High tech class control

Watch this video from The Guardian on Camden, NJ. It’s ostensibly about police surveillance, and I was expecting to be outraged (once again…) at the use of over-the-top high technology – visual and audio surveillance – to deal with everyday crime.

But instead, what struck me was not so much the ostensible subject but the backdrop: the place itself. The areas patrolled by the officers in this film look almost post-apocalyptic. I’ve seen favelas in Rio de Janeiro that are in better shape, and many certainly seem to have more hope than this. Poverty and inequality in the USA, grounded in a history and present of racial and class exploitation, have become extreme. There’s no other way to put it.

And yet, outside of these places, which are everywhere across the USA, and ironically given the investment in technologies of visibility, the reality is invisible. The use of surveillance here is just a recognition of the lack of anything that amounts to a conception of a decent and fair society in practise, while people are still blinded by the noble goals of the USA as expressed in its constitution. This constitution means little to millions of Americans forced to live in these conditions, while being treated all the time as not even ‘potential criminals’ but simply ‘future criminals’, who will commit a crime at some point, and are destined for nothing more than to be churned through a carceral system that is in itself now a profitable and perhaps even essential component of American capitalism. However, this seems to have escaped the notice and concern of those who actually vote in elections and make decisions, whether they class themselves as liberals or conservatives, most of whom are so far removed from these conditions, physically and emotionally that they could not possibly understand.

This makes it even more bitterly ironic that The Guardian choses to title this report as ‘Minority Report meets The Wire‘, as if the only way to understand this is through fiction – that, somehow, it can’t be real. Yet here it is.


FAA includes privacy requirements for drones, but no enforcement

The US Federal Aviation Authority released a roadmap for the introduction of drones (UAVs) into US airspace (PDF) last week. Whether it happens this way or not is a moot point as previous deadlines have been consistently missed. However, they also released a list of requirements for meeting privacy standards (PDF).

Mark Calo in Forbes says that the FAA’s plan for privacy from drone surveillance is ‘pretty sensible’, which it is if you consider that the FAA’s primary job is, as it repeats in response to comments demanding great privacy protections throughout the document, “to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.” Marc Rotenberg has pointed out, the problem is that it wasn’t their plan but the result of external pressure from EPIC and ACLU and others.

However, the broader question is whether the FAA is the correct institution to be overseeing this process of the introduction of a technology whose main purpose is surveillance. The overall context for this is the enthusiastic support for the rollout of drones offered by the roadmap. As the FAA keeps saying, it is not a privacy regulator. Not surprisingly, this is not an organisation that has any real overall scepticism, let alone any critical attitude to what it sees primarily as aviation technologies. But of course the US doesn’t have a single independent privacy regulator as such. Even so, the FAA has conceded at least that it has some responsibility here and is insisting that operators have a publicly-accessible privacy policy, that they report annually on compliance, and that they observe relevent laws (without specifying in much detail what those are). However, the FAA won’t be actively monitoring this, let alone enforcing it or sanctioning misconduct. For example, it won’t be suspending or removing operator’s licenses if they don’t comply with their requirements, unless the Department of Justice or another law enforcement agency actually files charges against the operator. So the requirements are weak and lack teeth.

The right time to intervene to strengthen human rights in relation to threats to those rights posed by new technologies is always before they are introduced. If this is not done then the widespread use of those technologies can shift what people understand as ‘normal’ and reduce expectations of privacy (and other rights). And it is much more difficult to legislate in retrospect. We’ve seen this with public space CCTV. In other words, while technologies do not determine social relations, they will interact with people, individually and in groups, in both positive and negative ways, and the job of politics and of policy is to ensure that the positive effects are maximized and the negative ones, minimized*. This means federal regulation. However, given the way in which the USĀ  favours private over state intervention, it’s not surprising that this is not a popular way of dealing with things there.

What will result from the FAA’s weak set of privacy requirements in drone operations without real oversight is privacy protection as a bureaucratic box-ticking exercise.

*It should also be noted that this includes the possibility of not allowing any particular technology to be used in public space if the latter cannot be minimized to a level that not be harmful to socially desirable goals. Not enough attention is paid to the possibility of just saying ‘no’ to the public use of any particular technology.

