Europe’s new security-industrial complex

neoconopticonThere is a superb and chilling new report out today that utterly demolishes the European Union’s claims to be in any way an  ethical or progressive leader on issues of security and surveillance. The report written by Ben Hayes for the Transantional Institute and Statewatch, documents in some detail the new vision for security in the EU, which the authors describe as a ‘neo-con-opticon.’ The report confirms a lot of things that have been concerning me about the direction and emphasis of EU security research and the increasingly unnacountable and behind closed-doors ways in which security policy is being developed. I asked back in January in an editorial in Surveillance & Society whether surveillance was becoming the new ‘baroque arsenal’, Mary Kaldor’s famous phrase to describe the huge, intricate and complex technocentric security structures of the second Cold War. This report answers that question with a resounding ‘yes’.

The press release quotes from the introduction:

“Despite the often benign intent behind collaborative European research into integrated land, air, maritime, space and cyber-surveillance systems, the EU’s security and R&D policy is coalescing around a high-tech blueprint for a new kind of security. It envisages a future world of red zones and green zones; external borders controlled by military force and internally by a sprawling network of physical and virtual security checkpoints; public spaces, micro-states and mega events policed by high-tech surveillance systems and rapid reaction forces; peacekeeping and crisis management missions that make no operational distinction between the suburbs of Basra or the Banlieue; and the increasing integration of defence and national security functions at home and abroad.

It is not just a case of sleepwalking into or waking up to a surveillance society, as the UK’s Information Commissioner famously warned, it feels more like turning a blind eye to the start of a new kind of arms race, one in which all the weapons are pointing inwards. Welcome to the NeoConOpticon.”

But don’t stop there. You can (well, you must) read the full report here: NeoConOpticon – The EU Security-Industrial Complex

And whilst you are at it, download Tony Bunyan’s equally superb report, The Shape of Things to Come – the EU Future Group, on the EU’s thoroughly undemocratic attempt to bypass public debate and hand internal security and surveillance policy over to the transnational security companies and the police and intelligence services.

(thanks to Rosamunde van Brakel for passing this on)

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.

The robots are coming and now they’re angry…

A mindless drone robot is one thing but an independent robot with a tiny mind capable only of death and destruction – that is something else entirely.

Whilst I was doing my PhD in the late 90s, I met a guy called Steve Wright who used to run the Omega Foundation (who were like the ‘Lone Gunman’ organisation from the X-Files, but for real), and who is now at the Praxis Centre at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. He was investigating the development of new forms of automated killing and control systems and ever since then, I’ve been keeping an eye on the development of remote-controlled and increasingly automated surveillance technologies, and in particular the development of robotic devices that are able not only to collect or transfer data, but to respond physically.

Two stories this week reflect the variety of developments in all kinds of different arenas, and raise all sorts of issues around the distancing of human responsibility from material, in many cases, punitive or lethal action.

'Intruder' captured by web-slinging robot
Japanese security robot (AP)

The first was the news that Japanese technologists have produced a mobile remote-controlled robot that can fire a net over ‘intruders’. Until recent years such developments had been carried out largely in the area of military research by organisations like the RAND corporation in the USA. However, particularly since the end of the Cold War when military supply companies started to look to diversify and find new markets in a more uncertain time when the ‘military-industrial complex’ might no longer ensure their profits, there has been a gradual ‘securitization’ of civil life. One consequence of this has been that so-called ‘less-lethal’ weapons are increasing regarded as normal for use in law enforcement, private security organisations and even by individuals.

However a further change has been in the when these operations can be automated when an intermediary technology using sensors of some kind is placed between the person operating them and the person(s) or thing(s) being monitored. This removes the person from the consequences of their action and allows them to place the moral burden of action onto the machine. The operation is aided still more if the machine itself can be ‘humanized’, in the way that Japanese robots so often are. But a kawaii(cute) weaponized robot is still a weaponized robot.

A 'Predator' Drone (USAF)
A 'Predator' Drone (USAF)

In the skies above Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza however, ‘cuteness’ doesn’t matter. Remote-control military machines have been stealthily entering the front lines, colonising the vertical battlespace, with lethal consequences that have not yet been considered enough. This week we saw US unmanned aircraft operated by the CIA kill a total of 21 people in Pakistan, one of the few aspects of Bush-era policy that new President Obama has not (yet) promised to change.

All of these machines are still under some kind of control from human operators, but several profoundly misguided scientists are trying to create systems that are more independent, even ‘intelligent’. This week, I read about Professor Mandyam Srinivasan of Queensland University in Australia who, at least according to a report in The Australian, thinks it is a great idea to give missiles brains like angry bees. A mindless drone robot is one thing but an independent robot with a tiny mind capable only of death and destruction – that is something else entirely. I can think of few things that are less in the spirit of social progress than this, but he’s hardly the only one thinking this way: there are billions of dollars being pumped into this kind of research around the world…