Surveillance as ‘Solution’

In his book, To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov called the predominant contemporary technocentric politics, ‘solutionism’. Surveillance may be one of the best contemporary examples of this trend, at least many surveillance technologies are promoted as a technological solution to some problem whose roots are in way ‘technological’ but social and economic, and therefore whose resolution, equally, must be social and economic.

What got me thinking about this (again) was a little puff-piece in the Ottawa Citizen today, which presented panoramic thermal imaging as the ‘solution’ to the monitoring of the US-Canada border. Now, in recent history the formerly largely unguarded US-Canada has not really presented much of a problem to anyone. However, post-9/11 paranoia has recast the border as a source of threat, not least because of the widely believed myth that some of the hijackers entered the US through Canada. Whether propagated deliberately or through sheer ignorance, this myth has served to harden the US-Canadian border for ordinary people, and especially people of colour, at the same time as the economic liberalization of North America proceeds ‘beyond the border’ (to use the name of the Obama-Harper initiative).

However, the piece in the Citizen isn’t about security as such, but about drugs, and largely marijuana trafficking. This, let us not forget, is at a time when the failures of prohibition are increasingly recognised, when the Organization of American States has published a major report arguing for the decriminalization of the illicit drugs trade in order to better regulate it, and when Canadian police themselves don’t really bother with enforcing existing laws when it comes to marijuana, and Uruguay and several US states have actually voted to legalize it. Surveillance on this context is a ‘solution’ not only to a ‘problem’ that is essentially a legal artifact but one that is a counter-productive and pointless waste of resources which leads to the unnecessary prosecution and demonification of many people.

Where this comes back to 9/11 is that the war on terror has served to ‘securitize’ a lot of these social problems. It does matter that a particular law is ineffective and on the way out, the trade in illegal drugs is bundled together with terrorism and other threats under the rubric of security, and therefore the border is ‘insecure’*. In this context, the manufacturers are able to step forward with technological ‘solutions’ and rather than being laughed out of town, or condemned for overreacting, they are taken seriously by the media and policymakers.

*it should be noted that this process didn’t start with 9/11: ‘narcoterrorism’ was a catchword in US policy in South America for some time before. As Armand Mattelart has argued, in these counter-insurgency operations carried out under the banner of the war on drugs, we see the beginnings of many of the tactics that have become more widespread since 9/11.

Disguised man allowed to board flight to Canada

An effective disguise (CNN)

CNN has an exclusive today on a young Chinese man who boarded an Air Canada flight from Hong Kong disguised as an old white man. During the flight he removed the mask and then claimed asylum on landing in Canada.

No-one outside of the man concerned and the Canadian Border Security Agency knows much more about this right now. The disguise looks pretty impressive. And he had a boarding pass for a man of the correct age and origins. Of course some people will try to spin this as a ‘security threat’ story, or make it about terrorism. But really this says far more about the desperation of those trying to claim asylum faced with the rather kafkaesque logic of such systems, which tend to assume that claimants can use legal means to escape from situations where their life might be in danger…

Not everything is about the (still relatively small) risk of terrorism and nor should we overreact or organise or always try to reorganise our societies on the basis of that risk. Canada has a historically-deserved reputation as a humane refuge for those in need. This should be defended.

US cameras to see the whole of the moon…

There’s been a story developing for a while now on the US-Canadian border. This used to be one of the most casual and friendly of borders, indeed there are families stretched across both sides and in many places the border meant only slight differences in the price of some goods…

But no more. There might be a new president, but Obama seems to be allowing the Bush-era plans for strengthening the border with Canada to continue. There are now CCTV towers being erected, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) patrolling, and new much stricter passport regulations and customs and immigration checks. As usual this seems to be being done with a kind of macho indifference to the opinions of the Canadians that is making the US actions doubly unpopular.

If this seems like some kind of sci-fi nightmare then then most crazy, Philip K. Dick-style element is to be found on the Michigan-Ontario border at Port Huron, where the Sierra Nevada Corporation, a US military aerospace company, has launched a tethered balloon camera (the company calls it an MAA (medium altitude airship) pointed at the town of Sarnia across the border. This isn’t even an official scheme, it’s a private company trying to sell this insanity to the Department of Homeland Security, and naturally the Mayor and citizens of Sarnia are angry about this international violation of their privacy, and many of both sides of this border think that this intensified security as an attack on the trust that exists between Americans and Canadians.

So what are Sarnians doing? They are giving the cameras something to look at, that’s what. More specifically they are planning to drop their pants for a mass ‘moon the balloon’, which in these days of ever more insane surveillance schemes seems just about the only possible response.