On the ‘Right to Be Forgotten’

While Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is arguing today both that there’s really not a lot new to the European Court of Justice decision to order Google to adjust its search results to accommodate the right to privacy for one individual and that it really won’t be a problem because Google already handles loads of copyright removal requests very quickly, the decision has also sparked some really rather silly comments all over the media, usually from the neoliberal and libertarian right, that this is a kind of censorship or that it will open the door to states being able to control search results.

I think it’s vital to remember that there’s really an obvious difference between personal privacy, corporate copyright and state secrecy. I really don’t think it’s helpful in discussion to conflate all these as somehow all giving potential precedent to the other (and I should be clear that Mayer-Schönberger is not doing this, he’s merely pointing out the ease with which Google already accommodates copyright takedown notices to show that it’s not hard or expensive for them to comply with this ruling). State attempts to remove things that it finds inconvenient are not the same as the protection of personal privacy, and neither are the same as copyright. This decision is not a precedent for censorship by governments or control by corporations and we should very strongly guard against any attempts to use it in this way.

Google algorithms already do a whole range of work that we don’t see and to suggest that they are (or were) open, free and neutral and will now be ‘biased’ or ‘censored’ after this decision is only testament to how much we rely on Google to a large extent, unthinkingly. This is where I start to part company with Mayer-Schönberger is in his dismissal of the importance of this case as just being the same as a records deletion request in any other media. It isn’t; it’s much more significant.

You are sill perfectly free to make the effort to consult public records about the successful complainant in the case (or anyone else) in the ways you always have. The case was not brought against those holding or even making the information public. What the case sought to argue, and what the court’s verdict does, is to imply that there are good social reasons to limit the kind of comprehensive and effortless search that Google and other search engines provide, when it comes to the personal history of private individuals – not to allow that one thing that is over and one to continue to define the public perception of a person anywhere in the world and potentially for the rest of their life (and beyond). Something being public is not the same as something being easily and instantaneously available to everyone forever. In essence it provides for a kind of analog of the right of privacy in public places for personal data. And it also recognizes that the existence and potentials of any information technology should not be what defines society, rather social priorities should set limits on how information technologies are used.

Personally, I believe that this is a good thing. However, as the politics of information play out over the next few years, I also have no doubt that it’s something that will be come up again and again in courts across the world…

PS: I first wrote about this back in 2011 here – I think I can still stand behind what I though then!

Hot Air on the Surveillance Industry from the UK

Privacy International has produced a much-needed survey of the state of the surveillance industry, following its other excellent report on the use of development aid to push surveillance technologies on developing countries. The British government’s response, voiced by the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls, Sir John Stanley,  has been a typically limp one, largely concerned with the possibility of such systems being sold to ‘authoritarian regimes’ yet blustered and talked of ‘grey areas’ when it came to Britain’s responsibility for this trade.

But this is all way too little too late. I warned of the danger of the increased technological capabilities and decreasing costs of ‘surveillance-in-a-box’ systems as far back as 2008 (see my post here which refers to that). Instead of taking horizon-scanning and pre-emptive action to limit this, Britain, the USA and many other states have encouraged this trade with state aid – as they have with military and security industries more broadly – and, not least, encouraged the use of surveillance on a global scale themselves. Their own extensive breaches of human rights through programs like PRISM and TEMPEST give them no real moral high ground to talk about what authoritarian regimes might do, when they are already pursuing the same actions.

Illegal UK blacklists now being shared with the USA?

I’ve written here in the past about British blacklisting organisations that compile lists of ‘troublemakers’ (mainly union activists) and sell them to building firms and share them with police. This has led to people being unable to get jobs and all kinds of hassle. In theory, the notorious Economic League which started this activity back in the 1920s is now disbanded but their mantle was taken up by a number of other private bodies, including the Consulting Association, which was the subject of an unusual raid by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) back in 2009.

Now it seems that in the era of transnational information sharing for ‘security’, such lists have found their way to the US Homeland Security complex. According to a report in the London Evening Standard, his certainly seems to be the case for major British mainstream environmental campaigner, John Stewart, formerly of the anti-road building lobby, Alarm UK and now of the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (HACAN).

