High tech class control

Watch this video from The Guardian on Camden, NJ. It’s ostensibly about police surveillance, and I was expecting to be outraged (once again…) at the use of over-the-top high technology – visual and audio surveillance – to deal with everyday crime.

But instead, what struck me was not so much the ostensible subject but the backdrop: the place itself. The areas patrolled by the officers in this film look almost post-apocalyptic. I’ve seen favelas in Rio de Janeiro that are in better shape, and many certainly seem to have more hope than this. Poverty and inequality in the USA, grounded in a history and present of racial and class exploitation, have become extreme. There’s no other way to put it.

And yet, outside of these places, which are everywhere across the USA, and ironically given the investment in technologies of visibility, the reality is invisible. The use of surveillance here is just a recognition of the lack of anything that amounts to a conception of a decent and fair society in practise, while people are still blinded by the noble goals of the USA as expressed in its constitution. This constitution means little to millions of Americans forced to live in these conditions, while being treated all the time as not even ‘potential criminals’ but simply ‘future criminals’, who will commit a crime at some point, and are destined for nothing more than to be churned through a carceral system that is in itself now a profitable and perhaps even essential component of American capitalism. However, this seems to have escaped the notice and concern of those who actually vote in elections and make decisions, whether they class themselves as liberals or conservatives, most of whom are so far removed from these conditions, physically and emotionally that they could not possibly understand.

This makes it even more bitterly ironic that The Guardian choses to title this report as ‘Minority Report meets The Wire‘, as if the only way to understand this is through fiction – that, somehow, it can’t be real. Yet here it is.


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…)

Automation and Imagination

Peter Tu writes over on Collective Imagination, that greater automation might prevent racism and provide for greater privacy in visual surveillance, providing what he calls ‘race-blind glasses’. The argument is not a new one at all, indeed the argument about racism is almost the same proposition advanced by Professor Gary Marx in the mid-90s about the prospects for face-recognition. Unfortunately, Dr Tu does several of the usual things: he argues that ‘the genie is out of the bottle’ on visual surveillance, as if technological development of any kind is an unstoppable linear force that cannot be controlled by human politics; and secondly, seemingly thinking that technologies are somehow separate from the social context in which they are created and used – when of course technologies are profoundly social. Although he is more cautious than some, this still leads to the rather over optimistic conclusion, the same one that has been advanced for over a century now, that technology will solve – or at least make up for – social problems. I’d like to think so. Unfortunately, empirical evidence suggests that the reality will not be so simple. The example Dr Tu gives on the site is one of a simple binary system – a monitor shows humans as white pixels on a black background. There is a line representing the edge of a station platform. It doesn’t matter who the people are or their race or intent – if they transgress the line, the alarm sounds, the situation can be dealt with. This is what Michalis Lianos refers to as an Automated Socio-Technical Environment (ASTE). Of course these simple systems are profoundly stupid in a way that the term ‘artificial intelligence’ disguises and the binary can hinder as much as it can help in many situations. More complex recognition systems are needed if one wants to tell one person from another or identify ‘intent’, and it is here that all those human social problems return with a vengeance. Research on face-recognition systems, for example, has shown that prejudices can get embedded within programs as much as priorities, in other words the politics of identification and recognition (and all the messiness that this entails) shifts into the code, where it is almost impossible for non-programmers (and often even programmers themselves) to see. And what better justification for the expression of racism can there be that a suspect has been unarguably ‘recognised’ by a machine? ‘Nothing to do with me, son, the computer says you’re guilty…’ And the idea that ‘intent’ can be in any way determined by superficial visualisation is supported by very little evidence which is far from convincing, and yet techno-optimist (and apparently socio-pessimist) researchers push ahead with the promotion of the idea that computer-aided analysis of ‘microexpressions’ will help tell a terrorist from a tourist. And don’t get me started on MRI…

I hope our genuine human ‘collective imagination’ can do rather better than this.

UN Human Rights Committee Finds Discrimination in Racial Profiling

I received the following message from James A. Goldston, Executive Director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, on a very important finding on racial profiling by the UN Human Rights Committee. I reprint he message in full, as it speaks for itself.

On July 30, 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Committee became the first international tribunal to declare that police identity checks that are motivated by race or ethnicity run counter to the international human right to non-discrimination. The committee issued its views concerning the Rosalind Williams v. Spain communication, originally filed by the Justice Initiative and Women’s Link Worldwide in 2006.

