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.
I’ve always defended the right to photograph in public places. However, a number of cases in the last few weeks are highlighting an important new development in this area, a new front in the increasingly confusing information wars. Gary Marx always like to say that surveillance is neither good nor bad but that intent, circumstances, and effects make it so, but a growing number of people and organizations seem to be treating surveillance – or at least watching, and certainly not all watching is surveillance – as a right which supersedes rights to privacy. We’ve seen this in the case of Google Glass – even before it was launched commercially – and more recently with the arguments over the ‘right to be forgotten’ in Europe, with personal privacy being counterposed to freedom of information and actions to protect privacy being compared to censorship. It’s all somewhat reminiscent of Dave Eggers’ novel, The Circle, in which a Facebook-Google-Apple-a-like company completely turns around social values until, as one of the corporate slogans has it, “PRIVACY IS THEFT!”
The latest case is that of the use of drones / micro-UAVs / MAVs in the USA. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), the government body that controls US airspace, is trying to regulate the use of drones and has attempted to fine commercial drone operators who fly surveillance drones without their permission. The case revolves around one Robert Pirker, who used an unlicensed drone to film a promotional video back in 2011. At the moment the FAA is appealing against the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who rule that it could not fine Pirker as it did have jurisdiction over small drones. Now the media has weighted in on Pirker’s side, arguing that the FAA’s stance infringes the first amendment and creates a ‘chilling effect’ on journalism.
I’m really not sure about either argument. On the FAA side, this is partly about a bureaucracy trying to keep control of its regulatory territory as much it is about the object of the regulation – the FAA does not want to be seen to be losing control just as the number of small drones is increasing massively.
On the other side, is this really about the rights of journalists? Pirker was making a commercial film not covering a story, and the effect of the FAA’s ruling being overturned is more likely to open the door to a corporate free-for-all, an absurd PKDickian world of drones as far as the eye can see, with all the attendant crashes and legal battles, could result. Think not? Well, back in the 1900s, people thought there would never be that many cars on the roads either… so it is certainly it is partly about their mandate, i.e. air safety.
The big question here, as with Google Glass and with Search, is whether technological change makes a difference. Is a flying camera just the same as a hand-held camera? Does the greater potential for intrusion, or on the other hand the inability to know that one is being filmed, matter? Does that possibility that ‘the truth’ will be revealed justify any technological method used to obtain it? If not, which ones are acceptable, whereis the line drawn, and who decides and how? In the UK, the ‘public interest’ would be a good basis for deciding, as has been frequently alluded to in the Leveson Inquiry into telephone tapping conducted by Murdoch-owned newspapers, however ‘public interest’ is a much vaguer term in the USA… what is certain is that conflicts around the ‘right to watch’ versus the ‘right to privacy’ and other human rights and social priorities are only going to intensify.
So, I’m back in Tokyo until next April, revisiting the areas which I examined in 2005-6, where surveillance cameras have been installed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, and the wards where I did case-study research on community safety development in 2009 (see my posts in this blog from July to September 2009).
One initial impression is that the progress of video surveillance has not perhaps been as rapid as I would have thought, but it may be that this impression is mistaken. Certainly, the numbers of cameras deployed by the TMP have not increased rapidly. While I looked initially at Shinjuku’s Kabukicho district, where cameras were first introduced in 2002 and Shibuya and Ikebukuro (2004), they were also introduced in Ueno (2006) and Roppongi (2007). The numbers of cameras in these areas and the technologies in use have not changed greatly since their introduction: Kabukicho has 55; Shibuya, 20; Ikebukuro, 49; Ueno, 12; and Roppongi, 44. The cameras are all in areas associated with the night economy – pink or ‘red line areas’, or what in the UK would be called ‘red light districts’ or places strongly associated with gang-related nightlife activities.
From then there was a gap and nothing happened until this year, when the TMP introduced a small number of cameras into an area they seem to have previously overlooked: the so-called ‘Kabukicho of the East’ – it’s even referred to in this way by tourist guides – Kinshicho in Sumida ward, still very much a rough, working class area. Kinshicho is apparently known for two things: gambling (on horse-racing – it’s not coincidentally the HQ of the Japan Racing Association) and ‘gaijin bars’ (or hostess bars staffed by foreign hostesses). But, if one examines the crime maps produced by the TMP, Kinshicho is not a particularly high crime area especially compared to its western counterpart, Kabukicho, and there are other areas of dubious repute in Tokyo, so what’s behind this particular move at this time?
