US border project cancelled… or is it just mutating?

Neoconopticon is reporting that the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) project is to be shelved and replaced with off-the shelf surveillance equipment (UAVs etc.).

The project which was based on contracts with Boeing and Raytheon, had been in trouble for some time. I reported back in 2009 how Boeing had basically wasted most of the money on the Mexican border projects on systems that didn’t work. Neoconopticon gives the figure of $3.7Bn for the project, but in fact estimated costs for the longer-term maintenance just of the Mexican fence component had spiralled to over $10Bn.

The original source for this news, Defence Industry Daily, has a good timeline.

I am left wondering however about whether this cancellation might have anything to do with the discussions that were recently revealed on the North American Perimeter project, which I blogged back in December last year. A complete North American perimeter might reduce the pressure to add further security to the US-Canadian border at least, and Canadian government funds and people could be leveraged by the US, as they were during the Cold War with the DEW Line and BMEWS. A summit on the issue between US President, Barack Obama, and Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, had been scheduled for January and was recently pushed back into February, which has given time for the decision on the cancellation of the SBI.

This could all be coincidence, but it is certainly interesting timing…

2nd Surveillance in Latin America Symposium

Following the success of the first Surveillance Studies symposium in Brazil last year, here is the call for the next one, this time in Mexico next year.



In modern societies, identification systems have been used as an important mechanism to govern, manage, classify and control populations; in other words, to surveil them. This has meant the employment of certain technologies (passports, national identity letters, RFID, among others), providing interconnected data base systems with information according to specific institutional protocols. In this way, we define identification as visibility and verification of specific details of people’s lives. Likewise, these identification systems have responded to various functions: security, migration control, goods and service administration, as well for territory, space and group access.

The historical, social and politic contexts shape the particular purposes to which each identification system responds. Large-scale surveillance systems to identify the population have been installed in Latin America after decades of colonial, military and single-party governments In addition they have been prompted by increasing multiculturalism in cities, Population growth, migration rates, the perceived rise in terrorism, public security and health risks, as well as the creation of public policies (to aid poverty and unemployment) and globalization.

These conditions have caused the harmonization and articulation of corporations, institutions, technologies and specific protocols for citizen identification in Latin American countries, , depending on each country or region’s particular situation, and its relationship with other regions worldwide. Nevertheless, the Latin American environment allows us to consider the construction of privacy, identities, forms of government and the possibility of resistance policies.

Paper Proposals

In line with this analytic framework, the University of the State of Mexico, Faculty of Politics and Social Studies, hereby invites scholars, analysts and activists in Latin America and worldwide, interested in identification and surveillance, in relation to such matters as cultural or ethnic identities, privacy and data protection, new identification technologies (biometrics, RFID, etc), public policies, security, communication, ethics, law, or modes of critique or resistance; to participate in the International Symposium “Identification, identity and surveillance in Latin America”, by sending a lecture proposal.

Please send an abstract, 300-500 words long, Arial 12, space line 1.5, to the following e-mail:, before October 30th 2009. Due to the nature of this event, the abstracts and papers are to be accepted in Spanish, Portuguese and English.

Note: There is no registration fee for this event. All participants are expected to seek their own funding for travel and accommodation. A number of rooms will be reserved with reasonable rates in a nearby hotel. More details to follow.

Main subjects

1. Governmental and corporative policies of identification

2. New technologies for identification and surveillance.

3. Purposes of identification systems in Latin America.

4. Communication and information technologies.

5. Privacy and transparency.

6. Identification, identities and subjectivities.

7. Relationship between global and local, in identification systems.

8. Postcolonial logics and political regimes.

9. Identities, surveillance and resistance.

10. Identification, identity and surveillance in Latin America: new theories?

Important Dates

Call for Papers Publication: July 30th 2009.

Abstract reception deadline: October 30th 2009.

Accepted lectures list publication: December 15th 2010.

Complete paper remittance deadline: February 15th 2010.

Complete program publication: February 28th 2010.

Second Symposium on surveillance in Latin America: March 16th, 17th y 18th 2010. University of the State of Mexico, Faculty of Politics and Social Studies. Toluca, México.

Organizing Committee

Nelson Arteaga Botello

Roberto J. Fuentes Rionda

Faculty of Politics and Social Studies, University of the State of Mexico

Rodrigo Firmito

Postgraduate Program in Urban Management, Pontifical Catholic University of Parana, Curitiba, Brazil

Fernanda Bruno

Postgraduate School of Communication, Federal University of Río de Janeiro, Brasil

Marta Kanashiro

Further Studies Laboratory of Journalism and Knowledge, Technology and Market Group, University of the State of Campinas (UNICAMP), Campinas, Brasil.

Danilo Doneda

De Campos Faculty of Law, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

André Lemos

Federal University of Bahia, Brasil

With the support of:

David Lyon

David Murakami Wood

Department of Sociology, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Proposal reception, Information and Contact

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.

Surveillance and the ‘Open-source Insurgency’

Hierarchical, national and corporate bodies are profoundly afraid of the openness, apparent lack of interest in conventional goals and absence of obvious leadership or deference that is represented by the new collaborative networks like Open-source. They are not ‘under control’. The answer for the military-industrial complex is a consistent one, and as usual it combines strategic military and economic goals. This answer is surveillance.

