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.

The New North American Perimeter

Canadians have been angered to discover recently that a deal to create a new US-Canada perimeter security initiative has been going on behind their backs. This plan has been some time in the making, as we uncovered during our current research on border security. In particular, alliances of major corporations and US and Canadian government organisations have been planning together in the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) and the North American Competitiveness Council (NACC) – who back in 2007 produced a document, Building a Secure and Competitive North Anerica (pdf), that seems to prefigure exactly what this ‘new’ soon to be announced plan will contain.

And already the state public relations machines have rumbled into place to prevent dissent. The government clearly has nothing but contempt for the Canadian Charter rights that this deal will damage (most notably those around information and privacy). And there seems to be no doubt that this deal will further embed US security priorities in Canadian-US relations, and effectively add an inner core of security to the economic layer of NAFTA (excluding Mexico, of course… no doubt the perimeter will continue exclude them, even while we exploit their cheap labour and resources). Indeed the ‘success’ of NAFTA (read: the success of NAFTA for business elites) is one of the reasons given for supporting this so-far unseen plan by five former Canadian ambassadors to Washington in an Opinion piece in the Globe and Mail today.

This first volley from the big guns seems to have come straight from the Ottawa PR stategy. There are references to ‘common sense’ and the ‘reassertion of sovereignty’ and attacks on ‘bellyaching’ and ‘knee-jerk anti-Americanism’. Indeed it is worth quoting the final paragraph in full because it is a masterpiece of old-fashioned continentalist propaganda combined with post-9/11 fear-stoking:

“Knee-jerk anti-Americanism is an indulgence without purpose in today’s interconnected, interdependent world. Our future economic prosperity relies on an efficient border, and we should welcome any agreement that smoothes the way for jobs and growth while toughening up our borders to security threats against both our countries.”

In this worldview, asserting sovereignty means giving it up, ‘interconnected and interdependent’ means allied with the USA rather than all the other multiplicity of friendships Canada had carefully crafted around the world prior to the Harper era, and security threats to the USA are seen as one and the same as those to Canada. In other words, we should hitch our wagon more firmly to Washington and prevent any return to that ‘indulgent’ Canadian emphasis on global security, peace-building, human development and human rights – you know, the values that once gained Canada respect around the world.

It’s quite eye-opening in a way to see former representatives of the Canadian state to the USA openly acting as US assets in Canada, clearly trying to educate the Canadian public in how to think and how to behave towards their rulers (sorry, slip of the tongue, of course I meant ‘neighbours’), and trying to preempt and predefine reaction to a plan that we haven’t even seen yet not least because people like this seem to think that Canadians don’t deserve to have a say in something that amounts to nothing less than the future sovereignty of their country.

(thanks to Harrison Smith for the NACC document and David Lyon for pointing out the Opinion piece)

Racial profiling hits a new low

Just when you think that state surveillance in supposedly free countries could not sink any lower, it has been revealed that UK Border Agency is finding a pilot project into using DNA and isotope analysis to determine the origin of asylum-seekers. This is not a joke or a scare-story. It is a real project. Science Insider has the details here. The Agency is refusing to say who is doing this research for them, nor has it provided any references to studies that show that what they are proposing will work. It appears that most scientists working in the area think it is based on entirely faulty premises and there is no reason to believe it will work. That’s only a minor objection compared to the political and ethical ones of course. As the story in Science Insider points out the Border Agency seem to be making a fundamental (and totally racist) error in assuming that ethnicity and nationality are synonymous. And this research would probably not got past any university ethics committee, which makes one wonder what kind of screening or ethical procedures the Border Agency used, and indeed who would carry out such an obviously unsound piece of research. It’s another example of increasingly unaccountable arms-length agencies (which have proliferated in recent years) using the ‘technical’ as an excuse to bypass what should be a matter of high-level policy, and indeed something that so obviously harks back to the bad days of Europe’s racist and genocidal past that it beggars belief that any sane official would have let this get further than a suggestion in a meeting.

(thanks to Andy Gates for pointing me to the story)

US border surveillance pours billions into Boeing… and still doesn’t work

Federal Computer Week reports that the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) designed to provide secure and highly surveilled border systems between the USA and Mexico, is in trouble again. There have been major technological failures, cost overruns, and more with the result that the system is way behind schedule. Half the reason seems to be a political economic one. In many ways this system is a giant pork barrel for the Boeing Corporation, which has been sucking up US state subsidies for years and is taking literally billions of US dollars for this project and in unrelated federal recession subsidies. No-one seems to have really checked whether Boeing could really do the job, and like so many large state security and surveillance projects, and most things that have been tried on the Mexico border, it just doesn’t really work.

