´s more recent investigations have shown, it seems that western governments and companies are not only deeply involved with supplying equipment and expertise to China´s new surveillance state, but also see the development of the combined physical and virtual surveillance infrastructure being built by the authoritarian Chinese government as some kind of model for their own supposedly more liberal nations.
The Internet seems to worry all sorts of otherwise level-headed and well-meaning people. I was invited to speak at a recent conference in Finland on security in the Baltic states, and I got into a small argument with the rapporteur of one of the working groups, who said that one of their conclusions was that ‘we’ must stamp out hate-speech on the Internet. I asked the rapporteur how they would intend to do this without destroying the structures which enabled the creativity and freedom of the Net, and the response was that stamping out hate-speech was too important and just must be done. I suspect this is how a lot of supposedly liberal politicians and bureaucrats are thinking. For them the Internet is just a library of information, and we all know that libraries must be quiet and orderly, used responsibly and under the supervision of trained librarians. If enforcing order destroys everything that makes the Internet so revolutionary and so important, so what? Order must be maintained. There must be quiet in the library!