Does the expansion of surveillance make assassination harder? Not in a world of UAVs…

Following the killing of Mahmood Al-Mabhouh is Dubai, allegedly by Israeli Mossad agents, some people are starting to ask whether political assassination is being made more difficult by the proliferation of everyday surveillance. The Washington Post argues that it is, and they give three other cases, including that of Alexandr Litvinenko in London in 2006. But there’s a number of reasons to think that this is a superficial argument.

However the obvious thing about all of these is that they were successful assassinations. They were not prevented by any surveillance technologies. In the Dubai case, the much-trumpeted new international passport regime did not uncover a relatively simple set  of photo-swaps – and anyone who has talked to airport security will know how slapdash most ID checks really are. Litvinenko is as dead as Georgi Markov, famously killed by the Bulgarian secret service with a poisoned-tipped umbrella in London in 1978, and we still don’t really have a clear idea of what was actually going on in the Markov case despite some high-profile charges being laid.

Another thing is that there are several kinds of assassination: the first are those that are meant to be clearly noticed, so as to send a message to the followers or group associated with the deceased. Surveillance technologies, and particularly CCTV,  help such causes by providing readily viewable pictures that contribute to a media PR-campaign that is as important as the killing itself. Mossad in this case, if it was Mossad, were hiding in plain sight – they weren’t really trying to do this in total secrecy. And, let’s not forget many of the operatives who carry out these kinds of actions are considered disposable and replaceable.

The second kind are those where the killers simply don’t care one way or the other what anyone else knows or thinks (as in most of the missile attacks by Israel on the compounds of Hamas leaders within Gaza or the 2002 killing of Qaed Senyan al-Harthi by a remote-controlled USAF drone in the Yemen). The third kind are those that are not meant to be seen as a killing, but are disguised as accidents – in most of those cases, we will never know: conspiracy theories swirl around many such suspicious events, and this fog of unknowing only helps further disguise those probably quite small number of truly fake accidents and discredits their investigation. One could argue that such secret killings may be affected by widespread surveillance, but those involved in such cases are far more careful and more likely to use methods to leverage or get around conventional surveillance techniques.

Then of course, there is the fact that the techniques of assassination are becoming more high-tech and powerful too. The use of remote-control drones as in the al-Harthi case is now commonplace for the US military in Afghanistan and Pakistan, indeed the CIA chief, Leon Panetta, last year described UAVs as “the only game in town for stopping Al-Qaeda.” And now there are many more nations equipping themselves with UAVs – which, of course, can be both surveillance devices and weapons platforms. Just the other day, Israel announced the world’s largest drone – the Eltan from Heron Industries, which can apparently fly for 20 hours non-stop. India has already agreed to buy drones from the same company. And, even local police forces in many cities are now investing in micro-UAVs (MAVs): there’s plenty of potential for such devices to be weaponized – and modelled after (or disguised as) birds or animals too.

Finally, assassinations were not that common anyway, so it’s hard to see any statistically significant downward trends. If anything, if one considers many of the uses of drones and precision-targeted missile strikes on the leaders of terrorist and rebel groups as ‘assassinations’, then they may be increasing in number rather than declining, albeit more confined to those with wealth and resources…

(Thanks to Aaron Martin for pointing me to The Washington Post article)

Would Canadians be “safer with a camera on every corner”?

I haven’t got very involved with Canadian debates on surveillance yet (but don’t worry, I will!). However a comment piece in Thursday’s Globe and Mail, which demanded that Canadian cities install ubiquitous video surveillance, prompted me to pen an immediate letter, which was signed by both Professor David Lyon and myself. It was published today, slightly edited – the full version is below. (They also decided to edit out our respective titles, which makes me look senior to Professor Lyon. Oops.)

“Marcus Gee writes that “We’d be safer with a camera on every corner” (Comment, May 22nd, p.15). If only this were true. However it simply is not the case.

Mr Gee quotes the UK as an example of where video surveillance is effective, but this is not supported by the crime figures in the UK or by academic research. The most comprehensive evaluation of all studies done of the effects of CCTV on crime (by the Campbell Collaboration, 2009) concluded that it had little or not effect on the occurrence of violent crimes like the disgraceful murder of Christopher Skinner, which prompted Mr Gee to write. Even the limited British police assessment of CCTV conducted by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) in 2008, admitted this was the case.

It is easy to demand that ‘something must be done’ as a response to any particular incident of violent crime, and CCTV is the currently fashionable ‘something.’ But let us get beyond the superficial and look at the evidence. Then we could have a proper debate about CCTV.”

The case of the serial killer and a South Korean surveillance surge

the case of the serial killer, Kang Ho-Soon, looks like it will be the signal for a surveillance surge in South Korea

Martin Innes described how certain ´signal crimes´ can trigger major cultural shifts, changes in policy or in many cases what, a few years ago, I called a ´surveillance surge´. In the UK, the case of James Bulger was one such incident that continues to resonate in all sorts of ways, but in particular has been held to be a major factor in the nationwide expansion of CCTV. 9/11 can be seen as another for the expansion of surveillance in the USA. Now the case of the serial killer, Kang Ho-Soon, looks like it will be the signal for a surveillance surge in South Korea.

Kang, described as a classic psychopath, killed seven women in Gyeonggi province between late 2006 and 2008. He met the women through personal ads and by offering them lifts home as they were waiting at bus stops at night, and then raped and killed them before disposing of the bodies in remote locations. His capture was at least partly down to CCTV images of his car near the sites of the murders.

