Hoist by their own petard…

I always enjoy stories where those who advocate surveillance and say things like ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ are then caught by surveillance (see for example, this story). In the first place, it shows how bogus and hypocritical that insidious argument is, but in the second place, it can be just really funny. So this week’s amusing surveillance story is provided by a local TV story posted on YouTube, which supposedly shows a team of Lakehead, Florida, cops who were supposed to be raiding the house of suspected drug-dealer, indulging in a nine-hour Nintendo Wii bowlathon… all caught on the householder’s home CCTV system – and now spreading virally all over the world. Ooops…

There are serious issues here though. Of course there is the whole question of 4th Ammendment violation (if you are in the USA), but more generally it raises the question of whether the use of surveillance can itself become a method of resistance to surveillance and of holding the state, private corporations, and indeed other citizens, to account, or whether a society of mutual and reciprocal surveillance (or a ‘transparent society’, as David Brin called it) is one in which we want to live. As surveillance becomes more and more ubiquitous, and in the absense of mass citizen movements to tear down the cameras, it sometimes seems like the only option we have left.

Why Japan is a surveillance society

We met yesterday with member of the Campaign Against Surveillance Society (AKA Kanshi-No!) a small but active organisation formed in in 2002 in response to the Japanese government’s jyuminkihondaichou network system (Residents’ Registry Network System, or juki-net). plans and the simultaneous introduction of police video surveillance cameras in Kabukicho in Tokyo. We had a long and detailed discussion which would be impossible to reproduce in full here, but I did get much more of a sense of what in particular is seen as objectionable about past and current Japanese government actions in this area.

The main thrust of the argument was to do with the top-down imposition of new forms of control on Japanese society. This they argued was the product of the longtime ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s neo-liberal turn and has thus been some time in the making. It is not a post-9/11 phenomenon, although they were also clear that the G-8 summit held in Hokkaido in 2008 used many of the same forms of ‘community action’ in the name of preventing terrorism as are used in the name of anzen anshin (safety) or bohan (security) from crime in Japanese cities everyday.

However, they argued that this might be a product of neo-liberalism, but the forms of community security were drawn from or influenced by a much older style of governance, that of the Edo-period mutual surveillance and control of the goningumi (five family groups). (this is actually remarkably similar to the argument that I, David Lyon and Kiyoshi Abe made in our paper in Urban Studies in 2007!). Thus the mini-patoka and wan-wan patrol initiatives in Arakawa-ku were seen as as much a part of an imposed state ordering process as the more obviously externally-derived CCTV-based form of urban governance going on in Shunjuku.

Underlying all this was the creation of an infrastructure for the surveillance society, juki-net. They were certainly aware of the way that juki-net had been limited from the original plans, and indeed they regarded these limits as being the major success of the popular campaign against the system, however they argued that the 11-digit unique number now assigned to every citizen was the most important element of the plans and this remained and could therefore serve as the foundation for future expansion and linking of government databases. They pointed to the way that the passport system had already been connected.

Kanshi-no! were also concerned, in this context, about the development of plans for experimental facial recognition systems to be used in Tokyo (at a location as yet unrevealed). This would imply the development of a national database of facial images, and a further extension of the personal information held by central government on individuals.

So was this all in the name of puraibashi (privacy) or some wider social concerns of something else? Certainly, privacy was mentioned, but not as much as one would expect in an interview with a British activist group on the same issues. I asked in particular about the decline of trust and community. The argument here was that community and any lingering sense of social trust had already been destroyed and that CCTV cameras and other surveillance measures were not responsible in themselves. However, from an outside perspective it does seem that there is more of a sense of social assurance and community, even in Tokyo than there is in the UK. I do wonder sometimes when people (from any country) refer back to some time when some idealised ‘trust’ or ‘community’ existed, when exactly it was! Rather than a  particular time, it seems to be a current that either asserts itself or is suppressed of co-opted into the aims of more powerful concerns in particular times and places.

I asked at one point what immediate change or new laws Kashi-no! would want, and the answer was quite simple: no new laws, just for the state to respect the constitution which they said already made both CCTV cameras and juki-net illegal (although of course the Supreme Court recently disagreed).

(Thank-you to the two members of Kanshi-no! for their time and patience with my questions)

A juki-net footnote

I had a conversation yesterday (not a formal interview) with Midori Ogasawara, a freelance journalist and writer who used to report on privacy issues for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. This was mainly to set up further interviews with those who are or were involved with campaigns on surveillance and privacy issues in Tokyo. However I also managed to clarify a few of my own questions about juki-net and the opposition which it attracted.