The article reports the new Director of the SBI, Mark Borkowski as admitting that “the program was first conceived as a quick implementation of existing off-the-shelf technologies […] In retrospect, it would have functioned better if a customized technology solution was developed to meet the requirements […] Some of the things we put into place, in hindsight, were not effective […] What we bet on, which was probably not a good bet, was that this was like buying a new printer for your computer. …We started the wrong way, in my opinion.”

The cost breakdown for the Department of Homeland Security is reported by FCW as:

$1.1Bn to Boeing ($620M  for SBInet technology and $440M for border-vehicle barriers and fencing).

$2.4Bn on construction of fencing and vehicle barriers along the southwestern border

$6.5 Bn longer-term to maintain, monitor and repair the fences and structures.

Of course the ridiculous costs are bad enough, but the wider issues here are with the obsession with controlling migration in an economic climate in which the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has progressively stripped Mexico of any economic autonomy and made its (and by extension the whole of Central America’s) working class a reserve of cheap labour for US corporations and its relatively increasingly wealthy, a market for US consumer goods. It’s not surprising that the Mexicans regard it as more than a little unfair that they have been forced into a subservient position, yet are not welcome to come into the USA, and are subject to such harsh security and surveillance to prevent them from doing so. Added to this, as the Mexican President made clear last year, relaxed US laws on gun ownership have resulted in a massively increased flow of weapons into Mexico from the USA, which has exacerbated gang conflicts which thrive in the atmosphere of inequality and exploitation. And of course, the violence just adds to the reasons why people want to leave and find opportunities in the richer, safer USA…

In many ways, what richer nations are doing is not only prioritising their own security, but also simultaneously exporting their insecurity.

Virtual surveillance fail

this Open-Circuit TV (OCTV) is also about ´responsibilizing´citizens, trying to turn ordinary people into civic spies. Luckily, whilst people love to watch, they generally refuse to behave as agents of surveillance

The US-Mexican border has been a pretty good barometer of the levels of paranoia, waste and stupidity around immigration and surveillance for quite some time now. Now the El Paso Times of Texas reports on the stupendous failure of one massive initiative that was supposed to spread the burden of watching the border by installing webcams (and associated infrastructure) for US citizens to watch online and report anything suspicious.

Around $2 Million US was sunk into the program, yet it had few tangible outcomes. The figures, released under the Texas Public Information Act show that despite 1,894,288 hits on the website, there have been just 3 arrests out of a projected 1200, and only 8 incidents reported in total out of a projected 50,000.

What made me laugh was the comment from the office of Governor Rick Perry, who initiated the scheme, that the only problem was the way in which the scheme´s success had been assessed – there is a quote from a spokesperson that is a classic of government evasion: apparently, ¨the progress reports need to be adjusted to come in line with the strategy¨!

The only sensible comment on the whole debacle comes from Scott Stewart, a surveillance and security expert from Stratfor, who notes as all surveillance experts already know, that cameras are not that effective at deterring or stopping crime, and blames our naive faith in technological solutions that ¨can provide us with a false sense of security¨.

This isn´t just about whether cameras work though.

Of course there are wider issues about the fairness of US relations with Mexico which, under NAFTA, effectively mean that the US uses Mexico as a source of cheap labour and land for manufacturing and the free flow of goods, but does not permit the free flow of people. However for studies of surveillance, it is also about whether encouraging virtual voyeurism is either socially desirable or effective in reducing crime. In terms of effectiveness, of course Bruce Schneier has been arguing for quite a while that most security schemes are inefficient and counterproductive and there was an excellent paper by John Mueller of Ohio State University exploding the statistical myths around security measures in the War on Terror.

But this Open-Circuit Television (OCTV) – not the the usual Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) we are used to in malls and big cities – is also about ´responsibilizing´citizens, trying to turn ordinary people into civic spies. Luckily, whilst people love to watch, they generally refuse to behave as states would want and do not willingly become agents of surveillance – as this scheme and the experiment in the London borough of Shoreditch with such participatory surveillance schemes, which was similarly successful amongst viewers but achieved no measurable result and was shelved, show.

Note: Hille Koskela of the University of Helsinki, who works mainly on webcams, has been following the Texas border watch scheme and will be presenting a paper on it at our Surveillance, Security and Social Control in Latin America sumposium here in Curitiba in March… I look forward to hearing her analysis.