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!

London Riots and Video Surveillance, pt.1

 A really interesting map on the website of the US monthly, The Atlantic, illustrating the relationship between density of video surveillance cameras (CCTV) and recent incidence of rioting in London. There are many things one can get even from a simple map like this. It’s worth noting in particular that Wandsworth and Harringey are the residential boroughs with the highest concentration of CCTV, and have been hit by rioting. There are also places with both greater and less than average density of CCTV which have not had rioting.
Whilst you have to be careful not to mistake correlation for causality, and bearing in mind that this is not a statistically tested verdict, the main tentative conclusion one can draw is that there seems to be no relationship between the presence and density of CCTV and the occurence of rioting. This might seem like  a fairly weak statement, but it is yet more evidence that CCTV has little deterrent effect on crime of this sort (and of course, the rioting is not only explicable as ‘crime’ anyway).

The Tools of Personal Surveillance

There’s always something interesting on BoingBoing, and it was via that site that I came across this story in Salon magazine about one woman’s decision to track down the man who had robbed her. Now, most of the commentary about this has focussed on her commitment and determination and the usual stuff about how the police let criminals prospers etc. However, what interested me was the techniques and technologies that she was able to employ to find this guy: basically not only did she use a whole lot of techniques and technologies that not so long ago would have been the preserve of the intelligence services, police or private investigators, but also the thief in question was also an inveterate social networker and was about as careless with his online personae as most of us are. Of course, what it also shows is that it takes an awful lot of effort to do this, and this kind of obsessive hunt takes over lives, so it would not be a practical option: individual surveillance is not a substitute for the power of the state. It’s a fascinating read…

Community Safety in Suginami

Following our meeting with the Mayor the other day, we went back to Suginami-ku to talk to the community safety people, who are part of the Disaster Management section. Suginami is interesting because, as far back as 2004, it was the first Local Authority in Japan to introduce a special bohan kamera jourei (security camera ordinance) which is based in part at least on principles of data protection and privacy. And until neighbouring Setegaya-ku introduced their own ordinance last year, they were, so far as I know, the only such authority. The ordinance followed public consultation which showed that although people generally thought CCTV was effective (95%), a significant minority of 34% were concerned about privacy, and 72% thought that regulation was needed. These figures seem to be significantly more in favour of privacy and regulation of CCTV than the nationwide survey done by Hino Kimihiro, however he asked different questions leading to answers that are not directly comparable.

Suginami is one of the areas of Tokyo that has the other kind of CCTV system introduced by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police after 2002, help points where people press a button if they feel in danger and speak to someone from the police. The help points have both CCTV camera and an alarm / red flashing light if the caller says it is an emergency.

However the Suginami community safety officers said that these cameras have not proved very effective and in fact they cause a lot of problems, because children tend to press the button for fun, and run away – meaning that there are many false alarms.

Suginami has some of the same kind of array of ‘blue-light’ volunteer patrols as Arakawa-ku. In Suginami, there is a fleet of mini-patoka (mini patrol cars) and motorbikes, used by 15 retired police officers. These are mainly about visibility leading to deterrence and increased community confidence, as the volunteers ex-officers have no special powers nor do they carry side-arms or handcuffs or any other conventional ‘police’ equipment. Suginami does not have the small community safety stations like Arakawa-ku, although they do also have the same problem of local koban (police boxes) being closed. However where Suginami really stands out is in the sheer number of volunteers they have involved in their community patrols, organised through the local PTAs, shoutenkai (shopkeepers’ associations) and choukai (community associations). There are 140 groups with 9600 people actively involved in one way or another in community safety just in Suginami.

Suginami is a relatively wealthy ward and the kinds of problems that concern Arakawa (mainly minor street crime and snatch-thefts) are not such big issues here.  The main concern in this ward seems to be burglary and furikomi – the practice of gangsters and other criminals calling old people and pretending to be a relative or representative of a relative and persuading them to transfer money to a particular ATM (which you can do in Japan – it would be impossible in the UK). Furikomi is a very interesting phenomenon in that it seems to be a product of family, social and technological changes. Many older people who would have lived with family in traditional Japanese society are now living alone. They are lonely and miss the intimacy of family contact, so they tend to welcome unexpected calls from relatives who may now be living almost anywhere in Japan. These older people are also technologically literate and able to use mobile phones, ATMs and computers. The combination of this technological skill, dispersed families, and psychological vulnerability makes for a ripe target for fraudsters, and Suginami estimate that 40% of all crime in the ward is some form of furikomi.

