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.

Here comes the US ID-card push

For a while now, I’ve been wondering why the US didn’t attempt to push for a national biometric ID card system in the wake of the 9/11 bombings.

Given reported statements from biometrics industry bosses about 9/11 being ‘what we’ve been waiting for’ and so on, one might have expected there to be a major effort in this direction but officially, as Zureik and Hindle (2004) point out, the International Biometrics Industry Association (IBIA) was relatively cautious in its post-9/11 press work, although it argued that biometrics had a major role to play in the fight against terrorism. Even the 9/11 Commission didn’t recommend a national ID card scheme, instead limiting itself in its final report to In its final report, to recommending a “biometric entry-exit screening system” for travelers in and out of the USA.

Part of this is because of the uneasy relations between the federal government and states governments, and suspicion of the former from the latter, and particularly from the political right has meant national ID cards have always been out of the question, even in an era of identification. So even though ID is frequently required in social situations, especially in dealing with banks, police and government agencies, the US relies on the ubiquitous driver’s licenses, which are issued by states not by the federal government. I remember from my time living in the US (in Virginia) as a non-driver, that in order to have valid form of ID, I had the choice of either carrying my passport or getting a special non-driver’s driver’s license, which always struck me simply as an absurd commentary on the importance of the automobiles in US life because, being young at the time, the nuances of federal-state relationships escaped me. And of course, passports won’t cut it for most, as less than 50% of US citizens have one.

So, if the apparently ubiquitous threat of terrorism was not going to scare states’ rights advocates and the right in general into swallowing the industry lines about security that they might usually have lapped up, what would? Well, the one thing that scares the right more than terrorism – Mexicans! More seriously, the paranoia about undocumented migrants combined with the spiralling cost of oppressive yet clearly ineffective border control (walls, drones, webcams, vigilantes etc. etc.) seems to have no done what the fear of terrorism could not, and inspired a push on both the centre and the right for ID cards – not that there’s much evidence that biometric ID cards will do a better job of excluding undocumented migrants, given that they do nothing to address what’s driving this migration – the demand for cheap, tax-free labour in the USA.

Today, not only the beltway insider’s bible, the Washington Post has an editorial demanding biometric social security cards for all (and a concomitant reduction in spending on hardening the border) following on from a cross-party senate recommendation, but also the Los Angeles Times, a paper which in the past has often been wary of the march to a ‘surveillance society’ – indeed it was the first major US newspaper to use this term, way back in 1970 as well as publishing critics like Gary Marx (see Murakami Wood, 2009) – has an op-ed arguing for a national ID card. The LA Times version, written by Robert Pastor, also claims that this is necessary to deal with voter fraud, a constant concern of the right and which always has a strong undertone of racism, so it’s unsurprising coming after a black Democrat has been elected as President for a second time in a tight election. Ironically, however, the President whose supporters are clearly the target of such attacks, has recently made it clear that he is also a supporter of a ‘tamper-proof’ national ID system.

No-one has yet made the international competition argument that is also so often used in these debates (‘if India and Brazil can do it, then surely the USA can’), but this debate is now ramping up in a way that even 9/11 couldn’t manage. Interesting times ahead…


Murakami Wood, David. “The Surveillance Society’: Questions of History, Place and Culture.” European Journal of Criminology 6.2 (2009).
Zureik, Elia, and Karen Hindle. “Governance, security and technology: the case of biometrics.” Studies in Political Economy 73 (2004).
(thanks to Sarah Soliman and Aaron Martin for the newspaper articles…)

The Internet Must Be Defended (3): Everything is Terrorism?

One of the most ominous developments in the current conflict over Wikileaks has been the move in some quarters to define the publication of leaked information as something more than just ‘irresponsible’ or ‘criminal’ (e.g. ‘theft’ or even ‘espionage’). I have a lot of difficulty with those kinds of labels anyway, but it was only a matter of time before we saw serious, official calls for such activities to be defined as ‘terrorism’.

The Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, Laszlo Kover, yesterday called for the action of leaking confidential and secret information to be redefined as ‘information terrorism’. He seemed to be referring here not just to Wikileaks but to all ‘online news reporting’, in other words, he is advocating treating those who report on such information as ‘terrorists’ too.

Terrorism, let us not forget, is the use of violence to influence politics, in other words to impose one’s political will through fear of death or injury. There is no way in the world that one can argue rationally that releasing information that allows people to see what happens inside the organisations making claims to rule over us, or act on our behalf, is that kind of violence, indeed it is highly irresponsible to try to associate the term with any processes of nonviolent communication.

