Blackberry and the London Riots

I’ve been in the papers and on radio and TV a bit in the last few days here in Canada, talking about the London Riots, both as a ‘token Brit’ and a surveillance expert. I’m happy to talk about my feelings as someone from Britain and I’ve made it clear to people that I am neither a technical nor a legal expert, but the conversation inevitably ends up in those domains and others which are really outside my expertise – and I’ve had to be careful what I say.

I’ve generally stuck to three lines:

1. That these riots don’t provide simple moral lessons, they are neither politically-motivated or just about ‘crime’, but they do have roots and implications which are profoundly political – this is about consumerism, class, inequality and exclusion.

2. That you can’t blame Blackberry. That’s like blaming the postal service for hate-mail. The problems for RIM here are twofold: bad public relations from being associated with rioting, and how much it is prepared to sacrifice the privacy of its users to help UK police in an effort to counter the bad PR.

3. That all the UK investment in video surveillance didn’t help stop these riots (see my previous posts).

People like Chris Parsons are the kinds of people that the media need to talk to about the technical issues, and there’s a really fantastic and detailed post from his blog here on Blackberry and security and privacy issues. On legal issues, there’s no-one better than Michael Geist on things like lawful access. His website is here. Michael writes a regular column for the Toronto Star and I was quite amused that when the Star called me yesterday, I had to remind them to talk to him about lawful access issues! The best sociological piece I have seen on the causes is from Zygmunt Bauman.

That said, here’s some links – There’s a podcast here on the Financial Post, which also has a good discussion with Tamir Israel of CPIC.

On the more social side here, syndicated in lots of local and regional papers.

And the usually strangely edited piece in my local paper, the Kingston Whig-Standard, here, also featuring my colleague, Vince Sacco.

Rio gets the Olympics – and now the poor will suffer

Most people will probably have heard the announcement that Rio de Janeiro has been awarded the 2016 Olympic Games. While I am pleased that Brazil has beaten the USA in particular in this race in the sense that it shows a slight shift in global power balances towards the global south, I am very concerned as to how the current right-wing administration of both the city and region of Rio will deal with the ‘security’ issues around this mega-event. The Pan-American Games, which Rio hosted in 2007 led to the violent occupation by military police of several particularly troubled favelas (informal settlements), and the new administration has already shown its authoritarian tendencies with the Giuliani- wannabe ‘choque de ordem’ (shock of order) policies that involve building demolition, crackdowns on illegal street vendors (i.e. the poor) and more recently, the building of walls around certain favelas, and most recently the unwelcome  imposition of CCTV cameras on favelas that were just starting to enjoy improvements in trust between police and community. The favelas that line the main highways into the city from the international airport were already slated for such ghettoization, and the Olympics will only make this more likely to happen and more quickly – just as has happened in South Africa, similarly afflicted by race and class-based social conflict, during the various international meetings and summits there in recent years. Foreign delegates and tourists don’t like to see all that nasty poverty, do they?

I will write more on this later (I am on the road right now…).

Community Safety in Arakawa

Far from the skyscrapers and bright lights of Shinjuku, where we had our last interview on community security and safety development (anzen anshin machizukuri), Arakawa-ku is a defiantly shitamachi (‘low-town’ or working class) area to the north-east of Tokyo just north of Ueno and outside the Yamanote-sen JR railway loop line that has for much of the last 40 years defined the boundaries of the richer parts of the city.

Bordering the Ara river and split by the Sumida river, it was traditionally a marshy place liable to flooding. It was also a place with a large buraku (outcaste) population and Minowa (in the north of the ward) contains the mournful Jokan-ji (or Nagekomi – ‘thrown-away’) temple, where prostitutes who died in the Yoshiwara pleasure district were cremated. The place has been hit hard by disaster. It was levelled twice in the the Twentieth Century, first by 1923 Kanto daishinsai (Great Kanto Earthquake) and then again by the firebombing in the last years of WW2.

Nevertheless, its rough, industrious, hardworking spirit has continued, and these days, despite the march of secure manshon (high-rise housing) down the post-war avenues, it remains a place full of small industrial units, especially recycling businesses and clothing wholesalers and manufacturers in Nippori, small bars and family restaurants, and lots of ordinary housing, even some of the last remaining dojunkai (early concrete public housing) constructed after the earthquake. It’s also the starting point of the last remaining tramway (streetcar line) in Tokyo, the Toden Arakawa-sen. I like it a lot and it’s where my wife and I have lived in Tokyo in the past, and where we still stay when we return (there will be more pictures in a later post).