This is simply speculation on my part, and I will be talking to police and others about this in the next few months, but Sumida ward is gentrifying. In 2006, the massive new Olinas shopping complex was built in the Kinshicho area, and then in 2012, the Tokyo Sky Tree Tower, the new communications tower for Tokyo, complete with associated shopping and entertainment complex, landed in Oshiage, just to the north. Shitamachi (literally ‘low city’ – or downtown) areas have become fashionable now and not just among tourists. But this nostalgic search for an older, ‘authentic’ Tokyo, usually that of the post-WW2 period, is limited to safe images of craftsmen, small shops, stand-up bars, street food, hard-work and propriety. Frankly, Kinshicho seems to be seen as an embarrassing throwback to a shadow image of the ‘bad old days’ of the shitamachi of gangs, gambling and the sex trade, that the authorities at least do not want associated with the new and more pleasant presentation they are seeking to create.
But the TMP cameras are only a small part of the story of public space video surveillance in Tokyo, and if one sticks to the police numbers, one would get a very misleading impression. For example, the Sky Tree Tower has been the focus of a major introduction of video surveillance through the main mechanism for public space surveillance in Tokyo, the 2003 Anzen Anshin Machizukuri Jourei (Community Safety Ordinance). This empowers neighbourhood and shopkeepers’ associations to introduce camera systems with support from ward governments and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. In Oshiage, a very large and locally controversial 77 camera-system was introduced from 2012, with most of the cameras (66) directly around the Sky Tree. Kinshicho also has its TMP cameras supplemented by an even larger number of non-TMP cameras – the Asahi article above claims 47 but it’s unclear whether that includes the TMP cameras or not.
The progress of community safety development is the main focus of my research here this time, so I’ll be visiting Oshiage and Kinshicho in the near future. And I’ll be writing much more about this method of crime control through development planning, as it will no doubt be a key feature of how preparations for the 2020 Olympics are made.
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.
There’s an all-too infrequently unquestioned assumption in a lot of popular and academic writing about surveillance, that surveillance just spreads and intensifies and that new surveillance technologies proceed in a teleological manner to fulfill their designed purpose. Sure, we have all read the science and technology studies literature and pay lip service to ideas of technological failure and we all keep searching for ‘resistance’ or even just ‘politics’, but even if, like me, we talk deliberately talk about ‘sociotechnical trajectories’ without trying to assign one possible direction to these trajectories, we very rarely make the retreat, diminution and easing off of surveillance the central focus of our work or our writing.
Drones have been the latest demonstration of this. Practically all my blog entries on the subject over the last few years have been telling a story of the seemingly unstoppable spread of drones from particular military applications to widespread military use, to civilian policing and thence to other government and private uses. So it is really instructive to see the introduction of drone surveillance stopped in its apparent tracks twice in one week. This is exactly what has happened in Seattle, Washington, and Charlottesville, Virginia this week. The Seattle Police Department had intended to implement a strategy of drone surveillance and had purchased two Micro-UAVs (MAVs). But rather than these following the CCTV route of government promotion and general public apathy or support bolstered the usual police surveys showing how ‘effective’ the new technology has been, instead, following massive public concern over privacy, Mayor Mike McGinn this week returned the two drones to the manufacturer and put a stop to any further development. He stopped short of introducing any ordinance banning drones, as Charlottesville did in the same week with a resolution pledging that the city would not purchase any such technology and calling on the state legislature to introduce an outright ban.
However in many ways the Seattle decision might be more influential as it is a far larger metropolis and this could resonate in major cities across North America – and beyond, given that Seattle is an aspiring global city too. But how influential? We will have to see. Certainly the UAV manufacturers and police associations will try to fight back with renewed PR and sales pitches – I am fully expecting lots of ‘drone success stories’ in the media in the next few weeks and months as a result. But what these two decisions should do is remind us all that the domestic politics of drones is still open, the future is unwritten and there are many possible trajectories – which we should emphasize more than we do.