UK state spy program targets innocent

The headline may not come as any surprise but a damning report has been released on a key strand of the British government’s counterterrrorism strategy, Preventing Violent Extremism (or just ‘Prevent’). £140m (around $200m US) has been allocated to this program but much of it seems to have been devoted not to combatting nascent Islamic extremism (which is the stated aim) but MI5 simply collecting masses of information on entirely innocent British Muslims – information that will be kept until they are 100 years old! Part of this is because of the tenuous nature of the strategy in the first place: how would one define or identify those who are not terrorists but might become so? Will it be, as in cases reported by The Guardian, the student who attends a lecture on the conditions in Gaza or Muslim men with mental health problems? And much of this depends on teachers and lecturers reporting students. Therefore the program would seem inevitably to encourage suspicion and distrust, as Arun Kundnani writes and as the general tone of left and civil liberties critique has reinforced. But opposition has come from all sides: Pauline Neville-Jones, the Conservative shadow security minister, but also former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee and political director of the Foreign Office, has also condemned the whole approach of New Labour, which she argues is rooted in the identification of discrete ‘communities’ who share similar characteristics. This can of course be the basis of a form of multiculturalism, but at times of increased security and suspicion it seems all to easy for it to morph into what is effectively racial profiling…

Philippines: military targets writers and artists

There have been a couple of interesting stories that have caught my eye from the Philippines concerning the surveillance of writers and artists by the military. First, soldiers were discovered to have been watching the house of Bienvenido Lumbera, a major artist. More recently, prize-winning writer, Pedro “Jun” Cruz Reyes Jr. has complained of surveillance of his house by unidentified men in a white van – and this isn’t the first time.

The first incident was dismissed as a ‘training exercise’ by the Philippines Armed Forces (AFP) – which, even if it were true, hardly excuses the actions, although it does attempt to remove the suspicion of a concerted program or illicit policy. Now, with this second complaint, that first excuse starts to sound a little more hollow. But, there are some other facts here that make me more suspicious, in particular the status of both these artists as critical figures in Filipino cultural life, and secondly, a recent controversy over the attempt by the military- and US-backed President Arroyo to award special prizes to some of her favourite popular filmmakers and comics artists, an act which was prevented by the courts after complaints by, amongst others, Lumbera.

Of course, this kind of surveillance as personal harassment (because it is so obvious that it must be designed to be seen by the person being watched) is typically thought to produce a ‘chilling effect’ on democratic debate and criticism. The culture of fear and repression is often the result of the military being over-prominent in everyday life. In the Philippines, with its history of US military-colonial dominance, dictatorship, political killings, and the longstanding conflict between the AFP and Islamic separatist groups (which is also a conflict between landowners and peasants) in Mindanao, such an atmosphere is pervasive.

The treatment of these two artists pales in comparison with the treatment of others. Back in 2007 the United Nations Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston, condemned the use of violence, arbitrary imprisonment and intimidation by both army and police under the cover of ‘anti-terrorism. The worldwide writers support group, PEN, estimates that since 2001, 60 journalists have been murdered in the Philippines, and in total 903 killings and hundreds more ‘disappearances’ of people from all walks of life have been reported. In August, the writer Alex Pinpin, and four friends who made up the s0-called ‘Tagaytay 5’ were finally released after a popular campaign. They had been held for 859 days without access to a lawyer and had been threatened, beaten and tortured in the name of the ‘War on Terror’. They were alleged without foundation, to have been members of a paramilitary group, the New People’s Army.

Read more from PEN here – it’s certainly eye-opening.

Vehicle tracking in Japan: N-system

Back in February, I reported from Brazil about the progress of a proposed RFID-based vehicle tracking system, SINIAV. Of course RFID is not at all necessary for tracking. In the UK, the police have used Automatic Numberplate Recognition (ANPR) systems based on roadside cameras since 1993 in London – following the Provisional IRA bombings of the City and Docklands (see the account in my erstwhile collaborator, Jon Coaffee‘s book, Terrorism, Risk and the City – and since 2005, this has been in the process of being expanded into a nationwide network (see also the official Press Release from the Association of Chief Police Officers concerning the launch here).