The problem is that to many people this probably doesn’t seem unreasonable – people already talk about ‘information war’ as if that meant something clear and comprehensible. But this kind of action would be to extend the definition of terrorism, already stretched to breaking point by legislative changes in the USA, UK and other western countries, into the realm of freedom of speech and the politics of transparency and accountability.

Since 9/11, we have seen a gradual movement, at first indirect and associational as with John Robb’s talk of the ‘open-source insurgency’ back in 2005, and now increasingly overt, to define the advocates of openness and transparency as terrorists. This must be resisted before it takes root in any kind of legislation because ultimately this means that the Internet itself, the communications architecture which supports such activity, is portrayed as the vehicle for such ‘information terrorism.’ This will simply increase the movement of the drive to close the Net away from a crazy, fascistic notion (which it is) towards ‘common-sense.’ It will stifle the development of any genuine global polity.

What to do? Well the first thing is to respond immediately any time something like this is said by any politician or even commentator. This kind of talk should remain in the realm of the ridiculous and the repressive. We need to change the direction of the discourse.

The Internet Must Be Defended!

As I am just putting the finishing touches on a new issue of Surveillance & Society, on surveillance and empowerment, the furore over the Wikileaks website and it’s publication of secret cables from US diplomatic sources has been growing. Over the last few days, Julian Assange, the public face of the website and one of its founders has been arrested in London on supposedly unrelated charges as US right-wing critics call for his head, the site’s domain name has been withdrawn, Amazon has kicked the organization off its US cloud computing service, one of Assange’s bank accounts has been seized, and major companies involved in money transfer, Paypal, Visa and Mastercard, have all stopped serving Wikileaks claiming that Wikileaks had breached their terms of service.

At the same time, hundreds of mirror sites for Wikileaks have been set up around the world, and the leaks show no sign of slowing down. The revelations themselves are frequently mundane or confirm what informed analysts knew already, but it is not the content of these particular leaks that is important, it is the point at which they come in the struggle over information rights and the long-term future of the Internet.

The journal which I manage is presaged on open-access to knowledge. I support institutional transparency and accountability at the same time as I defend personal privacy. It is vital not to get the two mixed up. In the case of Wikileaks, the revelation of secret information is not a breach of anyone’s personal privacy, rather it is a massively important development in our ability to hold states to account in the information age. It is about equalization, democratization and the potential creation of a global polity to hold the already globalized economy and political elites accountable.

John Naughton, writing on The Guardian website, argues that western states who claim openness is part of freedom and democracy cannot have it both ways. We should, he says, ‘live with the Wikileakable world’. It is this view we accept, not the ambivalence of people like digital critic, Clay Shirky, who, despite being a long-term advocate of openness seemingly so long as the openness of the Internet remained safely confined to areas like economic innovation, cannot bring himself to defend this openness when its genuinely political potential is beginning to be realised.

The alternative to openness is closure, as Naughton argues. The Internet, created by the US military but long freed from their control, is now under thread of being recaptured, renationalized, sterilized and controlled. With multiple attacks on the net from everything from capitalist states’ redefinition of intellectual property and copyrights, through increasingly comprehensive surveillance of Internet traffic by almost all states, to totalitarian states’ censorship of sites, and now the two becoming increasingly indistinguishable over the case of Wikileaks, now is the time for all who support an open and liberatory Internet to stand up.

Over 30 years ago, between 1975 and 1976 at the Collège de France, Michel Foucault gave a powerful series of lectures entitled Society Must Be Defended. With so much that is social vested in these electronic chains of connection and communication, we must now argue clearly and forcefully that, nation-states and what they want be damned, “The Internet Must Be Defended!”

UK Media on the New ICO Surveillance Report

There has been some good coverage (and some less good) coverage of the new ICO surveillance update report, to which we (founder-members of the Surveillance Studies Network) contributed the background research.

There are national press stories in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, in regional papers like The Yorkshire Post, and in trade publications like Computer Weekly, The Register, and Public Service.

Although some of the reports get things wrong, and The Daily Mail’s in particular is a masterpiece of selective quotation and context-removal, the response has generally got the main points that we intended to get across. These include the points that the change of government in Britain with its rhetoric of rolling back surveillance doesn’t necessarily affect a great deal of what the state does beyond those headline measures like scrapping ID cards and the National Identity Register; and, even more importantly, both transnational data sharing between states and surveillance by the private sector are intensifying and spreading regardless. We do highlight some particular surveillance technologies and practices but these are largely emblematic in this report – it was not a large survey like the 2006 orignal – so although we talk about drone cameras, Google Latitude and Facebook Places, ubiquitous computing, e-borders and new workplace monitoring practices, we are not trying to say that these are the only games in town.