The Expanding Surveillance Net: Ten Years after 9/11
Queens University, Kingston Toronto
8th-10th September 2011
I was attending a workshop over in Canada last week. As it’s a workshop, full papers are not generally available (there’s are a couple of pdf papers available on the conference website, but they’re protected by a password). I’ll write a few notes here for those not able to attend. The keynote address and the first panel 'Government Control over Information Flows' in this post, and other panels to follow.
David Lyon (Queens University) opened the workshop with a keynote address, raising a number of issues about surveillance post-9/11 and identifying a few problematic trends. Asking if 9/11 was a ‘world historic’ event, causing the elevation of security to a top priority, or an international cue for a demand for security, he found it the start of intensification, an opportunity, a pretext, and reinforcement of tendencies that pre-existed the attack. These included seeking technological solutions for political problems, the declaration of the attacks as an act of war, with a military solution, and the engagement of corporate entities into partnership with government. This leads to a pervasive demand for personal data, military budgets taking on a surveillance emphasis, and the belief that exceptional circumstances justify these means. Systems were however, already in place before 9/11, but there was not the political will to join them all together. Lyon also highlighted the importance of fear in this political equation. Surveillance studies must scrutinise assumptions about surveillance, including those that are ‘shallow mantras and pernicious lies’ (nothing to hide, nothing to fear, for example), it must be aware of the ways collective mentalities operate, and have an ethical purpose in the revelation of the features of surveillance, and what is being done through surveillance. Pre-emption was important for Lyon, including early intervention, sorting, bringing risk discourses, actuarial discourse, and prudentalism into the blurred intersection between domestic and national security.
He spoke about the oxymoron of ‘total targeting’ which can only make sense in this type of atmosphere in which all are suspect. Another trend in the post 9/11 era is the lack of transparency of security and intelligence services (as revealed in the Washington Post by Dave Priest). This applies to international cooperation and data-sharing, an area that badly needs more oversight. In airports we have apparently moved from ‘checking objects’ to ‘profiling persons’. This was associated with the belief that techniques and practices are politically neutral and can be imported from abroad and implemented anywhere, and are therefore also suitable for export.
Lyon argued that there was nothing inevitable about the response to 9/11 and ways of acting. The current state is a combination of political and economic pressures, media amplified fear-mongering ordering concerns and persuasion. There is therefore a need to disrupt fatalistic or protected modes of surveillance. Security and surveillance are not ends in themselves. We should order priorities for technology, not the reverse, work to de-abstract data, and consider our attitudes to fear. Lyon again identified the importance of a concept of ‘human security’ (something I’ve written about previously here). We need to question the ‘in technology we trust’ mantra, and rethink information practices which require contextualising in the frame of human purposes. Introducing a culture of care for data and built in oversight would also be productive. Lyon ended by stating we needed to ask what society do we want, and build/work accordingly.
Workshop co-organiser Art Cockfield (Queens University) spoke about surveillance and the law, arguing that the combination of post 9/11 reforms and new surveillance technologies are turning government surveillance into law. He mentioned the recent privacy commission report ‘A Matter of Trust’ and drew upon the history of the state as an entity that watches, systematically and routinely. However the rise of the information state should also be considered along the lines of the rise of the safety state and the protective state (cited David Omand). Broad post 9/11 reforms have done three things: 1) encouraged pre-emptive info gathering and risk management, 2) relaxed standards for government searches, 3) provided enhanced resources for surveillance. This is combined with new generations of security and surveillance technologies, often produced by military testing grounds in lawless areas of the world. Drawing insight from liberal social contract theories, we should ask how does technology change previously protected interests (for example privacy). The security world, even with algorithmic surveillance, suffers from the problem of ‘drinking out of the fire hose’ (too much information to process, side effect of it spraying everywhere else?), and there might be a point in helping them to find the actual information which might actually catch bad guys rather than the perception that they need all information. Art concluded the point that law acquires a greater role when technology and legal change undermines social interests like privacy.
