David Cameron doesn’t get it

David Cameron’s speech in the House of Commons today and associated comments, show that he has a really superficial grasp of what has been going on in British cities, mostly whilst he was on holiday and unwilling to return to demonstrate any kind of leadership.

First of all, he’s done the usual knee-jerk authoritarian and technophobic thing of blaming Blackberry and other messaging services. He has indicated that “Ministers would work with the police and MI5 to assess whether it would be right to stop people communicating via social network sites ‘when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality’, and had “asked the police if they needed new powers in this area”. When the Egyptian government cut off access to social networking sites recently, western governments were quick to condemn this as evidence that this regime was exactly the kind of authoritarian government that should be brought down. However, in Britain, apparently not. And closing down communications systems just because some people are using them to send messages you don’t like is several steps beyond things like wiretapping. It is a massive and idiotic overreaction. Let’s hope the ‘assessment’ is, in the end, more considered…

Another face-palming moment was provided by the appeal to US experts in gang culture. Now, no-one is going to deny that there were gangs involved in this, nor that gang culture is an issue in British cities. But, first of all, the US is no place to look if you want lessons on controlling gangs, or more importantly, how to create a society in which gangs seem like a less attractive option in the first place. And secondly, there is an assumption that UK gang culture is just like US gang culture, just because they are both gang cultures. Why not look instead to other European countries without significant gang problems and ask what it is about those societies that work? Unfortunately that is the kind of question that would lead to fundamental challenges to UK socio-economic policy, and that’s exactly why the questions and responses will remain superficial.

These kinds of things will annoy the libertarian right and the left respectively, however at the same time, the UK Prime Minister is taking some strange stances that threaten to alienate his own centre-right supporters, in particular in refusing to halt cuts to policing budgets already proposed as part of his austerity measures (never mind massive cuts to social services to inner city youth, which will also be pushed ahead regardless).

It’s hard to see who remains that he is appealing to here…

Blackberry and the London Riots

I’ve been in the papers and on radio and TV a bit in the last few days here in Canada, talking about the London Riots, both as a ‘token Brit’ and a surveillance expert. I’m happy to talk about my feelings as someone from Britain and I’ve made it clear to people that I am neither a technical nor a legal expert, but the conversation inevitably ends up in those domains and others which are really outside my expertise – and I’ve had to be careful what I say.

I’ve generally stuck to three lines:

1. That these riots don’t provide simple moral lessons, they are neither politically-motivated or just about ‘crime’, but they do have roots and implications which are profoundly political – this is about consumerism, class, inequality and exclusion.

2. That you can’t blame Blackberry. That’s like blaming the postal service for hate-mail. The problems for RIM here are twofold: bad public relations from being associated with rioting, and how much it is prepared to sacrifice the privacy of its users to help UK police in an effort to counter the bad PR.

3. That all the UK investment in video surveillance didn’t help stop these riots (see my previous posts).

People like Chris Parsons are the kinds of people that the media need to talk to about the technical issues, and there’s a really fantastic and detailed post from his blog here on Blackberry and security and privacy issues. On legal issues, there’s no-one better than Michael Geist on things like lawful access. His website is here. Michael writes a regular column for the Toronto Star and I was quite amused that when the Star called me yesterday, I had to remind them to talk to him about lawful access issues! The best sociological piece I have seen on the causes is from Zygmunt Bauman.

That said, here’s some links – There’s a podcast here on the Financial Post, which also has a good discussion with Tamir Israel of CPIC.

On the more social side here, syndicated in lots of local and regional papers.

And the usually strangely edited piece in my local paper, the Kingston Whig-Standard, here, also featuring my colleague, Vince Sacco.

New Report on Social Control

There is an interesting new report out from the Geneva-based organisation, the International Council on Human Rights Policy (ICHRP)*, called Modes and Patterns of Social Control. It has a lot of overlap in content and analysis with the book I am writing at the moment, which is great in that it means I am not alone in what I am thinking. The authors include a fellow surveillance CRC, Stephane Leman-Langlois, and Clifford Shearing, one of the pioneering figures in our understanding of surveillance today.