Surveillance as ‘Solution’

In his book, To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov called the predominant contemporary technocentric politics, ‘solutionism’. Surveillance may be one of the best contemporary examples of this trend, at least many surveillance technologies are promoted as a technological solution to some problem whose roots are in way ‘technological’ but social and economic, and therefore whose resolution, equally, must be social and economic.

What got me thinking about this (again) was a little puff-piece in the Ottawa Citizen today, which presented panoramic thermal imaging as the ‘solution’ to the monitoring of the US-Canada border. Now, in recent history the formerly largely unguarded US-Canada has not really presented much of a problem to anyone. However, post-9/11 paranoia has recast the border as a source of threat, not least because of the widely believed myth that some of the hijackers entered the US through Canada. Whether propagated deliberately or through sheer ignorance, this myth has served to harden the US-Canadian border for ordinary people, and especially people of colour, at the same time as the economic liberalization of North America proceeds ‘beyond the border’ (to use the name of the Obama-Harper initiative).

However, the piece in the Citizen isn’t about security as such, but about drugs, and largely marijuana trafficking. This, let us not forget, is at a time when the failures of prohibition are increasingly recognised, when the Organization of American States has published a major report arguing for the decriminalization of the illicit drugs trade in order to better regulate it, and when Canadian police themselves don’t really bother with enforcing existing laws when it comes to marijuana, and Uruguay and several US states have actually voted to legalize it. Surveillance on this context is a ‘solution’ not only to a ‘problem’ that is essentially a legal artifact but one that is a counter-productive and pointless waste of resources which leads to the unnecessary prosecution and demonification of many people.

Where this comes back to 9/11 is that the war on terror has served to ‘securitize’ a lot of these social problems. It does matter that a particular law is ineffective and on the way out, the trade in illegal drugs is bundled together with terrorism and other threats under the rubric of security, and therefore the border is ‘insecure’*. In this context, the manufacturers are able to step forward with technological ‘solutions’ and rather than being laughed out of town, or condemned for overreacting, they are taken seriously by the media and policymakers.

*it should be noted that this process didn’t start with 9/11: ‘narcoterrorism’ was a catchword in US policy in South America for some time before. As Armand Mattelart has argued, in these counter-insurgency operations carried out under the banner of the war on drugs, we see the beginnings of many of the tactics that have become more widespread since 9/11.

‘Turning Off’ the Internet

Boing Boing contributors have been doing a fascinating job of documenting the place of the Internet and social media in the ongoing turmoil spreading across Arabic countries. Until recently the focus had been on the use of social media tools by activists, but in the last few days, the empire has struck back. In particular the Egyptian state has effectively ‘turned off’ the Internet, cutting Net access and communications between Egypt and the rest of the world.

What’s particularly interesting is that the rulers of western ‘democracies’ seem to want similar powers. I’ve been writing about the growing movement amongst states to develop powers to split or close the Internet entirely for some time (see here, here and here, for example). Most recently, I reported on French efforts to develop Internet censorship power in wide-ranging circumstances, and as Sean Bonner on BB points out, a bill was introduced into Congress last year by, it’s that man again, Joe Liebermann, to give the USA government even greater powers to cut off civilian access to the Net entirely in the event of a ‘cyber-emergency’.

This is not a drill, people, this is happening…

US border project cancelled… or is it just mutating?

Neoconopticon is reporting that the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) project is to be shelved and replaced with off-the shelf surveillance equipment (UAVs etc.).

The project which was based on contracts with Boeing and Raytheon, had been in trouble for some time. I reported back in 2009 how Boeing had basically wasted most of the money on the Mexican border projects on systems that didn’t work. Neoconopticon gives the figure of $3.7Bn for the project, but in fact estimated costs for the longer-term maintenance just of the Mexican fence component had spiralled to over $10Bn.

The original source for this news, Defence Industry Daily, has a good timeline.

I am left wondering however about whether this cancellation might have anything to do with the discussions that were recently revealed on the North American Perimeter project, which I blogged back in December last year. A complete North American perimeter might reduce the pressure to add further security to the US-Canadian border at least, and Canadian government funds and people could be leveraged by the US, as they were during the Cold War with the DEW Line and BMEWS. A summit on the issue between US President, Barack Obama, and Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, had been scheduled for January and was recently pushed back into February, which has given time for the decision on the cancellation of the SBI.

This could all be coincidence, but it is certainly interesting timing…