I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why it is that implanted tracking devices have never really taken off in humans. Just a few years ago, there were all kinds of people laying out rather teleological versions of technological trajectories that led inevitably to mass human implanantation – and not just the US Christian right, who saw RFID as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy.
I think there are many reasons, including negative public reaction (implants really are a step too far, even for the ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ crowd) and the fact that a lot of the promotion of human RFID implants was actually the PR work of one very loud company (Verichip) and did not actually have a lot of basis in either social reality or market research. But the other major reason is to do with other technological developments, particularly in wearable computing and sensor networks. In most cases, implants solve a problem that doesn’t exist (the idea that people want to remove a tracking device that might be there for very good – although I am not saying, indisputably good – reasons, usually medical ones). And where there are no good reasons, there’s probably no case for tracking at all.
So devices like this – temporary, printed or stick-on and removable – are far more what is likely to become the solution to any actual problem of tracking or monitoring for medical reasons. And the relative ease with which it can be removed by the wearer does at least mean that there is some room for negotiation and consent at more than just one point in the process. Of course, such removable, wearable tracking are still not somehow free of ethical and political considerations – and some may argue that the very appearance of consent actually hints at the generation of a greater conformity and self-surveillance, but the issues are of a slightly different nature to those raised by implanted devices.
I’ve been following a case in San Antonio, Texas, over the last few months in which a couple with literalist biblical Christian beliefs had challenged their daughter’s school over its introduction of RFID-enabled name tags and here are some random thoughts. The latest news is that the pupil, Andrea Hernandez, has lost in the US District Court – it could still be taken higher. The case has attracted plenty of coverage internationally, all largely emphasizing the fact that the student concerned had been threatened with expulsion for her (or her family’s) stance, and the ‘mark of the beast’ rhetoric deployed by the parents and the organisation that enabled them to bring the case, the evangelical Christian civil rights organisation, The Rutherford Institute.
A standard Surveillance Studies analysis might be that this was another case of security at all costs in a risk society, and surveillance as the silver bullet for a non-existant problem or a at least an actual problem that might have been solved by other methods. But actually things are rather more complicated and perhaps more mundane here, and the answers seem to lie, as Francesca Menichelli has suggested in her recent (and as yet unpublished) PhD on the installation of CCTV camera systems in small towns in Italy, in regional political economy and local government competition.
According to the local newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News, when the scheme was introduced, the plan by Northside Independepent School District was essentially not a security or an organisational issue but a matter of gaining access to extra finance. Although the scheme was estimated to cost $525,065 to implement and $136,005 per annum in administration and maintenance, the extra-detailed attendance information resulting from the chip cards could enable them district to access around $1.7 million in state grants.
Essentially, surveillance here is simply something that circulates in competition between entities -whether school districts or cities – for resources. Of course the scheme has not been studied in its actual practice yet so we don’t know what actual difference (or lack of difference) it would make to any pupil in the way that we do for Menichelli’s case-study cities, where CCTV is described as being almost entirely useless because it was never really intended to be used as anything other than a way of winning resources. However it would seem that the ‘surveillance’ is almost entirely secondary or perhaps even irrelevent. However I certainly do not dismiss the possibility that nefarious or even unintentionally damaging things could be done with the location data gathered from the chip cards.
It is also the case that the school district attempted to compromise with the pupil by offering to remove the chip from her ID card, essentially limiting the surveillance that could be conducted of her to conventional visual methods. The rejection of this compromise is the reason the District Court threw out Andrea Hernandez’s case. However if the School District is accepting that there is an opt-out possible on grounds of belief then they are potentially undermining the whole scheme – which relies on the generation of accurate attendance and circulation data. Again, one interpretation could be that they aren’t really interested in the data for itself, which reinforces the argument about the instrumental nature of the surveillance scheme in the state funding context, but the other interpretation could be that the school was banking on her exception being the only one, or one of a tiny number, that would not significantly undermine it. The other question here is: is it really the RFID chip that’s the problem, or the surveillant assemblage of which it is but one tiny part? In rejecting the compromise, Hernandez and the Rutherford Institute seem to be suggesting the latter, and here we are a long way from Christian eschatalogy and the ‘mark of the beast’.
(Thanks to Heather Morgan for initially pointing out to me that it was all about the money!)
Many approaches to developing cities as automated environments, whether this be for robotics, for augmented reality or ubiquitous computing tend to take as their premise the addition of items, generally computing devices, to the environment. Thus, for example, RFID chips can be embedded in buildings and objects which could (and indeed in some cases, already do) communicate with each other and with mobile devices to form networks to enable all kinds of location-based services, mobile commerce and of course, surveillance.
But for robots in the city, such a complex network of communication is not strictly necessary. Cities already contain many relatively stable points by which such artificial entities can orient themselves, however not all of them are obvious. One recent Japanese paper, mentioned in Boing Boing, advocates the use of manhole covers, which tend to be static, metallic, quite distinctive and relatively long-lasting – all useful qualities in establishing location. The shape of manhole covers could be recorded and used as location-finding data with no need for embedded chips and the like.