According to Kim Rahn´s story in the Korean Times, South Korea seems to in the grip of frenzy of fear of strangers, with massive increases in applications to companies offering mobile phone location and tracking services, all schools in Seoul installing CCTV apparently to prevent violence and kidnappings, and in Gyeonggi province, 1,724 surveillance cameras, many with high resolution night vision will be installed. The murders have also sparked new debates about the use of the death penalty in the country.

But, and there is always a ´but´, one interesting fact in the story is that the bus stops where Kang met his victims were unlit. Street lighting is now apparently also to be added. Now it is one of the truisms of studies of CCTV that improved street lighting is a far better deterrent of opportunist crime than cameras – not that you are ever going to deter a true psychopath. Neither street lighting nor all the CCTV cameras in the world will do that.

More broadly however, I wonder whether South Korea is going through a similar breakdown of the feeling of social assurance that Japan is experiencing. At the risk of sounding like George W. Bush, I know Japan is not South Korea and South Korea is not Japan, but both societies traditionally had highly structured, ordered cultures which have been rapidly transformed in the face of industrialisation and globalisation. From my own research in Japan, it seems that the move towards increasing surveillance is strongly connected to this transformation. However at the same time, increasing surveillance is also encouraging the further decline of trust and a move toward a society of strangers. This can be seen as part of what David Lyon is starting to call the ´surveillance spiral´, a self-reinforcing movement in which more surveillance is always the answer to the problems that can at least partly be traced to living in a surveillance society.

Brazil: Surveillance Society or Security Society?

although there are many forms of surveillance in evidence, Brazil is not fundamentally a ´surveillance society´

What I am doing here is a broad survey of issues around surveillance. I am trying to get to grips with as wide a range of indicators as possible. One impression I have already – which as an impression may be partly or entirely wrong – is that although there are many forms of surveillance in evidence, Brazil is not fundamentally a ´surveillance society´ in the way that the UK is, or in the rather different way that Japan is: Brazil is much more a ´security society´. This is not to say, for example, that there are not many CCTV cameras in the country: Marta Kanashiro´s article in Surveillance & Society last year indicated that there are well over a million cameras (the total is hard to estimate because of the number of illegal installations).

However, surveillance here is very much tied into security. It´s not a ´security state´ – although it still retains reminders of its more authoritarian past – the concentration on security is largely private. Industry reports I have found, for example, this one from the Massachussets South America Office, indicate that the security industry is growing at rates of betwen 10 and 15% regardless of wider economic trends. Foreign companies are poised like vultures over the thousands of SME security companies that make up the huge private security sector, and positively salivate over the high crime figures.

If one talks in abstracts and absolutes, investment in security at a national level seems to make a difference to these figures. The Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública (or Fórum Segurança, the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety), an independent network of local groups, experts and members of state and private secuirty organisations, has started to publish an annual report. The second report, available late last year, indicates a strong correlation between increased spending ($35 Billion US in 2007) and the decline in homicides. For example, in Rio there was an increase in spending of 4.4% and a decline in homicides of 4.7%. A summary in English is available here.

The big thing is not so much public space surveillance (although the industry report mentioned above estimates a $1Bn US market for electronic surveillance technology mainly for the private sector), but both fortification (especially the upsurge in the building of secure condominiums) and the increasing numbers of human security operatives. These may be private security, the new Municipal Guards – basically private security now employed by more than 750 local mayors – or even more worryingly, the urban militias, particularly in Rio. Despite the massive investment in public safety highlighted by Fórum Segurança, official police and other state agents of security and safety are still poorly paid, demotivated and not trusted. To remedy their perceived weakness, in particular in dealing with drug trafficking gangs, so-called Autodefesas Comunitárias (ADC, or Community Self-Defence) groups have emerged. These are paramilitaries made up of current and former police, soldiers, firemen and private security, who basically invade favelas to drive out traffickers in the name of safety, but which soon come to dominate the area and create a new kind of violent order. Now a report by the Parliamentary Hearing Commission into the Militias of Rio de Janeiro, has named names (including several local representatives), and various measures are promised.

Violent Crime in Brazil

Murder rates in Brazil and Sao Paulo (The Economist)
Murder rates in Brazil and São Paulo (The Economist, 2008)

Most people tend to think of Brazilian cities as divided and violent, with especially high rates of gang-related gun deaths in and around the favelas. Certainly that was the impression I was starting to get. However, there was an excellent piece last year in The Economist on falling murder rates in Brazilian cities. Yes, that´s right, I said falling murder rates. And not just falling, plummeting.

However, as the article points out, the decline is largely due to a halving of the murder rate in Brazil´s second city, São Paulo. The Economist put this down to a combination of: tighter gun control; better policing (including community policing initiatives and a large new Murder Squad, which ¨uses computer profiling to spot patterns and to act preventively¨); and, a relative decline in the youth demographic as the baby-boom cohort of children born after the mass immigration from the 1970s ages – the gangsters are getting older and getting out of crime, and there are slightly fewer young recruits to replace them. But one note of caution is that this may all be the temporary result of one particular gang gaining a dominant and unchallengable position. My view (not The Economist´s) is that if this latter development is a genuinely long-term trend, it could either result in a move to more legal community development activities by the gang (as has happened in some US cities) or a more stable but persistant pattern of criminality such as that in exhibited by the endemic gang-cultures of Southern Italy or in Japan…

Of course, I should also note that these figures are official ones from the Ministry of Health and I have no idea yet how reliable are the collection or categorisation methods for crime statistics used by the Brazilian authorities.

(thanks to Rodrigo Firmino for this one)