Williams’ case began 17 years ago, when she, a naturalized Spanish citizen, was stopped by a National Police officer in the Valladolid, Spain rail station. Of all the people on the train platform, she was the only one to be stopped and asked for her identity documents. She was also the only black person on the platform. Williams soon launched a legal challenge to the identity check, claiming she was targeted because of her race. In 2001, the Spanish Constitutional Tribunal approved the practice of relying on specific physical or racial characteristics as “reasonable indicators of the non-national origin of the person who possesses them,” arguing that racial criteria are “merely indicative of the greater probability that the interested party not Spanish.” The court’s endorsement lent legitimacy to a pervasive discriminatory policy of ethnic profiling that had for years been widely documented by human rights monitoring bodies.

In finding a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights the UN Human Rights Committee concluded that while identity checks might be permitted for protecting public safety, the prevention of crime, or to control illegal immigration, “the physical or ethnic characteristics of the persons targeted should not be considered as indicative of their possibly illegal situation in the country. Nor should identity checks be carried out so that only people with certain physical characteristics or ethnic backgrounds are targeted. This would not only adversely affect the dignity of those affected, but also contribute to the spread of xenophobic attitudes among the general population; it would also be inconsistent with an effective policy to combat racial discrimination.”

The committee found that while there was no written policy to conduct police identity checks on the basis of skin color, “…it does appear that the police officer did act according to such a criterion — something that was justified by the courts that heard the case. The responsibility of the State party is clearly compromised.”

“… the Committee can only conclude that the petitioner was singled out only because of her racial characteristics, and this was the decisive factor for suspecting unlawful conduct. The Committee recalls its jurisprudence that not all differential treatment constitutes discrimination if the criteria for differentiation are reasonable and objective and if the goal is legitimate under the Covenant. In this case, the Committee finds that the criteria of reasonableness and objectivity were not met.”

The implications of the UN Human Rights Committee’s judgment extend far beyond Spain, where ethnicity-based police stops are still a common practice, to wider Europe, where years of monitoring have revealed a persistent and damaging pattern of ethnic profiling of minorities and immigrants in police stops and searches without explanation and without clear or effective purpose. The Justice Initiative has documented the prevalence and harms of this impermissible practice in reports such as “I Can Stop and Search Whoever I Want” — Police Stops of Ethnic Minorities in Bulgaria, Hungary and Spain and Ethnic Profiling in the European Union: Pervasive, Ineffective, and Discriminatory!, and has long advocated for operational, policy, and legal reforms before national and regional actors.

Although previous regional human rights tribunals have touched upon the issue of ethnic profiling — most notably the European Court of Human Rights in its 2005 Timishev v. Russia judgment, which held that the applicant had been unjustifiably subjected to differential treatment in relation to his right to liberty of movement “solely” due to his ethnic origin — Williams v. Spain is the first case to explicitly challenge ethnic profiling as a practice, and the UN Human Rights Committee the first international tribunal to issue a ruling prohibiting race- and ethnicity-based police stops.

Following this landmark judgment, the Justice Initiative will continue to work with government representatives and law enforcement agencies in Spain and other EU Member States, as well as with EU institutions in Brussels, to make sure that the policy and practice changes in line with the principles established by the UN Human Rights Committee are adopted and implemented.

Click here for further information on the Justice Initiative’s work challenging ethnic profiling.

We are all libertarians now?

A rather telling little piece on The Guardian‘s ‘Comment is Free’ site today by UK Labour MP, Diane Abbot. First she takes a cheap shot at the Conservative shadow-cabinet minister, Damien Green, for having been successful in getting his details removed from the UK police National DNA Database (NDNAD). She then says that, well, she is doing much more to help by holding clinics for her young, black, constituents to help them with their complaints against the NDNAD. This is excellent, of course.

However two things spring to mind immediately. Firstly, is this Diane Abbot the same New Labour loyalist who voted in favour of the original bill to set up the NDNAD and made no attempt to amend it to prevent the kind of racially-biased abuses of which she is no complaining? I think it is. And now, why is she not also condemning the former Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith’s rather pathetic and weaselly response the judgement of the European Court that condemned the NDNAD, which was essentially to try to avoid doing anything fundamental at all?

This is not an issue on which anyone in New Labour can really make any political capital unless they take a rather stronger moral stance. Basically, and in addition to the stance that there should be no state retention of DNA data at all, there are only two ‘fair’ ways to maintain a police DNA database, and those are to keep the DNA of the guilty, or to keep the DNA of everyone. Which you prefer depends largely on your attitude to surveillance and your trust in the accountability of the state, but politicians like Abbot are hedging and avoiding making any serious attempt to put pressure on their own government to reform the law we have.