*disclaimer: I am an advisor on another ICHRP project on Surveillance and Privacy that has just started.

The Shock of Order: Building and Demolition in Rio de Janeiro

I may have been slightly worried about the most recent drugs war that was going on as I arrived, but as usual this appears to have been exaggerated by the press who largely serve the richer, middle-class community, and who appear to want to have their fears stoked on a regular basis. The ‘war’ is a trafficker conflict that involves traffickers based in the large favela of Rocinha, who belong to the Comando Vermelho (CV, Red Command) the oldest and largest of the prison-based umbrella groups of Rio drug traffickers, attacking another favela, Ladeira dos Tabajaras, whose traffickers are backed by the ‘Amigos Dos Amigos’ (ADA, ‘Friends of Friends’). This kind of thing is happening on and off all the time, but what made it a concern of the paranoid middle class in this case, was geography: in order to get to Ladeira dos Tabajaras, the Rocinha gang had to go through the rich high-rise area of Copacabana… to say that it is exaggerated is not to say that it is not dangerous: 8 people have so far been killed, but they are all traffickers and, I believe, all killed following police raids into the favelas.

It is probably no coincidence that this display of force by the Rocinha traffickers is happening just as the city government of Rio has started to implement a policy of the current Mayor, Eduardo Paes, known as ‘choque de ordem’ (the ‘shock of order’), which involves sorties into communities like Rocinha largely to enforce planning regulations by destroying recent illegally built constructions, which are pushing the favelas even further up into the hills. In the last few days, this policy has resulted in the demolition of one particular controversial building, the Minhocão in Rocinha. This was due to start on the 17th, but was halted by a judicial decision, before going ahead in recent days.

There is more than a degree of irony here. The purpose of these demolitions is supposedly to enforce urban planning regulations and ‘protect Rio’. The Secretary for Public Order, Rodrigo Bethlem, is quoted by O Dia as saying (in my translation):

“We cannot permit an entrepreneur to come into Rocinha to build and make easy money by exploiting people. We cannot allow Rio De Janeiro to be destroyed by speculators, who want to make money without following any rules and who aim only at profit.”

Yet, I only have to glance out of my window here to see the towers of the Centro, built by wealthy speculators, which have almost completely destroyed the beautiful Parisian-style boulevards and belle epoque architecture that used to be ‘Rio’. And turning the other way, the coastline it dominate by the secure condominiums long the beaches, which I am pretty sure were not constructed out of the kindheartedness of developers, and whose development no doubt involved corruption at higher levels of urban government. Looking uphill, I can see the often dubiously if not illegally-constructed houses of the rich that cut into the edges of the National Park.

Can we look forward to the demolition of all of these disfigurements of Rio? Of course not… and the reason is obvious. The demolitions in Rocinha are about power projection. Local state policy towards the favelas goes in waves that alternate between socio-economic solutions and violent authoritarianism. For all its negative aspects, many people who are concerned with social justice here recall with some nostalgia the progressive populism of Leonel Brizola who was mayor in the 1980s. His administrations installed infrastructure, built schools and improved houses in the poorest areas.

The current administration of Eduardo Paes is taking a very different and harder line, concentrating on law and order, a stance which was laid out clearly during the Pan-American Games when the police effectively occupied several of the favelas in an Israeli-style security operation. There would be nothing wrong with this if it were backed by some kind of progressive social imagination too – some favelas like Dona Marta, which I will be visiting later this week, have apparently been transformed through a combination of strong control and surveillance with real social improvements.

Instead there are apparently plans to further marginalise favela residents by building a wall along the major highway from the international airport into the city, so that all the city’s elite can feel so much more secure, and of course, visitors will not have to even see the favelas (some or Rio’s most miserable) which line the route… there’s more than a whiff of Israeli tactics about this too. Whether by building or by demolition, urban planning seems to be currently used as a weapon against the favelas and their inhabitants.

