Saturday, 5 June 2010

Surveillance in Wired - July 2010

I've got a subscription to Wired magazine. This might be very old fashioned way to access the content - in physical form, but I like it. I'm a big fan of the magazine (and it's various websites - especially the Danger Room and Threat Level blogs), especially now that it has a UK edition. It's pretty useful for keeping a handle on tech culture issues and developments.

and it's all about surveillance.

Well, it's not. This may just be the way that I'm reading it, with a particular interest and motivation, and a tendency to see surveillance issues in many things. However, there is a strong association between information technology and surveillance, which has been remarked on by many. Wired occasionally investigates the surveillant dimension of information technology head on, and at other times it comes up as part of a story written from a different perspective. Given the subscription, I thought I might pull out some of these topics, with a little commentary from each issue.

You're being tracked - Amber Marks (34-35) a neat graphic example of various attempts to create 'malevolent intent' detection - a lot of these coming from various university departments. These things thing that by detecting some sort of 'leaky signal' from the body, that you can spot somebody who is up to something malicious. Or more likely, the vastly more numerous population of people who are stressed, angry, upset, tired, late for work etc. Amber's the author of HeadSpace.

Shred the Evidence - Guy Martin (p.124-133)
An examination of attempts to digitally recover and re-create the shredded archives of post-soviet Eastern European secret police and intelligence services, including in East Germany and the Czech republic. These archives were truely massive. Whilst the article focuses upon the technical challenge of pulling thousands of sacks of shredded paper and mangled digital tape into something readable and searchable, there is some analysis of the way that this reconstruction is threatening to those people who had been state agents during the Soviet era, who may still be involved in political life. Its an interesting issue because of the competing imperatives of privacy (the archives were created as a tool of control, and probably contain a lot of information on the subjects of state surveillance), and the desire to undestand how the various systems of oppression and control functioned, and the desire to bring to justice those who participated in them (finding out who the agents were and what they did). The plans to open up certain archives in a fully searchable web-accessible form is interesting, as is the worry that the published databases are being hoovered up by the still functioning intelligence services of other states. Not mentioned in this article is the historical reality of the way that databases and files from one regime are often appropriated and used by their successors, conquerers, or 'liberators'. I was recently told how start up private military contractors in Iraq worked very rapidly to acquire records from Iraqi state ministries following the fall of the Sadam regime, upon which they started to develop databases now used for vetting Iraqi workers on US bases.

Space Jam - Evan Schwartz (pg.100-103) In this article about the sheer amount of junk floating in orbit around the earth (or rather hurtling around it at extremely high speed), and various attempts to remove some of it, we learn about the 'Space Surveillance Network' a USA military unit run by the Joint Space Operations Centre, whose job is to track as much of this space debris spinning around the planet as they can, to try and anticipate the major potential collisions. It's a nice little account of surveillance of the non-human (although with implciations for our use of space for communication, navigation, mapping etc). The 'big sky theory' (the idea that space is big (very big) so it doesn't matter what you dump in it, is a mistake with hindsight, but aren't we sort of still treating the sea in this way?

The Great Check-in Battle - Neal Pollack (pg92-97)
looks at the competion between location based social networking services (Gowalla and Foursquare) . Not read all of this yet, but there are clear surveillance implications for the increase in location-based services, and the sort of self-monitoring and revelation to friends pushed through a centralised social network service, that presumably gets its market share from doing something with that data, which mirrors what we've seen with facebook, but with an increased spatial component. John Battelle writes about how the 'check-in' adds an extra layer of detail to collected models of intention (the search, the purchase, the query, the social graph and the the status update).

A Robot that Spies (pg80) - a wi-fi controllable spy robot with webcam, microphone speaker etc. Controllable over the net, and even works as a VOIP phone. Can I have one of these please?

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