Drones Over America

EPIC has obtained evidence under the Freedom of Information Act from the US Department of Homeland Security that is has fitted Predator drones with domestic espionage capabilities. The document, Performance Specification for the US Customs and Border Protection Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Version 2.4, dated March 10 2010,  includes the following technical requirements: infra-red sensors and communications, plus either synthetic aperture radar (SAR), Ground Moving Target Indicator mode (GMTI – tracking) or signals interception receivers (page 7). The UAV should:

be “capable of tracking an adult human-sized, single moving object” with sufficient accuracy “to allow target designation at the specific ranges.”(page 28)

“be able to maintain constant surveillance and track on a designation geographic point.” (page 28)

The section ‘target marking’ is redacted in EPIC’s version however the CNET website managed to get hold of a non-redacted version, which say that the system “shall be capable of identifying a standing human being at night as likely armed or not,”  and specify “signals interception” technology for mobile phone frequencies as well as “direction finding” which will enable the UAS locate them.

And in case people are wondering whether this is just for border patrol, the documents specifically states that it is for collection of ‘Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) data in support of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and CBP missions” (page 1). I hope all you US people know exactly how you can challenge drones flying at 20,000 feet up that might be breaching your 4th Amendment Rights…

Implants vs. Wearable devices

Printed Electronic Tattoo (Wired)

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.

Illegal UK blacklists now being shared with the USA?

I’ve written here in the past about British blacklisting organisations that compile lists of ‘troublemakers’ (mainly union activists) and sell them to building firms and share them with police. This has led to people being unable to get jobs and all kinds of hassle. In theory, the notorious Economic League which started this activity back in the 1920s is now disbanded but their mantle was taken up by a number of other private bodies, including the Consulting Association, which was the subject of an unusual raid by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) back in 2009.

Now it seems that in the era of transnational information sharing for ‘security’, such lists have found their way to the US Homeland Security complex. According to a report in the London Evening Standard, his certainly seems to be the case for major British mainstream environmental campaigner, John Stewart, formerly of the anti-road building lobby, Alarm UK and now of the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (HACAN).

If such private politically motivated lists are now circulating internationally and being treated as reasonable grounds for refusing entry to other countries, it makes a mockery of the fact that they have already been found to be in breach of British and European laws, and it is likely that such data will continue to circulate entirely decontextualized from the circumstances and motivation of their collection. So an illegal anti-democratic trawling operation to stop legitimate political activity becomes the basis for security decisions to err… safeguard democracy. It would be funny if it wasn’t already so common and will continue to be so as security relies increasingly on risk assessments derived from the indiscriminate mashing together of information into ‘big data’.

Mozilla stops ad-network cookies

Mozilla, the developer of the Firefox web-browser, has decided that voluntary compliance by advertisers with its ‘Do Not Track’ settings is not working. Advertisers have basically been ignoring what is essentially a request by users, so instead of giving up, Mozilla has taken the right step and will simply not allow ad networks to install cookies on user’s computers or phones. This will of course cut ad revenue to some sites that rely on it, but it will also be a major step to slowing the proliferation of online tracking.

Of course, it can also be seen as a new negotiating position in a long conflict, as the Centre for Democracy and Technology points out, it could be a negotiating position that is all about trying to force companies to implement Do Not Track requests as a compromise from wholesale cookie-blocking. But I’m fully on board with Mozilla here either way. I very much doubt that Microsoft will take a similarly ethical stance on user control – because that’s what this is really about, not privacy as such but who has the right to control information about themselves.

A Culture of Pornography and the Surveillance Society

The student newspaper here at Queen’s carried a disturbing story this week – a hidden camera disguised in a towel hook was found in a women’s washroom*. Apparently a search was carried out and nothing else was found. I would be very surprised if this was something unique and isolated. Voyeuristic footage is a staple of both private perversion and Internet pornography, and I suspect that this is much more common than we realise. I remember at my old university in the UK a private landlord being prosecuted for having virtually his whole house, which he rented out to female students, wired up like this. Cameras are now so small (and getting smaller), and readily available disguised from shops that deal in equipment (largely intended for industrial espionage and spying on nannies, spouses etc.) and can of course now be wirelessly connected, so could be almost anywhere and everywhere.

We’re also immersed in a culture of pornography: it is what spurred the immense growth of the Internet in the 90s (a subject that remains to be given a proper historical analysis), and it is changing the nature of sexuality, especially in teen boys, in ways we’re only just beginning to understand. I’d hesitate to make any sweeping generalizations, but it would seem that if one puts together the kind of normalization of pornographic understandings of bodies, desire and sex with the rape culture alleged to pertain at Queen’s (as the same paper detailed the week before) and a surveillance society, you end up with not the hopes of an empowering exhibitionism put forward by more utopian feminist thinkers on surveillance like Hille Koskela, but something infinitely more seedy and alienated.

Perhaps if Nineteen Eighty-Four was written today, then O’Brien’s answer to Winston Smith on what the future would look like would not be “a boot stamping on a human head, forever” but “a man masturbating over a mobile phone, forever”. I’m not sure which is worse…

*As a note, the newspaper described it as a ‘co-ed’ washroom, a term so archaic, it made me wonder how much of the culture that engenders such behaviour is down to the continued underlying patriarchal belief that women being in education on an equal footing with men is still unusual, provocative and somehow so exciting to men that they cannot control themselves. And of course ‘co-eds’ is exactly how online porn sites that publish this kind of voyeuristic footage would describe the unwitting participants.

(Thanks to Aliya Kassam for the story)