What is rather less well-known to the outside world is that Japan developed such an automated camera system far earlier, from the early 1980s. The so-called N-system thereafter was gradually expanded to cover almost all major expressways and strategic urban locations in Tokyo and Osaka. Kabukicho, the entertainment district in Shinjuku, which I have spent some time studying over the last few years and will write about more tomorrow, is surrounded by N-system cameras and it is, I estimate, impossible to drive into this area without your license plate being recorded. These cameras are in addition to the 50 CCTV cameras that cover just about every street within the district. N-system is supposed to have played a major role on snaring suspects from the apocaylptic cult, Aum Shinrikyo, which carried out the Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo underground in 1995, and who also assassinated top policemen and judges. Aum, now renamed ‘Aleph’, has been under official state surveillance ever since.

The Japanese police are not very forthcoming about N-system, let alone the details of how long data is kept and what it is used for. However one particular lawyer’s office in Tokyo did a very good investigation of the constitutional, legal and practical aspects of N-system back in the late 90s, and the updated pages are available here, including a nice little animation explaining how the system works.

We will hopefully be talking to them before we leave Tokyo. We still have time for a few more interviews here including the East Japan Railways security research lab, the Japanese consumers’ association, the organisation for the welfare of foreign workers, and the Suginami ward community safety people. And I will also just about have time to shoot down to Kobe to talk to Professor Kiyoshi Abe, a friend and collaborator, who is also one of the leading surveillance researchers here.

MI5 in all kinds of trouble…

The British internal security service, MI5, has found itself in all kinds of trouble this week. First there was the report of the inquiry into the intelligence aspects of the 7/7 bombings in London. Although the report ‘cleared’ MI5 of wrongdoing (which was hardly unexpected!), it is clear that there was a catalogue of intelligence failures resulting from aspects as varied as a lack of funding, poor communication between MI5 and police, and simple mistake in judging the seriousness of the activities of those who came to the notice of MI5, particularly the two eventual bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer.

Then today, there have been serious allegations made in The Independent of the MI5 trying recruitment by blackmail on young British Muslims. Basically the modus operandi was to approach the potential informant and tell them that they were suspected of terrorist activities or terrorist sympathies, but that if they cooperated with MI5 then this would be overlooked. However if they refused then their ‘terrorist connections’ would be made more widely known.

All of this, as if it needed pointing out again, leads to the the clear conclusion that the security services need better and more transparent oversight, as well as clearer direction, and yes, perhaps more money (if they can behave themselves). The point is that properly controlled and justified targeted surveillance of genuine suspects (like Khan and Tanweer) is exactly what a security service should do, whereas mass preemptive surveillance (a la Met Police) or random blackmail is not. In fact the latter would tend to be counterproductive as in general, they will increase distrust in government and in particular, drive more young Muslims towards extremism.

Secure Cities

Following in the footsteps of leading urbanists like Mike Davis and Michael Sorkin, is a project led by Dr Jeremy Nemeth, an assistant professor at University of Colorado. which traces the degradation, securitization and privatization of what we used to optimistically refer to as ‘public space’. This project aims to map and quantify the space in three contemporary cities (New York, Los Angeles and San Fransisco) now restricted in the name of security. The website is online now, and their findings are summarized on the front page:

“Even before [the 9/11] terror attacks, owners and managers of high-profile public and private buildings had begun to militarize space by outfitting surrounding streets and sidewalks with rotating surveillance cameras, metal fences and concrete bollards. In emergency situations, such features may be reasonable impositions, but as threat levels fall these larger security zones fail to incorporate a diversity of uses and users.

Utilizing an innovative method developed by our interdisciplinary team, we find that over 17% of total space within our three study sites is closed entirely or severely limits public access. The ubiquity of these security zones encourages us to consider them a new land use type.”

(thanks to Dr Nemeth for the corrections to my original misattribution of his excellent project)