Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Times Square bombings

There's a discussion article in the New york Times about the failed bombing attempt in Time Square the other day. It rapidly turns into an assessment of the value of video surveillance in counter-terrorism.

Richard Clarke is surprisingly stoic, suggesting that we shouldn't panic, or assume that this means counter-terrorist efforts are failing. Steve Simon falls into the 'even if CCTV doesn't prevent this, we should still have more of it' trap and then goes on to use the UK as a positive example of how the United States should deploy CCTV. His argument is based upon post-event investigation. The 7/7 bombing investigation, although it is frequently visualised with the images of bombers getting on a train to London, was much more reliant on other, less visual investigative techniques. Evidence from the UK also suggests that the evidence value of CCTV is pretty small. Other research suggests that if many CCTV cameras were people, they'd be legally blind. Michale Black and Paul Eckman get this somewhat, although the former is pre-occupied with calibrating cameras so that they can spot people who are already on some list or database of potential suspects. Noah Shactman highlights the ease with which camera surveillance can be avoided (by a potential terrorist - it's still pointing at the vast majority of innocent people moving through the city, who perhaps shouldn't have to hide their faces).

The effect of video surveillance is often taken as almost axiomatic by security policy-makers. Kevin Haggerty recently called this the 'post-justificatory moment' in surveillance - where there doesn't have to be an explanation or justification for how and why a surveillance technology will effect a social problem - it is obvious that it will. In this case, obvious that video surveillance with help to counter-terrorism. There is something about the spectacle of the visual that makes video surveillance particualrly strong in this 'moment' (although the database is almost equally powerfully accepted - as Oscar H. Gandy's most recent book shows). Schneier points out that video footage of the bombing attempt "make for exciting television, but their value to law enforcement officers is limited."

Schneier highlights the importance of focusing efforts on investigation and effective post-event response, rather than on trying to identify specific targets - this was a problem that emerges in attempts to build in resilience. Firstly, a strong case had to be made that a specific site was a target for terrorists, and that this risk was high enough to merit the extra costs of building in counter-terrorism resilience. This case could rarely be made, firstly because of the low incidence of terrorism (it rarely happens, the chances of it happening to particular given place are extremely low, outside of some very high profile exceptions) and secondly because of speed with with 'targets' can change. The worrying response here would be to attempt to secure all locations (which at times seemed to be on the agenda).

Update - this bombing attempting has already been called 'The NY FAILbomb' in part because it was rubbish; a 'Rube Goldberg contraption' made of propane tanks and fireworks, made by somebody with 'more desire than ability'.

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