It was natural then to turn our attention to the place as a case-study area, mainly because it is so different from Shinjuku and the other areas that have gained so much attention from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s recent initiatives. We met with three officials from the Community Safety section of the local administration: the boss and two guys who had been seconded from the city police and the fire service respectively. The boss was full of enthusiasm for the direction that Arakawa-ku has taken, which although they don’t use the term ‘machizukuri‘ is far more about real community involvement than some places that do.

The HQ of Arakawa community safety
The HQ of Arakawa community safety

Arakawa has no comprehensive CCTV strategy, although the police do consult with the developers of large new buildings on its installation. That’s not to say that they don’t have a certain degree of ‘CCTV envy’ of those places with the latest high-tech gadgets that Arakawa can’t afford, but they are not dazed by the glamour of cameras and are realistic about both the limitations of CCTV and the appropriateness of such systems for their city. Instead they concentrate on using and enhancing the natural surveillance capacities of the local communities. They make a great deal of use of volunteers, retired police officers and ordinary local people, who do their own patrols, including the delightful wan-wan (‘woof-woof’) patrol which, judging from the posters, involves mainly older female residents and very small dogs! Participation in the various community initiatives is encouraged through the use of techniques like professional rakugo (traditional comic monologue) performances in schools and community centres. They also run community patrols in miniature versions of police patoka (patrol cars), which not only look more friendly but unlike the US-style police cars can get through much narrower streets.

The cute community patrol cars
The cute community patrol cars

However these diverse community projects are being stitched together in quite an innovative way, with the use of small anzen anshin sutashion (security and safety stations), which are a bit like community versions of the police koban, the miniature two-person police boxes which dot the city. Indeed the officials referred to them as minkan koban (‘people’s koban’). These small help stations, staffed mainly by ex-police don’t just provide ‘security’ information, they also deal with social security in the broader sense, offering help for older people with benefits, for example. In almost all cases, they have replaced koban that were closed by the police. So one could argue that this is essentially the local authority being forced to pick up the bill for services that used to be provided by the police and at the same time is actually losing real police service. However, the strategy overall is a valiant attempt to make ‘community safety’ less an issue of exclusionary security and more one of inclusivity and community development, more a natural and intimate part of everyday life that does not involve new forms of external control.

Of course, crime isn’t really a massive issue here anyway. Arakawa has consistently had the second or third lowest crime rates of all the 23 Tokyo wards. But even since the introduction of these initiatives, crime has fallen still further from the relative high point it reached a few years ago. And hardly a CCTV camera in sight…

The Shock of Order: Building and Demolition in Rio de Janeiro

I may have been slightly worried about the most recent drugs war that was going on as I arrived, but as usual this appears to have been exaggerated by the press who largely serve the richer, middle-class community, and who appear to want to have their fears stoked on a regular basis. The ‘war’ is a trafficker conflict that involves traffickers based in the large favela of Rocinha, who belong to the Comando Vermelho (CV, Red Command) the oldest and largest of the prison-based umbrella groups of Rio drug traffickers, attacking another favela, Ladeira dos Tabajaras, whose traffickers are backed by the ‘Amigos Dos Amigos’ (ADA, ‘Friends of Friends’). This kind of thing is happening on and off all the time, but what made it a concern of the paranoid middle class in this case, was geography: in order to get to Ladeira dos Tabajaras, the Rocinha gang had to go through the rich high-rise area of Copacabana… to say that it is exaggerated is not to say that it is not dangerous: 8 people have so far been killed, but they are all traffickers and, I believe, all killed following police raids into the favelas.

It is probably no coincidence that this display of force by the Rocinha traffickers is happening just as the city government of Rio has started to implement a policy of the current Mayor, Eduardo Paes, known as ‘choque de ordem’ (the ‘shock of order’), which involves sorties into communities like Rocinha largely to enforce planning regulations by destroying recent illegally built constructions, which are pushing the favelas even further up into the hills. In the last few days, this policy has resulted in the demolition of one particular controversial building, the Minhocão in Rocinha. This was due to start on the 17th, but was halted by a judicial decision, before going ahead in recent days.

There is more than a degree of irony here. The purpose of these demolitions is supposedly to enforce urban planning regulations and ‘protect Rio’. The Secretary for Public Order, Rodrigo Bethlem, is quoted by O Dia as saying (in my translation):

“We cannot permit an entrepreneur to come into Rocinha to build and make easy money by exploiting people. We cannot allow Rio De Janeiro to be destroyed by speculators, who want to make money without following any rules and who aim only at profit.”