The US military-industrial complex is always trying to identify new threats to bolster its budgets. There was a minor outcry a few years ago when US military powerpoint slides on strategy seemed to indicate that it regarded international civil society organisations, including the Red Cross, as a potential source of such threat. Then came 9/11 and the war on terror and for a while it didn’t need these phantom menaces as there were real global enemies, and fortunately for the military-industrial complex, it seemed that those enemies might be infinitely expandable and malleable into what was briefly termed the ‘long war’.

But the war on terror isn’t what it was. So there seems to be some effort to resurrect previous threats. One of these is ‘the war on drugs’ now rebranded as ‘narco-terrorism’ or ‘narco-insurgency’. And the particular focus of the concern is closer to the United States: Mexico. Writing in the self-proclaimed ‘capitalist tool’, Forbes magazine, Reihan Salaam argued that Mexico’s ongoing struggle with drug-related violence was a major threat which could ‘blind-side’ the USA. Now, Republicans like Salaam are struggling to find anything important to say when its obvious what the major global problems are, and the US electorate has decided that the Republicans aren’t the people to solve them. He is of course correct that there is a serious situation in Mexico – and indeed elsewhere in Latin-America: the drug-trafficking gangs are also the major problem for the Brazilian government in any attempt to include their excluded favela communities. However, he makes no mention of the other underlying cause of destabilization in the USA’s southern neighbour – the way in which NAFTA has transformed Mexico into a subordinate economic role to the USA as source of cheap production facilities and cheap labour, all the while being told that its people are not wanted in the USA. The EU has its critics, but at least its building of free-trade has been accompanied by a far greater degree of free movement of people and reciprocal political rights. Nor is there any reference to the consumption of cocaine and crack in the USA that is driving the trade (as the first comment on the article notes).

Instead Salaam tries to analyze the Mexican situation using a recent strategic theory, and one which is profoundly worrying in its implications. In an essay in the New York Times in October 2005, John Robb argued that the Iraq war had turned into what he termed an ‘open-source’ insurgency, “a resilient network made up of small, autonomous groups”. He argued that those resisting the US occupation and other armed groups were like open-source software developers in that “the insurgents have subordinated their individual goals to the common goal of the movement”. (Never mind once again, that there is an obvious underlying common goal – that of getting rid of an occupying foreign power!).

Now of course, in many ways this was just a restatement of the whole post-Cold War, network-centric warfare hypothesis. There are also echoes back to the kind of language which has been used to describe ‘eastern’ or ‘foreign’ peoples for centuries – the British in India being unable to tell ‘them’ apart, the faceless and numberless ‘yellow peril’, the ‘godless communists’ who subordinated their individual will to the collective, and the ‘clash of civilizations’. It’s the hive-mind, the fear of humans who don’t appear to act ‘like us’. Without the overt racism of course: this is Orientalism 2.0, the politically-correct version!

However the addition of the label ‘open-source’ is no accident. Hierarchical, national and corporate bodies are profoundly afraid of the openness, apparent lack of interest in conventional goals (profit, advancement, etc.), and absence of obvious leadership or deference that is represented by the new collaborative networks like Open-source. They are not ‘under control’.

So how to bring them ‘under control’? John Robb’s first (and rather refreshing) answer was that in many ways you probably can’t and that in Iraq, the US should have probably ‘let them win’. But this is an unpopular response for the uneconstructed military-industrial complex. For them the first answer is a consistent one, and as usual it combines strategic military and economic goals. This answer is surveillance. For the Internet, we have seen, and continue to see, attempts in multiple countries to attack the basis of what makes the Internet creative and free, in the name of all kinds of ‘risks’ (mainly terrorism, identity crime, pirating and paedophilia). Of course these risks are no greater on the Internet than in the material world, but the Internet is still for many people, and many politicians in particular, a vast, unknown terrain which they do not understand: ‘here be dragons’ as the old maps used to have it of any such ‘terra incognita’.

For countries afflicted by the new ‘open-source insurgency’, the answer is the same. The Defense Industry Daily today starts off its story on Mexico with the apparently uncontentious statement that “Mexico needs surveillance.” It then lists with the usual kind of techno-pornographic relish of these publications, all the mainly Israeli UAVs and surveillance craft that the Mexican state is buying. We are supposed to cheer. We are supposed to think that this is evidence of Mexico’s growing maturity. Soon Mexico will be monitored and ‘under control’. No evidence of whether surveillance ‘works’ (even in military terms) troubles these kinds of stories. That is taken as self-evident. And certainly there is no question of whether this could in any way be the wrong approach, or even a counterproductive strategy. As the Brazilian parliamentarian to whom I was talking yesterday said, about the favelas, the only answer to both crime (because, let’s not forget that’s what ‘narco-terrorism’ really is) and the poverty on which it feeds, is in the long-term (and that means starting now not later): sanitation, schools, hospitals, transport, jobs – in other words providing the poor with access to the same society that the wealthier enjoy. Extending intensive high-tech military surveillance across the global south is not only a complete failure to address these underlying issues, it also diverts much-needed money away from social priorities. It is the wrong answer to the wrong question… except for the defense industry.