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Surveillance & Society Alerts

New Issue:11 (1/2) Double Issue: Surveillance Futures

Hot Air on the Surveillance Industry from the UK

November 20, 2013

Privacy International has produced a much-needed survey of the state of the surveillance industry, following its other excellent report on the use of development aid to push surveillance technologies on developing countries. The British government’s response, voiced by the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls, Sir John Stanley,  has been a typically limp one, largely concerned with the possibility of such systems being sold to ‘authoritarian regimes’ yet blustered and talked of ‘grey areas’ when it came to Britain’s responsibility for this trade.

But this is all way too little too late. I warned of the danger of the increased technological capabilities and decreasing costs of ‘surveillance-in-a-box’ systems as far back as 2008 (see my post here which refers to that). Instead of taking horizon-scanning and pre-emptive action to limit this, Britain, the USA and many other states have encouraged this trade with state aid – as they have with military and security industries more broadly – and, not least, encouraged the use of surveillance on a global scale themselves. Their own extensive breaches of human rights through programs like PRISM and TEMPEST give them no real moral high ground to talk about what authoritarian regimes might do, when they are already pursuing the same actions.

Public Safety and Surveillance in Kinshicho

November 19, 2013

I paid a daylong visit to Kinshicho, where the latest Tokyo Metropolitan Police ‘supa bohan kamera’ (super security camera) video surveillance system was installed earlier this year, the first for a while (see here). The system is in the area to the south of the train station. It’s a curious place, a bit of a no-place or a neighbourhood in transition. A lot of the guides emphasize that Kinshicho is somewhat ‘dangerous’ but this is a bit of an overstatement even for Japan – it’s got nothing on Kabukicho – and certainly if you’re used to cities in countries with rather higher crime rates. Parts of it were certainly seedy and not places I’d hang about out of choice, particularly at night and especially if I was female, and its reputation for ‘gaijin bars’ (where Eastern European and Russian hostesses work) was certainly justified by the look of things. However most of it was just a shabby and forgotten place squashed in between railway, expressway and river. It’s also clear that, as I speculated earlier, the place is being gentrified, with huge, expensive-looking apartment blocks dotting the area and dominating the streets where they have sprung up, expensive shopping around the railway station, and the Sky Tree Tower is visible from almost everywhere.

The police video surveillance system itself was spread rather sparsely around the area. There was certainly not the blanket, all-angles coverage that there is in Kabukicho (there are only 17 cameras as opposed to 55). But sometimes the choices of camera location didn’t seem to accord with what I would have judged to be the most ‘dangerous’ spots. Something I will have to ask the TMP about later when I talk with them. Along with the new CCTV system, I noticed a strong police patrol-car presence and the police officers in the koban (police box) outside the railway station looked significantly younger and fitter than the average koban police, a sure sign that the police at least think that there is a threat here. However, in the absence of any actual crime, I witnessed officers harassing an elderly homeless woman who had been pushing her bike, loaded with everything she had, along a backstreet. They made her open up various bundles for no justified reason I could tell. I surreptitiously took a a few pictures without them noticing me. There were also a number of private security personnel and not just around station and new shop developments, as well as a lot of non-police cameras, some part of local government / shopkeepers’ association systems but quite a few just private. Again, compared to Kabukicho, the numbers of other cameras was small, and certainly not every car park and pachinko parlour was equipped.

I’m going to visiting again a few more times, and at least once at night, to make sure I’ve got a better feel for things. In the meantime, here are just a few of the (over one hundred) pictures I took.

SSN 2014 Barcelona

November 19, 2013



Thursday 24th – Saturday 26th April 2014

Contemporary surveillance is characterised by ambiguities and asymmetries. Surveillance results from different desires and rationales: control, governance, security, profit, efficiency but also care, empowerment, resistance and play.

Furthermore it can have both positive and negative outcomes for individuals and these may lead to intended or unintended consequences. Surveillance is never neutral. Surveillance is always about power and that power is increasingly asymmetric. Surveillance practices are also changing and as ‘smart’ surveillance systems proliferate utilising and generating ‘Big Data’ new forms of ambiguity and asymmetry arise. In this context the conference wishes to explore the key themes.

Check our registration guidelines and fees.

Please contact the conference organisers with any questions:

Watching Downtown Tokyo

November 11, 2013

So, I’m back in Tokyo until next April, revisiting the areas which I examined in 2005-6, where surveillance cameras have been installed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, and the wards where I did case-study research on community safety development in 2009 (see my posts in this blog from July to September 2009).

One initial impression is that the progress of video surveillance has not perhaps been as rapid as I would have thought, but it may be that this impression is mistaken. Certainly, the numbers of cameras deployed by the TMP have not increased rapidly. While I looked initially at Shinjuku’s Kabukicho district, where cameras were first introduced in 2002 and Shibuya and Ikebukuro (2004), they were also introduced in Ueno (2006) and Roppongi (2007). The numbers of cameras in these areas and the technologies in use have not changed greatly since their introduction: Kabukicho has 55; Shibuya, 20;  Ikebukuro, 49; Ueno, 12; and Roppongi, 44. The cameras are all in areas associated with the night economy – pink or ‘red line areas’, or what in the UK would be called ‘red light districts’ or places strongly associated with gang-related nightlife activities.