Yet, I only have to glance out of my window here to see the towers of the Centro, built by wealthy speculators, which have almost completely destroyed the beautiful Parisian-style boulevards and belle epoque architecture that used to be ‘Rio’. And turning the other way, the coastline it dominate by the secure condominiums long the beaches, which I am pretty sure were not constructed out of the kindheartedness of developers, and whose development no doubt involved corruption at higher levels of urban government. Looking uphill, I can see the often dubiously if not illegally-constructed houses of the rich that cut into the edges of the National Park.

Can we look forward to the demolition of all of these disfigurements of Rio? Of course not… and the reason is obvious. The demolitions in Rocinha are about power projection. Local state policy towards the favelas goes in waves that alternate between socio-economic solutions and violent authoritarianism. For all its negative aspects, many people who are concerned with social justice here recall with some nostalgia the progressive populism of Leonel Brizola who was mayor in the 1980s. His administrations installed infrastructure, built schools and improved houses in the poorest areas.

The current administration of Eduardo Paes is taking a very different and harder line, concentrating on law and order, a stance which was laid out clearly during the Pan-American Games when the police effectively occupied several of the favelas in an Israeli-style security operation. There would be nothing wrong with this if it were backed by some kind of progressive social imagination too – some favelas like Dona Marta, which I will be visiting later this week, have apparently been transformed through a combination of strong control and surveillance with real social improvements.

Instead there are apparently plans to further marginalise favela residents by building a wall along the major highway from the international airport into the city, so that all the city’s elite can feel so much more secure, and of course, visitors will not have to even see the favelas (some or Rio’s most miserable) which line the route… there’s more than a whiff of Israeli tactics about this too. Whether by building or by demolition, urban planning seems to be currently used as a weapon against the favelas and their inhabitants.

The downside of Brasilia

on foot, you are immediately confronted by the unpleasant reality of what is to the pedestrian effectively a huge expanse of carpark and highway separating the areas you might want to be. The functional split between the ‘zones’ only makes this worse.

Again, this is urbanism rather than surveillance, but here are some more musings and pictures on the urban form of Brasilia. Yesterday, I posted a lot of conventionally attractive shots of the buildings around the monumental axis of Brasilia. However, leaving aside the wider question of whether Brasilia outside of the planned centre functions as a city, there is a rather less beautiful side to the core.

This mainly has to do with the practical consequences of the philosophy behind the plan and particularly with functional separation and transport. As I noted when I first arrived, the city is dominated by roads. 5-lane highways run down either side of the monumental axis, and it is crossed by two major motorways in deep cuttings, with all the attendant slipways. These probably look very attractive as bold curving lines on a plan. They may even function if you are traveling by car (or bus). But on foot, you are immediately confronted by the unpleasant reality of what is to the pedestrian effectively a huge expanse of carpark and highway separating the areas you might want to be. The functional split between the ‘zones’ only makes this worse. Say you are in the hotel zone that I was staying in and you want to go out for a meal and a drink. Well, that’s 30-minutes walk to the nearest residential centre (where most of the evening options are located). Sure, you can take a taxi, but why should you have to? All the sports clubs are in separate ‘club zones’ even further away from either hotel, commercial or residential districts.

Now, okay, so the residential districts have most of their facilities (not including clubs) within walking distance – I said in my first impressions blog entry that I could actually imagine living here with a young family. And I still could. Natives of Brasilia are fanatical about the place. The residential districts work. You don’t really have to go anywhere near the soulless and secured shopping centres or take your chances running across massive motorways with uncaring drivers trying their best to ignore you. There is a simple metro system which runs between the districts and the centre (though it was largely closed for the building of new stations when I was there). You can walk around, between and under the blocks. They don’t appear to be totally obsessed with security in the manner of Sao Paulo or indeed most other large Brazilian cities. The blocks have concierges but not fences, walls and gates. Most of the windows do not even have bars.

But there is a reason and a price for this too. The residential zones are simply not socially mixed. Just about everyone who lives in the big blocks is a government or big corporate office employee. The ordinary workers and the poor live elsewhere entirely, in one of the satellite cities of Brasilia, and are bussed in and out via the busy central bus station every day. At the bus station, you find glimpses of the ‘ordinary Brazil’ – the cheap lanchonetes and pastelerias (in fact probably the best pasteleria I have found in Brazil so far)!, sidewalk vendors of DVDs and knock-off jewelry, the beggars, the hungry and the desperate. In many ways I felt more comfortable there than in the dry Le Corbusian dreamspaces of the government buildings.

Anyway, here’s some pictures of the ‘real Brasilia’ – or what it looks like if you stop focusing on the architecture and take a wider view!