It isn’t mentioned in the article, but I wonder whether such data could also be used for other inhabitants of the city with limited sensory capabilities: impaired humans? Could one equip people with devices that read the same data and use this to help sensorially-impaired people to navigate the city more effectively? On the less positive side, I also wonder whether such data would prove to be highly desirable information for use in urban warfare…
Brandscaping is a term used in marketing to describe the metaphorical landscape of brands (either for a particular brand, company or sector), however it is also being used by some researchers, including me, to describe the way in which brands are being infiltrated into urban landscapes, with the ultimate aim of being ‘inhabitable’ perhaps even 24/7 (see for example Disney’s move into urban development with Celebration in Florida).
Contemporary brandscaping makes use of new ambient intelligence, pervasive or ubiquitous computing technologies (‘ubicomp’) and ubiquitous wireless communications to create a landscape in which the consumer is targeted with specific messages directing them to certain consumption patterns. Such communication cans of course be two-way and provide corporations with valuable and very personal data on consumption patterns. As I’ve argued in many presentations over the last few years, ubicomp is necessarily also ubiquitous surveillance (what I call ‘ubisurv’ – hence the name of this blog!) because to work it requires locatability and addressability. Japan, and Tokyo in particular, has been the site for a number of cutting edge experiments in this regard, including the ‘Tokyo Ubiquitous Technology Project’ which embedded 1000 RFID tags which can communicate with RFID-enabled keitai (mobile phones) in upscale Ginza as well as several other pilot schemes around Ueno Park and Shinjuku.
TUTP is not all about marketing surveillance however, part of the scheme has involved ‘Universal Design’ (UD) principles, with one experiment to embed chips in the yellow tactile tiles designed to help guide sight- and mobility-impaired people around the city so that useful access information could be passed through specially-enabled walking sticks. I’m very interested in such experiments as they indicate an alternative direction for ubicomp environments which are about genuinely enabling people who are currently disabled by social and architectural norms, and creating a richer sensory landscape. They show that both surveillance and ‘scary’ technology like RFID chips can be humanised.
Unfortunately in our consumer-capitalist world (and Tokyo is the exemplary city of hyper-consumption), marketing and building brandscapes tends to take priority over enabling the excluded and the disadvantaged. But there are different ways of doing this too, which can be more or less intrusive and consensual. The other day I was talking about the growth in functionality of the Suica smart travel card system. Suica-enabled keitai can now, be used buying all sorts of things and since 2006 there have been a growing number of ‘SuiPo’ (short for ‘Suica Poster’) sites, Suica-enabled advertising hoardings that will, on demand send information to your mobile e-mail address with on particular advertising in which you are interested if you pass your Suica card or phone over a scanner placed next to the poster (see photos below)
The difference between SuiPo and the Ginza RFID scheme however is that it with SuiPo is that it is the consumer who makes the choice whether to activate any particular poster’s additional information system. In this sense it is a development of the i-Mode system in which many keitai can read information from special barcodes embdedded in magazine advertisements. It doesn’t automatically call your phone every time you pass an enabled poster, once you have signed up. Not as high-tech but slightly more consensual. However this will, of course, lead to the accumulation of a lot of data on consumption interests. This potentially generates a massive consumer surveillance tool, because it can be linked up travel patterns (your registered Suica card sends information back on where you go – I was wrong about the absolute differences between London’s Oyster and Tokyo’s Suica systems the other day) and information about consumption.
So will this potential become reality? The page on privacy and data protection on the SuiPo website (as usual the link is hidden away at the bottom of the front page!), is pretty standard stuff except for the legitimate purposes for which the data can be used once you sign up. They are, for those who don’t read Japanese, for:
Sending the specific requested information to you;
Data processing and analysis;
JR East’s promotional marketing; and
JR East customer questionnaires.
Purposes 2 and 3 pretty much allow JR to do anything it likes with the data once you have signed up, and there is no statement as to what can or cannot be done with data once it has been ‘mined’ – analysed and transformed into more useful to the company or other organisations (corporate or state) which might want to buy or access such knowledge. ‘Ubisurv’ indeed…
Personal surveillance is only going to get harder to regulate as things like ‘smart dust’ and micro-UAVs come down in price and are more easily available…
CBS News in the USA is reporting on the rise of stalking and in particular the use of more powerful, smaller and cheaper surveillance devices: embedded hidden cameras, GPS trackers and so on. They discuss in particular the case of Michael Strahan, a sportsman who seems to be obsessed with keeping watch on family and friends. But the bigger pictures is that stalking is something that apparently affects around 3.4 million US citizens. That’s more than one in a hundred, an astonishing figure if it’s anywhere near ‘right’.
Stalking and personal surveillance are an integral part of the culture of any state in which order in ensured through surveillance. We are creating unhealthy societies in which personal relationships between people are increasingly characterised by the same fear and distrust as states have of their people.
Don’t trust your spouse? Get their mobile phone registered with a tracking service, and put a GPS tag on their car…
and so on.
This is only going to get harder to regulate as things like ‘smart dust’ and micro-UAVs come down in price and are more easily available. And already surveillance equipment like head-mounted cameras for cyclists, is marketed as ‘toys’… regulation is only half the answer. The other half has to be in working out how to shift away from this mistrustful, fearful, risk-obsessed culture. Part of this has to be down to government: the more that surveillance is part of every solution they come up with to any problem, the worse the social malaise will become.