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.

On rejecting drones

There’s an all-too infrequently unquestioned assumption in a lot of popular and academic writing about surveillance, that surveillance just spreads and intensifies and that new surveillance technologies proceed in a teleological manner to fulfill their designed purpose. Sure, we have all read the science and technology studies literature and pay lip service to ideas of technological failure and we all keep searching for ‘resistance’ or even just ‘politics’, but even if, like me, we talk deliberately talk about ‘sociotechnical trajectories’ without trying to assign one possible direction to these trajectories, we very rarely make the retreat, diminution and easing off of surveillance the central focus of our work or our writing.

Drones have been the latest demonstration of this. Practically all my blog entries on the subject over the last few years have been telling a story of the seemingly unstoppable spread of drones from particular military applications to widespread military use, to civilian policing and thence to other government and private uses. So it is really instructive to see the introduction of drone surveillance stopped in its apparent tracks twice in one week. This is exactly what has happened in Seattle, Washington, and Charlottesville, Virginia this week. The Seattle Police Department had intended to implement a strategy of drone surveillance and had purchased two Micro-UAVs (MAVs). But rather than these following the CCTV route of government promotion and general public apathy or support bolstered the usual police surveys showing how ‘effective’ the new technology has been, instead, following massive public concern over privacy,  Mayor Mike McGinn this week returned the two drones to the manufacturer and put a stop to any further development. He stopped short of introducing any ordinance banning drones, as Charlottesville did in the same week with a resolution pledging that the city would not purchase any such technology and calling on the state legislature to introduce an outright ban.

However in many ways the Seattle decision might be more influential as it is a far larger metropolis and this could resonate in major cities across North America – and beyond, given that Seattle is an aspiring global city too. But how influential? We will have to see. Certainly the UAV manufacturers and police associations will try to fight back with renewed PR and sales pitches – I am fully expecting lots of ‘drone success stories’ in the media in the next few weeks and months as a result. But what these two decisions should do is remind us all that the domestic politics of drones is still open, the future is unwritten and there are many possible trajectories – which we should emphasize more than we do.

How online companies can protect privacy and free speech

QR_logoThere have been a lot of stories about online services breaching privacy, losing user’s data, being hacked, being to willing to give into state requests for information and much more. But not so much on how companies might provide a positive service that works, whilst respecting privacy, free speech and other fundamental rights. But now ACLU has issued a helpful guide. Clearly, it’s designed for business rather than being a critique of businesses and their practices, and as such is hardly a manual for revolution, but it will be interesting to see who takes notice… and who doesn’t.

Surveillance Toys

Playmobil Security Playset

In a surveillance society, it is hardly surprising that there are an increasing diversity of surveillance toys available. We are probably all familiar with things like the Playmobil security checkpoint playset, for example. But it is still surprising the forms they take.

Boingboing today had a story about the new Video Girl Barbie, with her tagline, “I am a real working video camera”  – as indeed she is. The camera is in fact between her plastic cleavage thinly disguised as a necklace.

What’s also not surprising is that there is already a paedophile panic around this particular toy – egged on by the FBI in this case, who aren’t exactly strangers to secret surveillance themselves. It’s hard to know what is sadder: the acculturation of younger and younger kids into a surveillance culture; or the irrational fear of strangers that this encourages. In reality they both reflect and encourage the same broader social trend towards a decline in social trust and solidarity.

Video Girl Barbie

Will Augmented Reality just be really, really boring?

BoingBoing draws my attention to a video produced by London firm, Berg, with the London office of Japanese advertising agency, Dentsu. Cory Doctorow, who posted this one, and who I usually find to be bang on the money, comments that it presents an imagination of ‘Augmented Reality’ that isn’t ‘an advertising hell’. That may be true, but it’s hardly an inspiring vision of the future of such a potentially empowering technology.  For a start, most of what is shown isn’t really ‘AR’ at all, just ways of displaying social media on different kinds of surfaces so you can’t escape from it – and in fact, Berg/Dentsu do term it ‘incidental media’. To me, AR, if it is to be anything useful at all, means a heightened sensory environment, and one that should start with providing ways for those already disadvantaged to experience the city. Bill Mitchell called the last book of his City of Bits trilogy, Me++, and AR should really create a City++. The dreary corporate Berg/Dentsu future isn’t anyway near this, in fact it’s a City–, it’s reality reduced to endless news and personal updates. If it’s not hell, it’s more like a meaningless limbo… I know that many visions of the future go way over the top, but this is so timid and unimaginative, it just makes the future look boring.