Surveillance in Latin America

For the last three days, I’ve been at the Surveillance, Security and Social Control in Latin America symposium, organised by Rodrigo Firmino at PUCPR (with help from Fernanda Bruno, Marta Kanashiro, Nelson Arteaga Botello and myself). The conference was the first to be held on surveillance in Brazil and will be the start of a new network of surveillance researchers in Brazil and more widely across Latin America.

All of the presenters had something interesting to say and I learned a lot from the event, however it is worth noting some individual presentations and sessions that were really insightful. There were great keynotes from David Lyon, Luiz Antonio Machado da Silva and Nelson. Two sessions stood out for me: one on Rhetorics of Crime and Media which had an exceptional central presentation by Paola Barreta Leblanc, a film-maker and currently a student of Fernanda Bruno’s. Her paper (and films) on the way in which we impose narrative onto CCTV images argued cogently that we see CCTV with a (Hollywood) cinema-trained eye and consequently overestimate (or over-interpret) what we are seeing. The other papers in the session were also good, in particular Elena Camargo Shizuno on Brazilian police journal of the 1920s and how they trained the vision of middle and upper-class Brazilians of the time through a combination of reportage, fiction, and advocacy. The session as a whole left me with many new questions and directions of thought.

The other really sparky session was on the last day and was on the Internet and Surveillance. The first paper was from was Marcelo de Luz Batalha on police repression of community and activist networks at the State University of Campinas, which linked nicely into concerns I have been following here on the surveillance of activist networks in the UK. Then there was Hille Koskela’s theoretically sophisticated and searching paper on the Texas-Mexico border webcam system (that I noted back in January) which explored the ways in which this participatory surveillance system both succeeded and failed in inculcating an attitude of patriotic anti-outsider watchfulness and responsibilization of citizens. Finally there was an interesting if not entirely successful film from Renata Marquez and Washington Cancado which used Charles and Ray Eames’ famous Powers of Ten, one of my favourite bits of pop-science ever, as an inspiration for an exploration of the uneven gaze of Google. They provoked some very interesting thoughts on the ‘myopia’ of the new ‘god-like’ view we are afforded through interactive global mapping systems. I think their approach could be very fruitful but it is still missing some key elements – having talked to them, I am convinced they will turn this into something really excellent. I have asked them and Paula to submit their work to Surveillance & Society’s special on Performance, New Media and Surveillance, because I think both are exactly the kind of explorations we are looking for. If Fernanda Bruno’s excellent paper on participatory crime-mapping has been part of this session, it would have been perfect! See Fernanda’s thoughts on the seminar over at her blog – she was also Twittering throughout the event but I’m afraid I just can’t get on with Twitter!

Other memorable papers included Danilo Doneda’s on the new Brazilian ID system, which sparked our post-conference considerations on where to go with this new network, which will probably be a project on Identification, Citizenship and Surveillance in Latin America. Nelson Arteaga Botello has already generously agreed to host the next symposium on this theme in Mexico City next March! Fernando Rogerio Jardim gave a passionate paper on the the SINIAV vehicle tracking pilot in Sao Paulo and I was most impressed with the careful Gavin Smith-style CCTV control-room ethnography by one of Rodrigo Firmino’s students, Elisa Trevisan, and Marta Kanashiro and Andre Lemos both gave insightful presentations too – I’ve already come to expect both care and insight from Marta in the short time that I’ve known her. I hope we’ll be able to work more closely together in the future. Let’s see…

The event as a whole was a great start for the study of surveillance in Latin America, despite the disappointing lack of Spanish-language interest. This is just the beginning, and the new networks of scholars here will grow. I was just happy to be there a the start and play a small role. As for my keynote, I took the opportunity to do something a bit different and instead of doing my usual tech-centred stuff, I gave a talk on the emotional response to surveillance and how this might form the basis for reconstructing (anti-)surveillance ethics and politics. I have no idea whether it really worked or what people got out of it…