London Riots and Video Surveillance, Pt.2

My last post was about the lack of any apparent deterrence of rioting from CCTV. However that’s not to say that video surveillance is proving of no use to the authorities. However the way it is being used says a lot about both the limits of CCTV and the general problem of analysis of video images.

As part of ‘Operation Withern’, the investigation into the rioting, the Metropolitan Police have set up a special section of their website, London Disorder Images, as well as on Flickr, which is essentially crowdsourcing the identification of suspects. Despite being the most well-resourced police force in the UK, the Met lacks the resources, time and expertise to analyse and identify everyone it wishes to identify itself, and with widespread popular anger about the riots, they are banking on opening up the process of surveillance and identification as being more efficient and effective – and they may well be right.

Of course, with the problems of lighting, angle, distances, and image quality, the images vary in identifiability – and bear in mind that the few posted so far are probably amongst the best ones – and no doubt there will be many misidentifications. And, in addition, hundreds of people are already being processed through magistrates courts without much need to video evidence. But it is a tactic we are seeing more and more in many places (e.g. Toronto, following the G20 disturbances).

Will the Global South overtake the North in transparency?

At a time when liberal democracies in the Global North seem increasingly paranoid and cutting down both on personal freedoms and government accountability, could nations from the Global South seize the moment to become the new pace-setters on open government?

There are plenty of good examples from Latin American, but it’s in Africa that the real changes are occurring. Yes, that’s the same Africa often stereotyped as the home of endless war, corruption, military coups and dictators. Kenya, in fact, which the pessimists were portraying as being on the brink of collapse and authoritarianism after election violence a few years ago. But now, Kenya is pushing forward with massive changes in the way its government operates with an increasing tendency towards open information and other accountability initiatives, as a Guardian story is reporting.

Cynics will argue that this is just pandering to a new urban middle class, with only 26% of Kenyans having home Internet access. However, like many countries in Africa, the communications revolution us predominantly mobile and almost 65% of Kenyans have mobile telephones and will be able to access mobile versions of the new sites.

On the Internet, no-one knows you’re a dog

So the (now rather old) joke goes. In fact, this joke is now often seen as an example of how people early on in the history of the Internet misunderstood it. People, the argument goes, are just people on the Net, pretty much the same way they are in real life. No technological determinism here, no siree.

However there is increasing evidence that this new ‘common knowledge’ is dead wrong, but it isn’t necessarily individual ‘dogs’ pretending to be humans online, it is whole organised packs (don’t worry, I won’t take this metaphor any further). Various sources have been reporting the development call by the US military for software development to create artificial posters on Internet forums, chatrooms, and news sites. The US state it seems has woken up to the possibilities of what is often called ‘astroturfing’, the creation of fake grassroots movements, with fake members.

George Monbiot, a leading British investigative journalist with The Guardian newspaper knows about astroturfing more than most. He frequently writes about climate change denialists, and the comments under his stories are always filled with pseudonymous critics who seem to pop up every time the word ‘climate’ is mentioned and their responses often appear to be scripted and organised. He’s been digging deeper, and while his investigations are still ongoing, he has provided a useful summary of recent development here.

As well as the corporate interests (tobacco, oil, pharma etc.) it’s also worth pointing out that other states are far ahead of the US on this. China notoriously has its so-called ’50-Cent Party’, students and others who are recruited by the state and paid by the message to counter any anti-Chinese or pro-Tibetan, pro-Taiwan or pro-Uighur sentiment. Their early efforts were laughably obvious, but are becoming more and more subtle. Israel is open in its backing of such ‘online armies’, and advocates the use of a particular software tool, called Megaphone, which enables its users to respond quickly and widely to any reports or discussion seem as against the interests of the Israeli state.

Anonymity is also used by these organised groups as a form of individual intimidation through other ‘open’ channels, especially of those who lack the resources and sometimes the low cunning to be able to respond effectively. One is Freedom of Information legislation. In the area of climate change denial, we saw this with the systematic and organised petitioning of the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, in which FoI requests were really a form of harassment. More recently, as I have just heard from Chris Parsons, two professors from Ottawa, Errol Mendes and Amir Attaran, seen as ‘liberal’ and critical of the Canadian government, have similarly found themselves the subject of a huge upsurge in FoI requests, many of which seem to be deliberately requesting very intimate information. This would appear to be Freedom of Information as intimidation.

