The New Transparency project is coming to an end, and we are launching our major final report, Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada / Vivre à nu: La surveillance au Canada, in Ottawa on Thursday 8th May (which is also my birthday!). The report is being published as a book by Athabasca University Press, so it is available in all formats including a free-t0-download PDF. We want as many people in Canada (and elsewhere) to read it as possible.
The launch will be covered by the Canadian press and was already blogged in the Ottawa Citizen a few days ago.
A website with resources and summaries will be here very soon, and there is also a promotional video / trailer here in Youtube.
I’m privileged to be supervising some great students at all levels, but Jeff Monaghan is something else*. Not surprisingly for someone who previously worked with the awesomely prolific and engaged, Kevin Walby (now over in Victoria – who may be the young researcher I most admire in surveillance studies), he mainly uses Access to Information and Privacy requests (ATIPs – under Canada’s freedom of information legislation) as a basic method, and as far as I can see he is constantly firing these things off and sorting through them for revealing nuggets. Right now, Jeff is working in the way in which Canadian development aid, like that of many wealthy nations, is becoming increasingly entwined with a security agenda, what he calls ‘security aid’. Anyway, he’s in the news today because one of his ATIPs has revealed that Canada was engaged in planning for military intervention in Mali, of some sort, over a year ago, belying their apparent public reluctance to get involved right now.
A new report from the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) say that the industry is wasting billions on unnecessary and ineffective security procedures which are slowing down travel and damaging the whole sector’s economic prospects, according to The Guardian. This comes only days after the German government decided not to introduce body-scanners after trials showed them to be unreliable.
The argument is not particularly surprising, but there seem to be interesting aspects of the issue (apart from the basic human rights problems which we should never forget). The first is that clearly someone is benefitting economically, even if it is not the air transport sector, and that someone is the security industry – although as it happens, a whole range of people and companies have benefitted from the aftermath of 9/11. The Guardian article mentions that UK-based scanning company, Smiths, has tripled its profits this year to near $1Bn, despite the problems with scanners. However, it isn’t all bad. In European domestic and regional markets, airlines have lost out to railway travel, and this can only be a good thing in terms of environmental concerns.
The second aspect is that IATA is using this to push the revival of integrated ‘trusted traveller’ plans coming out of the USA. Many countries have bilateral schemes, but the idea is for travellers with ‘nothing to hide’ to submit personal information to a central body that would validate them without the need for time-consuming checks on the airport. So far, such schemes have been largely restricted to business-class passengers, raising the strong possibility of confusion between really improved security and simply buying more convenience. However, there is another problem from the point of view of security here too: one of the major concerns for security is so-called ‘clean skins’, terrorist who have never triggered any suspicion because they are either entirely new converts to the cause, or have been deep undercover for years cultivating an unblemished record.
In any case, it appears that the security companies are trying to get past the criticism by producing new seamless and less intrusive scanning technologies that would not require long waits and would be integrated into the architecture of airport corridors etc. Of course, the delays and inconvenience of obvious security and surveillance procedures have a purpose and are not just by-products. There is, theoretically at least, a consciousness-raising effect of what Bruce Schneier calls ‘security theater’. If these new gadgets work, and the German trial suggests that there is often more smoke than heat in claims about effectiveness, this effect would be diminished in favour of speed and convenience for an as yet unknown proportion of travellers and much greater inconvenience for the remainder. It’s an interesting conundrum for the authorities…
I grew up in Norway until I was about 7, and so it’s hardly surprising that I’ve been thinking a lot about the country and its people following the recent attacks. I’ve spent some time over the last few days reading the manifesto of the self-confessed killer, but I’m not going to spend any time going over that farago of confused reactionary stupidity here.
What I am primarily interested in is how the country reacts, especially as we are now coming up to ten years after the 9/11 attacks -and the world is still living in the aftermath not only of the attacks themselves but of the reaction of the US and its subordinates. Surveillance Studies, along with many other research fields has documented and analyzed the turn to righter security and increased surveillance, and the corresponding weakening of longstanding individual liberties and collective rights.
But, if Norway’s Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, has anything to do with it, Norway will not be going down the same destructive, counter-productive and vengeful path. Even though he himself and many people he knew were the targets of the attack, he has been emphasizing since that Norway should not compromise its openness and democratic values, on the contrary they should strengthen their commitment to those ideals.The New York Times today quotes him as saying:
“It’s absolutely possible to have an open, democratic, inclusive society, and at the same time have security measures and not be naive. […] I think what we have seen is that there is going to be one Norway before and one Norway after July 22 […] But I hope and also believe that the Norway we will see after will be more open, a more tolerant society than what we had before.”
Let’s hope so. My thoughts remain with the families and friends of the victims, and all the people of Norway. I’ll write more about the wider European reaction tomorrow or over the weekend.
Sometimes, little local stories give us the best insight into what living in a surveillance society is really like. This one is from a school in Virginia, USA. According to the local newspaper (via BoingBoing) a middle school student was suspended from school for opening the main door for a women who they knew who was unable to press the entry button because they had their hands full. The reason given by the school auhtorities is that the school has a secure entry system, in which people are supposed to press the entry button, look into a camera, and request entry. The student was suspended on the grounds that they were all supposed to know the rules, and that these rules were potentially of vital importance.
However this security-bureaucratic reasoning misses the key point that the child knew the adult concerned. Whilst security and surveillance systems are at least in part designed to respond to a supposed decline in social trust and an inceased ‘threat’ (which is very poorly supported by evidence anyway), there is good reason to suppose that placing what were previously matters of social negotiation into the hands of such ‘systems’, ‘rules’ and ‘technology’ further damages social trust.
Many questions then arise: what is this school, through this action and these systems, teaching kids about society? That security comes above all else? That no-one can be trusted? And that individual decision-making or social interaction is better replaced by impersonal systems? Surely, if education is the basis of the future of society, then what should be taught are the opposite lessons. This kind of subordination to systems is a form of training, of disciplinary control, not learning and education.