In many ways, increasing concern for privacy is also a product of this change in lifestyles and family structure, as well as building techniques – western-style walls and better sound insulation mean that you can’t always know what is going on in the next room anymore, let alone in your neighbours’ apartments or houses. This also makes burglary rather easier, as once the thief has got past the initial walls or doors, no-one can hear or see very much. The intense and intimate ‘natural surveillance’ that used to characterise ordinary Japanese communities is disappearing. But the Suginami community safety officers see the possibility of revitalising such natural surveillance, and protecting privacy, without going down the route of impersonal, technologically-mediated surveillance. In many ways, this is quite heartening – if, of course, you are of a communitarian mindset. Such supportive, mutually monitored and very inward-looking communities can be stifling to those who do not fit and exclusionary to those from outside… and, not coincidentally, one of our last interviews was with a leading support group for foreign migrants in Japan, who have a very different perspective on all of these developments. That will be in my next post, which may not be until Saturday as we’re going off to Kansai for a couple of days…

(Thank-you to the Disaster Management section for their time and patience).

At the Camara dos Deputados

I had a great meeting at the architecturally stunning Camara dos Deputados (the Brazilian equivalent of the British House of Commons or the House of Representatives in the USA), which almost made up for the fact that it was the only one of the three scheduled interviews that I had arranged that actually went ahead… it really does look like I will have to come back.

The parliamentary buildings in Brasilia, originally laid out by Lucio Costa. The Camara dos Depuados, by Oscar Niemeyer, is to the left.
The parliamentary buildings in Brasilia, originally laid out by Lucio Costa. The Camara dos Deputados, by Oscar Niemeyer, is to the right.

This meeting took place in the Comissao de Direitos Humanos e Minorias (the Commission for Human Rights and Minorities) and was with Federal Deputy and committee member, Pompeo de Mattos, the secretary of the Commission, Marcio Marques de Araujo, and Hebe Guimareas-Dalgaard, who works in the International Relations office and who served as translator.

The meeting covered all sorts of background issues around security in Brazil, and concentrated on Deputado de Mattos’s specialities in this area, which are in justice and drug-trafficking issues. Again, I won’t do more than summarize a few immediately important things here. There was a lot of talk of police corruption and some hair-raising stories of the ways in which military police officers in particular has become involved in selling equipment and ammunition, and of course the autodefesas communitarias that I have mentioned before. Interestingly though, it was the deputy’s opinion that the military police, despite having a ‘culture of violence’ inherited from their role as enforcers of the military dictatorship, were less corrupt (in an everyday way) than the civil police. The latter are even lower down the police food-chain and correspondingly more poorly paid and equipped.

The inadequacies of the civil police has led many Mayors of larger towns and cities to introduce so-called ‘Municipal Guards’ – basically private security given some official status. They have few powers but are basically there to increase the visibility of security, a kind of prophylactic community policing. The problem is however that the official police and the massive private security sector are thoroughly intermixed already. Many officers moonlight as private security guards, which leads to all kinds of conflicts of interest.

Deputado de Mattos was certainly not obsessed with the inadequacies of the police however. Serious and organized crime associated with drug-trafficking paralyzes the everyday life of poorer areas of large cities in Brazil. Despite the fears of the rich over crime, it is the poorest that suffer most. He described the drug gangs as being the major obstacle to any positive change in Brazilian cities. However he didn’t see any militaristic solution – fighting a war against the drug gangs would only lead to more violence. The only solution to the problems of both crime and the poverty from which it emerges is social inclusion. The favelados must be provided with the same opportunities and infrastructure as everyone else. The need schools, hospitals, transport, and so on. Programs like Bolsa Familia, however well-intentioned, make no fundamental difference, he argued – contradicting, as most people with whom I have talked have done, the assessment of external organisations like the World Bank.

However providing such opportunities is not easy, and not just because of the costs. The drug-gangs actively resist any attempt by the state to introduce services, to the extent of intimidating or even killing construction workers. And this shouldn’t be in any way romanticized as some kind of popular resistance of the poor to the imposition of unwanted state interference – this is an attempt to maintain the rule of fear and violence. Somehow, one can never get away from the security issue in Brazil.

Leaving the Camara dos Deputados, looking past the parliamentary buildings up towards the Esplanada dos Ministerios, with all the government Ministries lined up in identical blocks.
Leaving the Camara dos Deputados, looking past the parliamentary buildings up towards the Esplanada dos Ministerios, with all the government Ministries lined up in identical blocks.

(Thanks to Deputado Pompeo de Mattos, who as you will see if you check out his website is quite a character. He is fiercely proud of his southern ‘gaucho’ roots, and writes poetry to that effect. He is also – and I don’t say this very often of politicians – a genuinely nice guy. Thanks also to Marcio Marques de Araujo and to Hebe Guimares-Dalgaard without whom the meeting would have been impossible).