If such private politically motivated lists are now circulating internationally and being treated as reasonable grounds for refusing entry to other countries, it makes a mockery of the fact that they have already been found to be in breach of British and European laws, and it is likely that such data will continue to circulate entirely decontextualized from the circumstances and motivation of their collection. So an illegal anti-democratic trawling operation to stop legitimate political activity becomes the basis for security decisions to err… safeguard democracy. It would be funny if it wasn’t already so common and will continue to be so as security relies increasingly on risk assessments derived from the indiscriminate mashing together of information into ‘big data’.

Cameras against Corruption

One of the things that was intriguing me about the recent meteorite strikes in Russia was how come there was so much video footage available from inside cars. And not surprisingly some other surveillance researchers were thinking the same thing, and it was Gemma Galdon Clavell who provided the answer: apparently many Russians have dashboard-mounted cameras largely as a form of protection against corrupt cops and officials as well as scammers pretending to be cops and officials and worse.

This article from Radio Free Europe explains at least some of this.

Update: I should warn people not to watch the video links from that piece unless you want to see actual nasty accident footage. It’s not pleasant at all.

The Iconography of High Velocity DNA tagging

There’s been quite a lot of media coverage in the last few days about the ‘High Velocity DNA Tagging System‘, made by UK company Selectamark, and apparently in line to be purchased by several UK police forces. The system uses a kind of airgun that can fire “a uniquely-coded DNA pellet” for up to 30-40 metres, which “can be used to mark an individual so that they can be apprehended at a less confrontational time for officers.” Claims on the website include one that the microdots of artificial DNA can penetrate through clothing and mark the skin of individuals, and also that the artificial DNA used can result in ‘infinite number’ of unique numerical identifiers.

None of this is entirely new: Selectamark is a company who’s core business is anti-theft marking of equipment, and essentially what they have done is create a gun-based delivery system for an existing technology that was previously used to mark things, thus turning it into a system for identifying individual human beings, in much the same way as has been suggested would occur with RFID implants (but which has not yet really happened in any widespread fashion). Like RFID, the identification is not biometric, i.e. resulting from unique bodily characteristics, but what amounts to a high-tech form of instant temporary tattooing or paint-marking. The company is silent on how temporary this is – and whether the microdots – which are just visible, but show up better under UV light – can be easily removed or washed off by those tagged.

What’s also really interesting is the imagery deployed in the website. Of course there are the usual images of policemen with large guns (here complete with light source for night-time use). These guns, like tasers, have an interestingly toy-like quality to them with their bright orange plastic finish. Guns that aren’t really guns…


However what’s more interesting are the background images used on the site. The targets of the tagging system are clearly depicted in one background image and will be recognisable to all British readers – ‘hoodies’ – the marginalized urban youth who were implicated in the rioting in London in 2011 (although there is also an inevitable pop culture association, especially with all that light-saber-y UV around, with the evil Sith from the Star Wars franchise).


The youths are depicted encircled in lines of UV-like light whose coils also reflect the image of DNA, which is used here as another background image.


The late Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee described DNA as a ‘cultural icon‘, and indeed, the never-really-explained ‘artificial DNA’ technology which underpins Selectamark’s product seems deliberate discursively confused with exisiting DNA identification technologies, or at least the association is clear: that DNA fingerprinting, which is already understood in media discouse as standing for absolute certainty as to identification, is ‘the same’ as this technology. And clearly this sounds better than associating it, as I did earlier, with tattooing – which has a much less wholesome image when it comes to the state’s usage (Nazi death camps etc.).

And then the lines of light that surround the youth also seem to beam out across and enclose the entire world, which is both a standard marketing trope (“we are a global company”) but also a shift in scale that reflects the way in which security and surveillance has moved, to encompass the globe. The world is also depicted as dark with the suggestion of a coming sunrise (fitting in with the overall ‘crime lurks in the darkness and Selectamark will shine a (UV) light in it” theme) and almost entirely urban:


But then what is the value in this global world, which Selectamark (and the police) are seeking to protect? What is the source of the light? Well, the answer, in the final background image, will surprise no-one. It isn’t those who need justice, the poor, the downtrodden, the huddled masses, it’s big companies:


The corporate sector is depicted as icons streaming information-superhighway style from the light along grid patterns: rational, clean and bright and filling, overcoming, the darkness beyond, in a corporate version of the creation story in the Book of Genesis. We are saved! Thank-you, Selectamark and your High Velocity DNA Tagging!