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.

US drone based in Saudia Arabia revealed?

003Wired’s Danger Room blog has published pictures of what may be the hitherto secret CIA drone base in Saudi Arabia, revealed as part the confirmation hearings for John Brenner as proposed Director of the CIA…

Obama’s drone wars in question

So much has been happening over the US drone warfare program over the last few weeks that it’s hard to keep up.

First, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, instigated an inquiry into the targeted killing programs operated by the USA, largely using drones, and focusing on the issue of civilian casualties. The rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, made it clear that the inquiry would pull no punches and might result in war crimes charges against the US, should evidence be discovered of such crimes.

Second, NBC television in the USA revealed a leaked Justice Department document laying out the legal justification for the targeted assassination of US citizens using drones. The full memo is also available from this link and assembles a tortuous argument about how US citizens can be killed by their own government from above if there an “informed, high-level” official decides that the person has “recently” been involved in undefined “activities” threatening a violent attack against the US and “there is  no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.”

And now, the Washington Post is reporting that the nomination of President Obama’s counter-terrorism guru, John Brennan, to head the CIA, has led to all sorts of revelations and difficult questions for Brennan to answer about the CIA’s targeted assassination program, including the acknowledgement of a secret drone base, at a still undisclosed location, in Saudi Arabia.

A while ago it looked like Obama’s drone strategy was unassailable despite increasing public knowledge via the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and criticisms from groups like the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. Now, this is going mainstream and it’s not looking so good for what former CIA Director, Leon Panetta, called the ‘only game in town’.


Surveillance devices get smaller… but it’s privacy that vanishes.

I’ve been blogging for a while about miniaturization and the ‘vanishing’ of surveillance devices. This disappearance occurs in many ways, one of which is the incorporation of high-tech surveillance features into objects and devices that we are already used to or their reduction to a size and form factor that is relatively familiar. Two examples coincidentally arrived in my inbox over the last week.

The first was the news that the US Navy has awarded a development contract for binoculars that incorporate three-dimensional face-recognition technology from StereoVision Inc (who may well be the bunch of  California-based face recog people I met at a biometrics industry show a few years back). This supposedly gets round the problems that standard two-dimensional face recognition has dealing with unpredictably mobile crowds of people in natural light (AKA ‘the real world’). The issue I’m highlighting here however is that we don’t expect binoculars to be equipped with face recognition. Binoculars may not be entirely socially acceptable items, and already convey implications of creepy voyeurism when used in urban or domestic situations, however this is something else entirely.

Small terahertz wave scanner being tested by NYPD in January (NYPD_

The second is the extraordinarily rapid ongoing progress towards working handheld terahertz wave technology (a far more effective form of scanning technology than either the backscatter x-ray or millimeter wave systems used in the bulky bodyscanners currently in use at airports). Just four years ago, I noted the theoretical proof that this was possible, and last month, it was revealed that police in New York were testing handheld terahertz wave scanners, (Thruvision from Digital Barriers) which of course people were likening to Star Trek’s tricorders. The idea that the police could perform a virtual strip search on the street without even having to ask is again, a pretty major change, but it’s also the case that the basic technology can be incorporated into standard video camera systems – potentially everyone with a mobile phone camera could be doing this in a few years.

I’m not a technological determinist, but in the context of societies in which suspicion, publicity and exposure are becoming  increasingly socially normative, I have to ask what these technologies and many others like them imply for conventional responses based on ‘privacy’. Privacy by design is pretty much a joke when the sole purpose of such devices is to breach privacy. And control by privacy regulators is based on the ability to know that one is actually under surveillance – when everything can potentially be performing some kind of highly advanced surveillance, how is one able to tell, let alone select which of the constant breaches of privacy is worth challenging? So, do we simply ban the use of certain forms of surveillance technology in public places? How, would this be enforced given that any conventional form factor might or might not contain such technology? And would this simply result in an even more intense asymmetry of the gaze, when the military and the police have such devices, but people are prevented from using them? Do we rely of camouflage, spoofing and disabling techniques and technologies against those who might be seeking to expose us? You can bet the state will not be happy if these become widespread – just look at the police reaction to existing sousveillance and cop-watching initiatives…

Canada and Mali

I’m privileged to be supervising some great students at all levels, but Jeff Monaghan is something else*. Not surprisingly for someone who previously worked with the awesomely prolific and engaged, Kevin Walby (now over in Victoria – who may be the young researcher I most admire in surveillance studies), he mainly uses Access to Information and Privacy requests (ATIPs – under Canada’s freedom of information legislation) as a basic method, and as far as I can see he is constantly firing these things off and sorting through them for revealing nuggets. Right now, Jeff is working in the way in which Canadian development aid, like that of many wealthy nations, is becoming increasingly entwined with a security agenda, what he calls ‘security aid’. Anyway, he’s in the news today because one of his ATIPs has revealed that Canada was engaged in planning for military intervention in Mali, of some sort, over a year ago, belying their apparent public reluctance to get involved right now.