In short, there seem to have been several objections.

  1. First of all was the objection to the idea of a centralised database, which was able to link between other previously separate databases.
  2. Secondly, there was the fact that this was the national state asserting authority over both local government and citizens. Both Local Authorities and citizens groups had argued for ‘opt-in’ systems, whereby firstly, towns could adopt their own policies towards juki-net, and secondly and more fundamentally, individual citizens could decide whether they wanted their details to be shared.
  3. The third objection was to there being a register of addresses at all. Many people saw this simply as an unnecessary intrusion onto their private lives, and in any case, the administration of welfare, education and benefits worked perfectly well before this (from their point of view) so why was such a new uniform system introduced?
  4. Next there were objections based on what was being networked. The jyuminhyo (see my summary from the other day) is not actually a simple list of individuals and where they live, but is a household registry. It might not, like the koseki, place the individual in a family line, but is still a system based on patriarchal assumptions, with a designated ‘head’ of the household, and ‘dependents’ including wives and even adult children.
  5. Finally, there was the question of the construction of an identification infrastructure. Whether or not juki-net is considered as an identification system, and it does have a unique identifying number for each citizen, and has the potential to be built on to create exactly such a comprehensive system of national identification. Lasdec, who we talked to the other day, may not approve of this, or believe it will happen, but they are only technicians, they are not policymakers and don’t have the power or the access to know or decide such matters. And in the end, if they are required by law to run an ID system then they will have to run it.
  6. There were, as I already mentioned, objections to the potential loss or illicit sharing of personal information. I don’t think this is intrinsic to juki-net, or indeed to database systems, but of course both databases and networks make such things easier. People are also quite cynical about promises of secure systems. Lasdec may say that that juki-net is secure, but there have been enough incidences of government data leaks in the past for people not to accept such assertions.
  7. Finally, Juki-net connects to the border, passport and visa system. The reason that foreigners will finally be included on the jyuminhyo (and therefore juki-net) from 2012 is not therefore to respond to long-term foreign residents’ requests for equal treatment but in fact to make it even easier to sort out and find gaikokujin, check their status, and deal with unofficial and illegal migrants. Groups campaigning for the rights of foreign workers (mainly the exploited South-East Asian and Brazilian factory workers) have therefore been very much involved. Of course it also makes it possible to connect the overseas travel of Japanese people to a central address registry.

I’ll be meeting Midori again soon, I hope, along with other researchers and objectors. I am also still hoping to be able to talk to officials from the Homusho (Ministry of Justice) and the Somusho (Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts & Telecommunications), but they are are currently passing around my request to different offices and generally delaying things in the best bureaucratic traditions!

Surveillance and Resistance

A great new issue of Surveillance & Society is out now on surveillance and resistance, guest edited by Laura Huey and Luis A. Fernandez.

Featuring great new articles…

  • David Bell – Surveillance is Sexy
  • Aaron K. Martin, Rosamunde E. van Brakel and Daniel J. Bernhard – Understanding resistance to digital surveillance: Towards a multi-disciplinary, multi-actor framework
  • Lucas D. Introna and Amy Gibbons Networks and Resistance: Investigating online advocacy networks as a modality for resisting state surveillance
  • Helen Wells and David Wills Individualism and Identity Resistance to Speed Cameras in the UK
  • Andrés Sanchez – Facebook Feeding Frenzy: Resistance-through-Distance and Resistance-through-Persistence in the Societied Network

With a special Review section on the UK House of Lords Constitution Committee Report, Surveillance, Citizens and the State, with responses by Oscar H. Gandy Jr. , N. Katherine Hayles, Katja Franko Aas and Mark Andrejevic

Opinion from Gary T Marx , and a poem from Rez Noir

…and lots of book reviews!

Australia gives up net censorship plan

Some good news for once. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the heinous plans that the Australian government had for surveilling and censoring the Internet have been iced. The plans would have introduced mandatory filtering of the Internet in Australia despite the technical impossibility and political and ethical objections. The fight over these proposals had been vicious with opponents even receiving death threats, but the side of both sense and liberty appears to have won an important victory.

Now, let’s see if similar good sense will prevail in other countries which are advocating similar, if not quite as extreme, China-style net-disabling proposals like the UK and Brazil

(Thanks to bOINGbOING who’ve been keeping us up to date on this one)