Torin Monahan (Vanderbilt University) spoke about ‘Fusion Centres’ a US DHS programme. These are new configurations of police, national security and private intelligence. Monahan has conducted interviews with fusion centre directors and analysts (and commented on the methodological considerations involved in this). Set up to combat terrorism, the role of the centres has expanded to a range of crimes and hazards, as part of justifying their existence to their local settings. The provide assistance to police investigations. Their location (within state law enforcement) are part of Monahan’s concerns in that the pick up local prejudices and concerns. Monahan terms the centres ‘centres of concatenation (playing off Latour’s centres of calculation) that embody larger networks, sharing imperatives and with ready access. Data is drawn together as needed, invested with meaning and communicated to others, then erased – leaving little or no documentation of the process (especially for ‘quick searches’ communicated via phone or email). As nodes they are largely passive, stressing detail over abstraction. The system was driven by the idea that a network (decentralised, information sharing, ‘need to share’) was necessary to fight a network. This network is physically embodied in a room of embedded analysts to facilitate information sharing with mostly free-flowing interaction. A large number of data bases are accessible from the centres, which also mobilise data from private aggregators that government might not generally have access to. The prevailing attitudes to this by analysts was that this was ‘just information’ and that they are ‘a channel’. The ambition was to be ‘Google, but for the police’. This involves some relaxation in standards and thresholds for engaging in surveillance. Monahan concluded buy suggesting security organisations acceding to imperatives of the surveillance society to collect, share, analyse and act on data. Centres of concatenation response and leave little trace, producing a zone of opacity as a shield from accountability.
David Murakami-Wood (Queens University) spoke about the dynamics of openness and closure in infowar, including the increasing reliance on open source intelligence but at the same time the restriction on open public access. He made the argument that beyond surveillance, there was a vitally important politics to the whole nature of communication, a conflict that would re-configuring left-right politics, but that was only partly a result of 9/11. He asked a number of questions. Firstly, is this just about states? Highlighting the agenda and role of private sector and networks as part of a broader political economy. He cited David Philips in relation to specific politics and choice being reduced to a range of corporate alternatives. Corporate norms such nymity, connection and transparency. There are similar discourses but very different ends. Secondly, he talked about changes to the military-industrial complex, now best thought of as a security-surveillance industrial complex. The post-cold war environment had long term effects in terms of shock and alternatives. The alternatives persisted and started to come together. 9/11 added information back into this. He draw attention to Mary Khaldor’s work on the ‘Baroque Arsenal’ of the cold war – vast, complex, unworkable weapons systems that even their operators do not fully understand. Thirdly, we can’t just look at the USA and allies, but also to China and Chinese norms of information control, analysts, security and corporations that has nothing to do with 9/11 (unless leveraged rhetorically).Emerging economies engage in security by with different norms and reasons. Some of these may be major challenges to US imperialism in the long term perspective. China is both a resource (a corporate learning experience) and a threat. There is increasing innovation in online surveillance inconceivable in another environment – deep packet analysis, and projects out of DARPA, to looking at behaviour in World of Warcraft to try and detect terrorist activity. There are also international interconnections, making state arguments self-referential and self-reinforcing, flowing from the EU to Canada to the US, competition between states on law and economy, as well as secret bilateral and international arrangements.
Murakami-Wood highlighted a number of trends in this information war. Data warehousing, in which intelligence agencies attempt to fix uncontainable flows to take a picture of them. We shouldn’t over-exaggerate this, it almost never works properly, but there are drives by private innovators. Web Censorship, used to prevent certain types of communication, is reframed for use in western liberal democratic countries, look to the control of social media in the Arab spring and London riots, leaving a thin line between lawful access and censorship. Data flows, ‘national security’ is misleading in an environment of international flows and information sharing arrangements between intelligence agencies, as well as campaigns around intellectual property. He also identified fears of an ‘open source insurgency’. The Hacker Fight-back: wikileaks places transparency and accountability in the same field as surveillance and control, with the need to focus on what benefits us. There is possibility for a massive kickback. This includes pirate parties where information is the primary reason for their politics, not an addendum, as well as groups like anonymous and Lulzsec, where previously anti-political hackers become anti-state and anti-corporate. This can all be rebadged as ‘cyber terrorism’, but is also the beginning of a politics of communication – the security environment serves to crystallise debate. Murakami-Wood believes we are starting to move beyond the era of 9/11 being all that matters.