There are several responses one could have to this. One would be to withdraw from more public and open forms of interaction, to batten down the hatches, retreat into extreme forms of privacy. This would be a mistake: it really would, as some of the more alarmist reports have proposed, mean the death of Web2.0. The other would be to take the Anonymous route, to ferret out the spies and the fakes. This could be done with better forum and comment software, but would mean a lot of hacking effort and knowledge. How is a chatroom supposed to go up against the power of states and corporations? The real risk with this, as with more low-tech forms of ‘exposure’, is that we help create a culture of suspicion in which moles and spies are everywhere, and genuine political interaction is chilled. It may be coincidental, but it is not unrelated, that we are seeing a growing attention being called to this kind of thing just as we have seen the power of social media in the uprisings across the Arab world. In this area at least privacy is not the answer, a more radical political openness and transparency may well be required to facilitate the kind of social trust that can keep Web2.0 growing and changing in a positive direction.

The Internet Must Be Defended (2): a Transparency (R)evolution?

(A few more random rabble-rousing thoughts: Part 1 here)

For a few years now there has been a tendency (and no, it’s not an organised conspiracy – most of the time), to try to contain the uncontrolled development of the Internet by many different states and non-state organisations. Here’s some examples:

1. China has basically created its own island system, that could potentially be entirely disconnected from the rest of the Net and still function. Within this system it can censor sites, control the flow of information and so on. This is not a case of an isolated authoritarian state: the system has been created largely by western hardware and software developers.

2. The development of new ways of accessing information – through Web apps, branded social networking software and so on – means that increasingly users are experiencing the Net (and more specifically the Web) through controlled corporate channels.  The Web is in many ways the most immediately vulnerable feature of the Net.

3. There is a worldwide movement by states, pressured by the USA and others, to put into law restrictive new measures that redefine all information as intellectual property, introduce digital locks, and more widespread end-user licensing etc. (i.e. moving the software model of property rights to all information objects). This is equivalent perhaps to the ‘enclosure’ of the commons in C17th Britain, which underlay the rise of private capital.

4. Under the guise of counter-terrorism or fighting organised crime, states, again pressured by the USA but some entirely of their own volition, are introducing comprehensive surveillance measures of online communications – it started with traffic analysis and is moving increasingly to content too. This also leverages the trend identified in 2. Relationship modelling is where it’s at now. Basically, it isn’t so much that your digital doubles sitting in multiple databases, but they are walking and talking on their own to others, whether you like it or not, and it is the nature and quality of their interactions that is being monitored.

Wikileaks is a thread because it represents the opposite of these trends to closure and the retaking of control of the Internet. It’s not because Wikileaks is itself particularly threatening, it’s the fact that it is making visible these underlying trends and may cause more people to question them.

The character of Julian Assange has nothing really to do with this – except insofar as his prominence has only made Wikileaks, and the nascent opposition to this retaking control of the Internet, vulnerable because people in general can’t tell the difference between a person and an idea and will often think an idea is discredited if a person is – and individuals are very easy to discredit, not least because of the amount of information now available to intelligence services about people means that their vulnerabilities and proclivities can be easily exploited. A lot of people who are genuinely interested in openness and transparency were already questioning the need for this supposed ‘leader’ and I suspect that we will soon see (multiple) other alternatives to Wikileaks emerging.

I would suggest that people who think this is melodramatic are usually speaking either from a position of ignorance of the broad range of trends that are coalescing around the Wikileaks issue, or are simply baffled by the redefinition of politics that is occuring around information and are seeking certainty in the old institutions of nation-state and corporations – institutions that ironically were once themselves so threatening to what was seen as a natural order.

But why should we care? I have heard some people argue that the Wikileaks issue is someway down their list of political priorities. But it shouldn’t be. This issue underlies most other attempts to have any kind of progressive politics in an information age. We already have an economically globalized world. Political power is also increasingly globalized. Yet, what we have in terms of systems of accountability and transparency are tied to archaic systems of nation-states with their secrecy and corporations with their confidentiality. Yet for almost all the founders of the enlightenment, free information was crucial – whether it was for the operation of free markets or the success of politics. In other words, without transparency, there can never be a real global polity to hold the new global institutions to account. And then all your other political concerns will remain limited, local and without significant impact.

If you want a world where your political influence is limited to a level which no longer matters, then sure, don’t support Wikileaks.

But if you actually care about being able to have some degree of accountability and control at a level that does, then you absolutely should support Wikileaks against the measures being taken to destroy it. At least sign the Avvaaz petition. Sure, we don’t know what form any emergent global polity can or will take – and maybe one of the fascinating things about such an open, ‘Wiki-world’ is that no one person or group will be able to determine this – but we certainly know what the alternative looks like, and whilst it may not be ‘a boot stamping on human face forever’, it is most certainly a firm paternal hand on our shoulder.