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.

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.

The Iconography of High Velocity DNA tagging

There’s been quite a lot of media coverage in the last few days about the ‘High Velocity DNA Tagging System‘, made by UK company Selectamark, and apparently in line to be purchased by several UK police forces. The system uses a kind of airgun that can fire “a uniquely-coded DNA pellet” for up to 30-40 metres, which “can be used to mark an individual so that they can be apprehended at a less confrontational time for officers.” Claims on the website include one that the microdots of artificial DNA can penetrate through clothing and mark the skin of individuals, and also that the artificial DNA used can result in ‘infinite number’ of unique numerical identifiers.

None of this is entirely new: Selectamark is a company who’s core business is anti-theft marking of equipment, and essentially what they have done is create a gun-based delivery system for an existing technology that was previously used to mark things, thus turning it into a system for identifying individual human beings, in much the same way as has been suggested would occur with RFID implants (but which has not yet really happened in any widespread fashion). Like RFID, the identification is not biometric, i.e. resulting from unique bodily characteristics, but what amounts to a high-tech form of instant temporary tattooing or paint-marking. The company is silent on how temporary this is – and whether the microdots – which are just visible, but show up better under UV light – can be easily removed or washed off by those tagged.

What’s also really interesting is the imagery deployed in the website. Of course there are the usual images of policemen with large guns (here complete with light source for night-time use). These guns, like tasers, have an interestingly toy-like quality to them with their bright orange plastic finish. Guns that aren’t really guns…


However what’s more interesting are the background images used on the site. The targets of the tagging system are clearly depicted in one background image and will be recognisable to all British readers – ‘hoodies’ – the marginalized urban youth who were implicated in the rioting in London in 2011 (although there is also an inevitable pop culture association, especially with all that light-saber-y UV around, with the evil Sith from the Star Wars franchise).


The youths are depicted encircled in lines of UV-like light whose coils also reflect the image of DNA, which is used here as another background image.


The late Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee described DNA as a ‘cultural icon‘, and indeed, the never-really-explained ‘artificial DNA’ technology which underpins Selectamark’s product seems deliberate discursively confused with exisiting DNA identification technologies, or at least the association is clear: that DNA fingerprinting, which is already understood in media discouse as standing for absolute certainty as to identification, is ‘the same’ as this technology. And clearly this sounds better than associating it, as I did earlier, with tattooing – which has a much less wholesome image when it comes to the state’s usage (Nazi death camps etc.).

And then the lines of light that surround the youth also seem to beam out across and enclose the entire world, which is both a standard marketing trope (“we are a global company”) but also a shift in scale that reflects the way in which security and surveillance has moved, to encompass the globe. The world is also depicted as dark with the suggestion of a coming sunrise (fitting in with the overall ‘crime lurks in the darkness and Selectamark will shine a (UV) light in it” theme) and almost entirely urban:


But then what is the value in this global world, which Selectamark (and the police) are seeking to protect? What is the source of the light? Well, the answer, in the final background image, will surprise no-one. It isn’t those who need justice, the poor, the downtrodden, the huddled masses, it’s big companies:


The corporate sector is depicted as icons streaming information-superhighway style from the light along grid patterns: rational, clean and bright and filling, overcoming, the darkness beyond, in a corporate version of the creation story in the Book of Genesis. We are saved! Thank-you, Selectamark and your High Velocity DNA Tagging!

The Mark of the Beast?

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!)