Body-scanners in railway stations in the UK?

Victoria Cohen writing in her column in The Observer, UK, on Sunday mentioned that she had read of body-scanners being used at Bath railway station. She used this as the starting point for a standard kind of warning on increasing surveillance.

Now, normally, I would thoroughly approve, and such diffusion of technologies of surveillance would fit with the trajectories we outlined in the Report on the Surveillance Society a few years back. However, it didn’t take a lot of digging (and I am probably not the only person who has discovered this) to find that she was basing her column on a misinterpretation of what had gone on in Bath. According to an Avon and Somerset Constabulary press release, what was happening was a temporary exercise conducted jointly with the British Transport Police, using not a body-scanner but a metal detector (or ‘knife arch’ as they are sometimes termed) and sniffer dogs. This was apparently part of a policy to raise awareness of nightlife safety.

There are of course still many issues with the routine use of both sniffer dogs and metal detectors, but we need to be very careful to get the facts right when we are making comments about the spread of surveillance. Get things wrong, and the whole issue can get tarnished as alarmist.

Body-scanners are not being used in UK railway stations. Not yet, anyway…

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…

The Expansion of Video Surveillance in India

A recent market analysis (which contained many predictions, more of which tomorrow) identified India as one of the world’s fastest expanding video surveillance or Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) markets, and the coverage of policing plans in the Indian media over the past couple of years would seem to confirm this. In particular, in the wake of the terrorist attack on Mumbai, authorities in all major cities have been pushing ahead with the intensification of security and surveillance measures. This is part of a more general expansion of surveillance in all areas of Indian governance, some of which, like the new biometric census and high-tech border surveillance and UAVs, I’ve mentioned here before.

Cities such as Chennai have announced plan for 10,000 cameras across a range of settings (interestingly in this case, ‘marriage halls’ were one of the first locations to get CCTV – perhaps someone can enlighten me as to why this would be – along with state banks and major malls) and the police chief is quoted as saying he wants “the whole city covered by CCTV.” Delhi is combining a massive expansion of CCTV with increasing numbers of police officers on the streets, so this is not a case of an inhuman technological gaze replacing the neighbourhood police officer. And here, as in the state of Gujarat, in cities like Ahmedabad, the road network is a particular priority with Automatic License (or Number) Plate Recognition (ALPR/ANPR) systems and cameras being installed on all major roads. This ‘Intelligent Traffic Management System’ (ITMS) is designed to be multipurpose and address security, traffic and emergency requirements.

The diffusion of CCTV to more remote and peripheral areas has also been remarkably quick. Just recently, the northern Haryana region has also announced a huge CCTV installation of around 5000 cameras in eight cities, which will be targeted at “shopping malls, main market, major traffic points and escape routes in these cities” – an interesting turn of phrase, which almost seems to portray the city as a prison. Just as in the major urban centres of the country, here too the new systems will employ analytics including movement recognition.

This expansion has not gone unchallenged – see this debate over some of the Chennai systems – but the debates seem rather lifeless and complaints seem to be limited to hoping that there will not be ‘abuse’ of the camera systems by police, and commenting on the lack of any regulatory body for video surveillance. Nor has it all been smooth in technological terms. The Delhi expansion of CCTV builds, as in many cases, from the security upgrades for a ‘mega-event’, in this case the Commonwealth Games in 2010. However, as with much of the infrastructure for these games, there were reports of systemic failure, if not a total lack of functionality from day one. The cameras for the event were apparently poorly calibrated and made watchers dizzy an in some cases, installed where no view could be obtained. It is also not the case that what many nation’s security authorities would consider to be priorities for video surveillance have actually already been covered, even where there has been a demonstrable threat: for example, it is only now that CCTV is being installed at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, which apparently had no CCTV at all prior to this.

Overall, there appears to be strong media backing for a combined state and private sector discourse that emphasises CCTV not so much as a protection against terrorism (though that is clearly present) but as an unquestionably ‘necessary’ or even simply ‘natural’ component of progress, economic development and modernisation. Consider, for example, this description of the new “shining steel” Metro system in the high-tech and global information economy service-centre region of Bangalore, where “automatic fare collecting gates, metal detectors, CCTV cameras and voice announcement systems” were all of a piece along with the announcement of the new ‘signature tune’ for the public transit network. And see also this rather peculiarly de-politicised description of the history (and future) of policing technology in India, written by a former senior officer from Kerala state, in which the British colonial imposition of fingerprinting in India is portrayed as a collaborative advance and in which, of course, CCTV is pictured as part of a similar and apparently totally necessary new series of technological advances designed to drag Indian policing out of a ‘medieval’ period.  At the same time, however the historic (and largely colonial) legacy of a slow-moving, fragmented and conflict-ridden bureaucracy is still resulting in a very uneven diffusion of video surveillance across this enormous country.

Growing Movement Against Body Scanners in the USA

Two of the major pilots’ unions in the USA are advising their members not to submit to body scans. There have also been a number of cases of people refusing to cooperate with the new (and so far unofficial) more intense TSA ‘pat-downs’ (including ‘testicular cupping’ for men…) for those who decide not to be scanned. Geek website, Boing Boing, has been documenting the growing movement against body scanning, including T-shirts, no-fly days and the like, however it seems rather optimistic to suggest, as they do, that the action of the unions will hasten the inevitable end of the scanners following some talk that they do not detect internal objects in the body and earlier demonstrations that they may not even be that good at finding some external objects. In fact, it seems more likely that not only will they eventually become mandatory sooner rather than later, but that the technical limitations of the current scanners will prompt their replacement by more advanced models that are now already being tested, which do detect internal foreign objects.

Well, I will soon have up close and personal experience of just what is going on when I fly to San Francisco tomorrow… wish me luck!

New multipurpose traffic cameras in the EU

A new multipurpose traffic camera which can identify license plates, recognise the distance between vehicles, see whether or not a driver is wearing a seatbelt as well as detecting speeding is being created as part of an EU program, ASSET. The program is a research project which means there is no guarantee that any member state will actually take up the scheme, but it would seem to fit with the policies of a number of them, notably the UK, which has already a nationwide network of Automatic License (or Number) Plate Recognition (ALPR or ANPR) cameras.

The story has been reported in The Guardian which notes that, despite concerns about the automation of road justice, many of the UK organisations which currently oppose speed cameras seem to be tentatively in favour of this camera which is even more restrictive of the ‘drivers’ rights’ that such organisations claim to represent… which is somewhat curious.