From then there was a gap and nothing happened until this year, when the TMP introduced a small number of cameras into an area they seem to have previously overlooked: the so-called ‘Kabukicho of the East’ – it’s even referred to in this way by tourist guides – Kinshicho in Sumida ward, still very much a rough, working class area. Kinshicho is apparently known for two things: gambling (on horse-racing – it’s not coincidentally the HQ of  the Japan Racing Association) and ‘gaijin bars’ (or hostess bars staffed by foreign hostesses). But, if one examines the crime maps produced by the TMP, Kinshicho is not a particularly high crime area especially compared to its western counterpart, Kabukicho, and there are other areas of dubious repute in Tokyo, so what’s behind this particular move at this time?


CCTV cameras at the Tokyo Sky Tree Tower (Hirotaka Kawakami)

This is simply speculation on my part, and I will be talking to police and others about this in the next few months, but Sumida ward is gentrifying. In 2006, the massive new Olinas shopping complex was built in the Kinshicho area, and then in 2012, the Tokyo Sky Tree Tower, the new communications tower for Tokyo, complete with associated shopping and entertainment complex, landed in Oshiage, just to the north. Shitamachi (literally ‘low city’ – or downtown) areas have become fashionable now and not just among tourists. But this nostalgic search for an older, ‘authentic’ Tokyo, usually that of the post-WW2 period, is limited to safe images of craftsmen, small shops, stand-up bars, street food, hard-work and propriety. Frankly, Kinshicho seems to be seen as an embarrassing throwback to a shadow image of the ‘bad old days’ of the shitamachi of gangs, gambling and the sex trade, that the authorities at least do not want associated with the new and more pleasant presentation they are seeking to create.

But the TMP cameras are only a small part of the story of public space video surveillance in Tokyo, and if one sticks to the police numbers, one would get a very misleading impression. For example, the Sky Tree Tower has been the focus of a major introduction of video surveillance through the main mechanism for public space surveillance in Tokyo, the 2003 Anzen Anshin Machizukuri Jourei (Community Safety Ordinance). This empowers neighbourhood and shopkeepers’ associations to introduce camera systems with support from ward governments and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. In Oshiage, a very large and locally controversial 77 camera-system was introduced from 2012, with most of the cameras (66) directly around the Sky Tree. Kinshicho also has its TMP cameras supplemented by an even larger number of non-TMP cameras – the Asahi article above claims 47 but it’s unclear whether that includes the TMP cameras or not.

The progress of community safety development is the main focus of my research here this time, so I’ll be visiting Oshiage and Kinshicho in the near future. And I’ll be writing much more about this method of crime control through development planning, as it will no doubt be a key feature of how preparations for the 2020 Olympics are made.

FAA includes privacy requirements for drones, but no enforcement

November 11, 2013

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 US  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.

Sky Net: Hunan’s video surveillance state

November 7, 2013

Never mind the smog that obscures the view from the cameras, China is pressing ahead with the construction of the most comprehensive and integrated surveillance of public space in the world. The latest report comes from Hunan province, where “26,022 cameras and 103 surveillance rooms” have been installed. What is particularly interesting, however is that the police intend to integrate “186,000 private cameras owned by residential communities, shopping malls and private enterprises” into the system. Whether this will be successful or not, given the vast differences in analog and digital systems and other compatibility and standards issues, is another matter, but few states have even tried to combine public and private video surveillance systems in this way.

Interestingly the case offered for the effectiveness of the system is as sparse as that to be found in the west, which is particularly strange given that it comes from the police themselves and they could have made it seem a lot more effective: apparently the cameras have “provided clues for more than 2,100 criminal cases” – or less than 1 for every ten cameras, and even more vaguely “has prevented and discouraged crime in some residential communities”. I’m sure that it’s worth the money to the state in terms of keeping a watch on political dissent and any sign of unofficial public politics however.

The punchline is the name of the system: “Sky Net”. Either the Hunan government are not great fans of the Terminator films, or they have a very highly developed and bleak sense of irony…

Through a glass, darkly…

November 6, 2013

There are many reasons why video surveillance (or closed-circuit television – CCTV) works less well than its advocates claim, and here is another to add to the list from China, the country with probably the most rapidly expanding surveillance infrastructure in the world, and the reason is: air pollution.


Low visibility in Chinese cities due to smog (South China Morning Post)

According to the South China Morning Post, the current record levels of smog in several major cities is leading to visibility of below three metres. It makes video surveillance, even with infrared or other night vision capabilities, useless, and there are no easy solutions.

The Chinese state is so paranoid about internal security, particularly following the recent apparent terrorist attack in Beijing, that it is even considering installing imaging radar systems, more normally found in battlefields and satellite systems.  Apparently, dealing with either the root causes of the pollution or the ‘security’ issues (mainly political discontent across China’s massive and diverse land area) is not on the cards, so China continues to stay on the surveillance technology treadmill…

(thanks to Matt Wei for bringing this to my attention)


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