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…

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’.

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…)

East Asia Drone Wars

Northrop-Grumman Global Hawk (USAF)

In one of my only posts last year, around this time, I argued that 2012 would be in the ‘year of the drone’ – and it certainly lived up to that. But we’re still only just beginning. This is already the decade of the drone. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are going to be everywhere in the coming few years (and of course not just in international disputes – I am writing about the spread of domestic surveillance drones for a major report on Surveillance in Canada that we’re producing right now).

Media outlets are reporting that the dispute over maritime territory between China and Japan is ramping up through the use of UAVs.  At the moment both countries rely heavily on conventional naval or fisheries surveillance vessels, which are limited in terms of speed of deployment and numbers. However, surveillance drones could enable a more consistent presence over the disputed islands (and more importantly the sea around them, whose fisheries and below seabed mineral resources are the real underlying issue here).

However, there are big differences in the politics and the political economy of each state’s strategic trajectory here. Japan is relying on its longstanding ‘alliance’ with the USA, and is likely to purchase US-made Northrop-Grumman Global Hawks, further emphasizing the military dependency Japan still has on the USA. China, on the other hand, is speeding up development of its own UAVs, in multiple different models. US industry sources seem more worried by alleged breaches of intellectual property rights in the drones’ design than by strategic issues – but of course, China has almost certainly had access to both hardware and software from downed US drones, which is all part of what some analysts are terming a ‘drone race’ with the USA.

and the Chinese version (Chengdu Aircraft Co.)

But this isn’t just about surveillance. Like the USA’s models, many of China’s UAVs are armed or can be weaponized very easily, and again like the USA, China has also been looking to export markets – most recently, Pakistan has been discussing the purchase of several armed drones from China, following the distinct lack of success in its own UAV development program.

The Global Hawks that Japan is buying are not armed, but this doesn’t mean that Japan is acting less aggressively here or will not in future used armed drones. Despite the post-WW2 US-imposed but popular ‘pacifist’ constitution of the country, the recent return to power of rightist PM Shinzo Abe might will mean both more heated rhetoric over territorial claims and attempts to increase the of the country’s self-defence forces: a review of Japanese military spending – with a view to increasing it – was announced just yesterday.

Drones would seem to be a politically popular choice in this regard as they do not involve putting Japanese lives at risk, or at least not directly; however the longer term outcomes any drone war in East Asia would not likely favour a Japan whose regional economic and political power is influence declining relative to China’s.

Billions wasted on airport ‘security’

A new report from the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) say that the industry is wasting billions on unnecessary and ineffective security procedures which are slowing down travel and damaging the whole sector’s economic prospects, according to The Guardian. This comes only days after the German government decided not to introduce body-scanners after trials showed them to be unreliable.

The argument is not particularly surprising, but there seem to be interesting aspects of the issue (apart from the basic human rights problems which we should never forget). The first is that clearly someone is benefitting economically, even if it is not the air transport sector, and that someone is the security industry – although as it happens, a whole range of people and companies have benefitted from the aftermath of 9/11. The Guardian article mentions that UK-based scanning company, Smiths, has tripled its profits this year to near $1Bn, despite the problems with scanners. However, it isn’t all bad. In European domestic and regional markets, airlines have lost out to railway travel, and this can only be a good thing in terms of environmental concerns.

The second aspect is that IATA is using this to push the revival of integrated ‘trusted traveller’ plans coming out of the USA. Many countries have bilateral schemes, but the idea is for travellers with ‘nothing to hide’ to submit personal information to a central body that would validate them without the need for time-consuming checks on the airport. So far, such schemes have been largely restricted to business-class passengers, raising the strong possibility of confusion between really improved security and simply buying more convenience. However, there is another problem from the point of view of security here too: one of the major concerns for security is so-called ‘clean skins’, terrorist who have never triggered any suspicion because they are either entirely new converts to the cause, or have been deep undercover for years cultivating an unblemished record.

In any case, it appears that the security companies are trying to get past the criticism by producing new seamless and less intrusive scanning technologies that would not require long waits and would be integrated into the architecture of airport corridors etc. Of course, the delays and inconvenience of obvious security and surveillance procedures have a purpose and are not just by-products. There is, theoretically at least, a consciousness-raising effect of what Bruce Schneier calls ‘security theater’. If these new gadgets work, and the German trial suggests that there is often more smoke than heat in claims about effectiveness, this effect would be diminished in favour of speed and convenience for an as yet unknown proportion of travellers and much greater inconvenience for the remainder. It’s an interesting conundrum for the authorities…