Not Saussure

November 3, 2006

Technological fixes and the Surveillance State

Filed under: civil liberties, UK, War on Terror — notsaussure @ 12:05 am

Mr Eugenides sounds a timely alarm by juxtaposing the warnings from Sir Alec Jeffries, who developed DNA testing in the 1980s, about the spread of DNA data collection by the police, and from Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, that

technology is already being extensively and routinely used to track and record the everyday activities and movements of Britons, whether they are working, resting or playing

with the invocation by Dr John Reid of the contribution of British science to the defeat of the Nazis:

“Just as in the past people, like Barnes Wallis or Alan Turing or Tommy Flowers (computing pioneer), were vital in a technological battle to beat the then enemy, the Nazis, so we must be able to utilise the skills and expertise of all in our society in the battle against terror.”

The BBC continues,

The home secretary also proposed the creation of a new “innovation taskforce” to encourage security and technology companies to work together where possible.

Mr Reid added that it was essential to remain ahead of international competitors but also to pre-empt the “enemy who seeks our weaknesses”.

Following Mr Eugenides’ lead and comparing Dr Reid’s hi-tech solutions with, in particular, the Surveillance Studies Network’s report for the Informaton Commissioner emphasises some of the alarming implications of the Home Secretary’s latest quick fix.

For a quick fix it is; as the report argues (para 9.12.1),

Surveillance as the first port of call in response to any kind of problem is a strongly managerialist solution, frequently proposed to governments by management consultants who operate on measurement-based world views. Surveillance technologies therefore get promoted unproblematically as ‘the answer’ to multiple threats, most recently to the threat of terrorism. For example, one conservative American journal called for a dense urban infrastructure of automated software systems and micro-sensors: ‘Dispersed along roadsides, hills, and trails, they will report just about anything that may interest us—the passage of vehicles, the odor of explosives, the conversations of pedestrians, the look, sound, weight, temperature, even the smell, of almost anything’

This ‘conservative American journal’, City Journal, is perhaps deservedly obscure, but the 2002 article to which the Report alludes, ‘How Technology Will Defeat Terrorism’, is well-worth reading as description of what most of us would consider a nightmarish vision of total surveillance, mostly through the co-option of existing technologies already in use for other commercial or administrative purposes, such as collection road tolls and congestion charges; they describe with enthusiasm how, in Singapore

Electronic devices mounted on gantries above the road deduct the appropriate charge as the cars pass under them. Even systems as simple as these can be linked up to security networks, too, and can do much to enhance safety, because so much of security comes down to establishing identity and tracking patterns of conduct—just the sorts of things that the automatic toll collectors already do.

They’re advocating exactly what the Information Commissioner is warning we’re sleepwalking into, and exactly what Dr Reid seems to want for us; to put the Surveillance Studies Network’s quote in full context, City Journal describes with enthusiasm how

Manufacturers are now etching sensors alongside microprocessor, memory, and transmitter on a single semiconductor chip, and before long they’ll be able to build by the bucketload complete sensor moduleswith built-in laser, memory, and CPU—that are no larger than a grain of sand. Dispersed along roadsides, hills, and trails, they will report just about anything that may interest us—the passage of vehicles, the odor of explosives, the conversations of pedestrians, the look, sound, weight, temperature, even the smell, of almost anything.

Christ Almighty, this is even worse than Orwell’s vision of 1984; at least there you had some — possibly illusory — possibility of temporary escape from Big Brother:

They came to the fallen tree that she had spoken of. The girl hopped over and forced apart the bushes, in which there did not seem to be an opening. When Winston followed her, he found that they were in a natural clearing, a tiny grassy knoll surrounded by tall saplings that shut it in completely. The girl stopped and turned.
‘Here we are,’ she said.
He was facing her at several paces’ distance. As yet he did not dare move nearer to her.
‘I didn’t want to say anything in the lane,’ she went on, ‘in case there’s a mike hidden there. I don’t suppose there is, but there could be. There’s always the chance of one of those swine recognizing your voice. We’re all right here.’
He still had not the courage to approach her. ‘We’re all right here?’ he repeated stupidly.
‘Yes. Look at the trees.’ They were small ashes, which at some time had been cut down and had sprouted up again into a forest of poles, none of them thicker than one’s wrist. ‘There’s nothing big enough to hide a mike in. Besides, I’ve been here before.’

Crikey! Just imagine a romantic walk in the woods of a summer’s evening knowing that bucketloads of complete sensor modules were there — for your, and everyone else’s, safety and protection, of course.

City Journal also provide, unintentionally, an excellent case study of why managerialist reliance on such technological fixes is not only profoundly dangerous in itself but because it lulls you into a false sense of security and then lets you down horribly. Here they are explaining how

Most everything that’s shipped by UPS, FedEx, and even the Postal Service (if it’s dispatched through a postal meter rather than with ordinary stamps) is already bar-coded and repeatedly scanned while in transit. […]
The civil defense advantages are equally apparent: a package that begins in the hands of a trustworthy shipper like Amazon and is tracked carefully while in transit from New Castle, Delaware, to New York City
can be admitted without more ado into a downtown office building and opened with confidence. The by-mail terrorist invariably prefers stamps, a handwritten address, and a late-night drop into an anonymous mailbox.

Do you say so? Hmm. Here’s what the BBC reported recently

Captain Gary Boettcher, president of the US Coalition Of Airline Pilots Associations, says the “known shipper” system “is probably the weakest part of the cargo security today”.

“There are approx 1.5 million known shippers in the US. There are thousands of freight forwarders. Anywhere down the line packages can be intercepted at these organisations,” he said.

“Even reliable respectable organisations, you really don’t know who is in the warehouse, who is tampering with packages, putting parcels together.”

He added: “A package going from New York to Britain could have a bomb on it that is barometrically detonated so that when the plane descends down to British airspace the bomb goes off.”

That may sound fanciful, but the BBC uncovered further evidence it could be all too easy.

In June this year a Nigerian student called Olumwaseum Adeyemi was sentenced to 11 years at Kingston Crown Court for importing cocaine into the UK.

Mr Adeyemi brought pounds of cocaine into Britain unchecked by air cargo, transported from the US by the Federal Express courier company. He did not have to pay the postage.

This was made possible because he managed to illegally buy the confidential Fed Ex account numbers of reputable and security cleared companies from a former employee.

An accomplice in the US was able to put the account numbers on drugs parcels which, as they appeared to have been sent by known shippers, arrived unchecked at Stansted Airport.

When police later contacted the companies whose accounts and security clearance had been so abused they discovered they had suspected nothing

As Bruce Schneier so frequently warns, these technological quick fixes are so much snake oil; they infringe our privacy to an enormous extent, generate false alarms galore and cause the security folks to take their eyes off the ball; obviously FedEx aren’t going to tell you about this gaping hole in their security procedures — presumably they weren’t aware of it — so in City Journal’s scenario everyone would be happily opening their Fedexed Parcels without more ado and in complete confidence, while treating everything sent by the conventional postal services with great suspicion, until it — quite literally — all blew up in their faces.

Technorati tags: , , ,


Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: