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Surveillance & Society Alerts

New Issue: 12(2) Big Data Surveillance, edited by Mark Andrejevic and Kelly Gates

The mundane costs of independent drones

June 26, 2014

It’s been an aim of developers for quite a while to develop more independently functioning surveillance drones that can fly around and recharge themselves in some way – whether it’s solar gliders in the stratosphere or, at street level, biomimetic bird-like micro-UAVs that can ‘perch’ and draw power from electricity cables. This was one of the original aims of the DARPA call that led to the creation of that beautiful marvel of engineering / dystopian nightmare surveillance tool, the Nano Hummingbird. If you are an engineer, this is certainly convenient and probably looks a lot like a ‘free lunch’ – there is certainly no mention of any possible costs or downsides in this piece on But as we all should know, there is no such thing as free lunch.

Firstly and most importantly, there’s the question of whether societies want either identifiable or camouflaged surveillance devices flying around us at all times. A mobile surveillance device essentially becomes even more independent and less limited by its construction if it can ‘feed’ itself. And while the US Federal Aviation Authority in particular has just recently put a bar on commercial drone delivery services (PDF), it certainly hasn’t prohibited other kinds of drone use, and many other national regulatory bodies are yet to decide on what to do, while drone manufacturers are pushing hard for less ‘bureaucratic’ licensing and fewer controls.

The second objection is less fundamental but perhaps more effective at igniting opposition to such devices. It might be that any single device would draw minute amounts of power from cables, but what happens if (or when) there are thousands, even millions, of these devices – flying, crawling, creeping, rolling, slithering – and all hungry for electricity? I would suggest that, just like the cumulative effect of millions of computers and mobile phones, this would be substantial and unlike the claims made for smartphones, this would be additional rather than replacing less efficient devices. And this is not including the energy use of the huge server farms that provide the big data infrastructure for all of these things. So, who pays for this? Essentially we do: increased energy demand means higher bills and especially when the power is being drawn in an unaccountable way as with a biomimetic bird on a wire. And unlike the more voluntary decision to use a phone because of its benefits to us, paying for our own surveillance in this way would seem to be less obviously ‘for our own good’ and certainly has the potential to incite the ire of ‘ordinary middle-class homeowners’ (that holy grail of political marketing) and not just the usual small-government libertarian right or pro-privacy and anti-surveillance left.


High tech class control

June 16, 2014

Watch this video from The Guardian on Camden, NJ. It’s ostensibly about police surveillance, and I was expecting to be outraged (once again…) at the use of over-the-top high technology – visual and audio surveillance – to deal with everyday crime.

But instead, what struck me was not so much the ostensible subject but the backdrop: the place itself. The areas patrolled by the officers in this film look almost post-apocalyptic. I’ve seen favelas in Rio de Janeiro that are in better shape, and many certainly seem to have more hope than this. Poverty and inequality in the USA, grounded in a history and present of racial and class exploitation, have become extreme. There’s no other way to put it.

And yet, outside of these places, which are everywhere across the USA, and ironically given the investment in technologies of visibility, the reality is invisible. The use of surveillance here is just a recognition of the lack of anything that amounts to a conception of a decent and fair society in practise, while people are still blinded by the noble goals of the USA as expressed in its constitution. This constitution means little to millions of Americans forced to live in these conditions, while being treated all the time as not even ‘potential criminals’ but simply ‘future criminals’, who will commit a crime at some point, and are destined for nothing more than to be churned through a carceral system that is in itself now a profitable and perhaps even essential component of American capitalism. However, this seems to have escaped the notice and concern of those who actually vote in elections and make decisions, whether they class themselves as liberals or conservatives, most of whom are so far removed from these conditions, physically and emotionally that they could not possibly understand.

This makes it even more bitterly ironic that The Guardian choses to title this report as ‘Minority Report meets The Wire‘, as if the only way to understand this is through fiction – that, somehow, it can’t be real. Yet here it is.


Toronto wins some smart city award or other

June 10, 2014

Lists and awards for cities are absolutely everywhere these days and the Smart City concept is no exception. More often than not, there are all kinds of bullshit and hidden (or completely bogus) methodologies and criteria involved, some of which make the process of awarding of the FIFA World Cup look almost accountable and transparent by comparison.

Toronto Waterfront

Toronto Waterfront

Anyway, this is all a prelude to noting that Toronto has been named the ‘Intelligent Community of the Year’ by the Intelligent Community Forum (one of a proliferation of similarly-named think-tanks and boosters). The basis for the award is not, surprisingly, the smart qualities of the current (rehabbing) Mayor, Rob Ford, but the widely criticised and apparently never-ending Waterfront district development. It may be soul-less and have zero concern for genuine inclusivity, good urban design and sustainability but, hey, it’s got great broadband:

“The district is building infrastructure that will provide 12,000 new residences with 100 Mbps broadband to individual homes, and 10 Gbps networking to businesses. The sponsors say they have already tested 400 Gbps speeds, with the goal of providing design and media companies in Toronto with the highest transmission rates in the world.”

This really doesn’t give me much confidence in the concept of ‘intelligence’ or ‘smartness’ that is embodied in such awards and assessments, however it does help to confirm that Toronto will be the Canadian case-study for my new research project on smart cities.


Why does the Internet of Things look so… crap?

June 9, 2014

Interesting article on the Guardian website this weekend, which highlights what seems to me not so much either the genuinely socially revolutionary or the threatening aspects of the ‘Internet of Things’ and smart everything, but the general lack of inspiration in so much of what developers are presenting as visions. But why does the Internet of Things frequently look so banal and so… crap?

There seems to be a pervasive failure of the imagination in many popular portrayals of the future, as if imagining the future is always an exercise in nostalgia. The future really ain’t what it used to be, back in the day when energy was going to be too cheap to meter, when we wouldn’t need to work and everything menial would be done by robots, when we’d all have our own personal helicopter (or even spaceship) and, of course, when there would be an end to war. The breakdown of that post-WW2 optimism and with it the faith in either (actually existing) capitalism or communism to deliver, hasn’t been replaced by revolutionary fervour or a brave new visions, but pathetic ideas like toothbrushes that tell us how well we’ve cleaned our teeth. The future is being created by an unholy combination of committees of marketing hacks and security wonks and we need to take it back…

Harper’s nominee for Privacy Commissioner must be challenged

May 29, 2014

The current Canadian government has been in a lot of trouble recently over nominations to various federal offices. It’s been accused of cronyism, overly partisan, inappropriate  and even illegal nominations to senior positions. Many have been rejected. It comes as no surprise then to find that Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has nominated someone who seems almost entirely inappropriate to be the next federal Privacy Commissioner.

The nominee, Daniel Therrien, has spent almost all his career as a government insider. If Therrien was a privacy expert, this wouldn’t necessary be an obstacle even to someone taking a job which is supposedly an arm’s length position, as much a watchdog on government as a government office.

If he was a privacy expert.

But he’s not.

Therrien’s experience comes mainly in corrections (prisons and parole offices) and latterly with immigration and border issues. He’s currently the Assistant Deputy Attorney General, Public Safety, Defence and Immigration Portfolio, at the Department of Justice. It is in this position that he has had some involvement with privacy issues, and in some ways, this involvement makes his nomination even more troubling.

Therrien was one of the leaders of the Canadian negotiating team that dealt with the privacy principles of the Beyond the Border Accord, the agreement that essentially allows the USA to extend its ‘perimeter’ around Canada (the original proposed version of the agreement was refered to as the North American Perimeter agreement).

So what do the principles say? Essentially they are a vague set of reaffirmations of well-understood data protection principles combined with the recognition of domestic laws. They don’t do anything specific or new. They certainly will not guarantee that sensitive personal information is not shared across borders or provide for genuine protection when they are. And it seems clear that while necessity and proportionality and data quality are all referenced, necessity seems to trump everything else. As the final principle on ‘Retention’ states:

“The United States and Canada are to retain personal information only so long as necessary for the specific purpose for which the information was provided or further used.”

But as we know from almost everything that has happened since 9/11, necessity is the mother of expansion.

In addition, most of the principles also use the phrase “in accordance with their respective domestic laws”, or similar. A paragraph on ‘Effective Oversight’ states

“A system of effective data protection supervision is to exist in the form of a public supervisory authority or authorities with effective powers of intervention and enforcement. These powers may be carried out by a specialized public information protection authority or by more than one supervisory public authority to meet the particular circumstances of different legal systems.”

Translated, this means “business as usual.” Canada can carry on having its system of Commissioners and the USA can carry on having its in-house Privacy Officers. This does nothing to resolve the issue of what happens when privacy laws and systems of oversight are in conflict or incompatible – as they frequently are.

The Prime Minister is quoted in the press release as saying: “­­­­­­­­­­I am pleased that Daniel Therrien has agreed to be nominated for the position of Privacy Commissioner. He is a well-qualified candidate who would bring significant experience in law and privacy issues to the position.”

I guess it all depends what one considers to be ‘significant experience’. He has some experience. But he is neither a privacy lawyer not a privacy expert by training nor has be become such by virtue of his career. And his limited experience is almost entirely in the context of the furthering of neoliberal trade and security agreements with the USA, it is not in domestic privacy protection.

Daniel Therrien may well have had an impeccable professional record. He may well be an excellent Assistant Deputy Attorney General. He may well be a good person. But none of those things are the issue here: Therrien is not “a well qualified candidate” to be the federal Privacy Commissioner. He could, like the current interim Commissioner, Chantal Bernier, legitimately be appointed as Deputy Commissioner in order to build up his qualification in the area. But as the Commissioner? No.

Luckily, this nomination is not a foregone conclusion. It must be approved by both the Senate and House of Commons, and Liberals, NDP and Greens have all voiced concerns already. I am adding my own voice to this in saying that this nomination must be challenged in the most robust terms. Personally, I also think it’s a great shame that the capable and directly experienced Bernier was not given the opportunity to retain the seat that she has only been keeping warm for the next Commissioner…

The Data Revolution

May 27, 2014

10309475_556761331111976_7897627149443974030_nI’m far from the only academic studying smart cities and big data-driven urbanism. One of the people who’s most inspired my work (in many ways) over the years, is Rob Kitchin – sometimes I even spell his name right! Rob has this fantastic new book, The Data Revolution, coming out in September from Sage, and very helpfully he has put the bibliography, and a lot of other stuff, online. This is the way scholarship should be. Too many of us still guard our ‘secret’ sources and keep our work-in-progress close to our chests. But if we want people to read what we do, think and take action, then more open scholarship is the way to go.

The Ottawa Statement on Mass Surveillance in Canada

May 22, 2014

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been working with Michael Vonn of BCCLA on the Ottawa Statement on Mass Surveillance in Canada. This statement was originally crafted on the occasion of the launch of the book Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada / Vivre à nu: la surveillance au Canada, at the ‘Politics of Surveillance Workshop’. This event brought together in Ottawa, Canada, May 9-10, 2014, an international group of academics and advocates to debate the various political, legal, social and technological strategies for challenging mass surveillance, protecting civil liberties and advancing democratic rights. I see this as a minimum set of demands that answers the question ‘what do we do?’ and about how Canadian government needs to respond to the Snowden revelations and the new era of big data and ubiquitous surveillance into which we are rapidly and blindly accelerating…

The Statement reads as follows (and you can also read and sign it here) (in English first, and then French):

Ottawa Statement on Mass Surveillance in Canada


We are entering an age of big data and ubiquitous surveillance. We know:

  • That governments and private corporations routinely collect and sort massive amounts of personal data for multiple reasons from national security to marketing;
  • That there is extensive targeting and profiling of individuals and groups on grounds of race and ethnicity, political and religious views, social class, age, gender, sexual preference and disability;
  • That Canadian privacy and data protection laws and regulations are regularly bypassed, undermined or broken, and are inadequate for dealing with information and privacy rights in the age of big data and ubiquitous surveillance.


We the undersigned are agreed:

1. That all levels of government in Canada must fully respect the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms including the right to privacy, freedom of thought and expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly, and security against unreasonable search and seizure.

2. That all proposals for changes to information and privacy rights must be presented, justified and debated in a transparent manner. No changes to information and privacy rights and statutory privacy law should ever be embedded in omnibus bills or otherwise hidden in legislation relating to other issues.

3. That the extension of ‘lawful access’ regimes allowing government bodies to collect and/or purchase and store personal data without specific judicial permission, should be halted. All such proposed changes must be subjected to tests of necessity, proportionality, minimality and effectiveness, with the burden of proof being on the government. In addition, security vulnerabilities in communications systems must be addressed and fixed rather than exploited by government agencies.

4. That the powers of provincial and federal privacy commissioners should be commensurate with the quasi-constitutional status of privacy law. Commissioners should have extended powers and appropriate financing and staffing, to initiate investigations, as well as react to complaints, and prosecute and fine state bodies and private companies for breaches of that law.

5. That all state security, intelligence, policing and border agencies must be brought fully under proper legal regulation, judicial authorization, transparency and democratic accountability. While it is necessary for the government to have some secrets and conduct some secret activities, this does not mean that these should be governed by secret law or exceptions from law. In particular:

  • That government agencies must fully disclose the legal definitions of the terms employed for surveillance, the kind of data they gather and the full justifications for surveillance and data gathering.
  • That the government must publically acknowledge all secret international security treaties, agreements and memoranda that require the sharing of personal data, affect free movement and personal security, or place Canadian state surveillance in the service of other sovereign states, international agencies or the private sector.
  • That the government must implement the recommendations of the O’Connor Inquiry into the case of Maher Arar1 including the introduction of integrated oversight and review mechanisms.

6. That negotiations for all new international treaties, agreements and memoranda, including international trade agreements, which might affect information and privacy rights, must be transparent, consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and privacy law, subject to parliamentary and public scrutiny, and if necessary referred to the Supreme Court.

7. That a full, transparent and participatory public process must begin to create a comprehensive legal framework for information and privacy rights and freedoms, built on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and acknowledging the United Nations’ reaffirmation of privacy as a fundamental human right.2


[1] Security Intelligence Review Committee, Report of the Events Relating to Maher Arar, 2006.
[2] UN General Assembly Resolution, Right to Privacy in the Digital Age, 2013


Déclaration d’Ottawa sur la surveillance de masse au Canada

L’époque qui s’annonce sera marquée par les mégadonnées et l’omniprésente de la surveillance. Nous savons :

  • Que les gouvernements et les entreprises privées font systématiquement la cueillette et le tri d’énormes quantités de données personnelles pour des raisons variées allant de la sécurité nationale à la commercialisation ;
  • Que le ciblage et le profilage des individus et des groupes en fonction de la race, de l’ethnie, de l’opinion politique et religieuse, de la classe sociale, du genre, de l’orientation sexuelle et du handicap est pratique courante ;
  • Que les lois et les règlements de protection de la vie privée et des données personnelles sont régulièrement contournées, sapées ou enfreintes, qu’ils sont insuffisants pour faire respecter le droit à la vie privée et le droit à l’information à notre époque de mégadonnées et de surveillance omniprésente.

Nous sommes d’accords pour affirmer:

1. Que tous les paliers de gouvernements du Canada sont tenus de respecter pleinement la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés, y compris le droit à la vie privée, la liberté de pensée, la liberté d’opinion et d’expression, la liberté d’association et de réunion pacifique, et la protection contre les fouilles, les perquisitions et les saisies abusives.

2. Que tout projet de modification aux libertés, au droit à l’information et au droit à la vie privée doit être présentée, justifié et débattu dans la transparence. Aucune modification au droit à la vie privée, au droit à l’information de même qu’aux lois d’accès à l’information et de protection des renseignements personnels ne devrait être insérée dans un projet de loi omnibus ou autrement camouflée au sein d’un projet de loi portant sur d’autres sujets.

3. Que l’extension des régimes dit d’«accès légal» permettant aux organismes publics de recueillir et/ou d’acheter et de stocker des données personnelles sans devoir obtenir d’autorisation et sans forme de supervision doit être arrêtée. Que toute modification de ce type doit être soumise à un examen visant à démontrer sa nécessité, sa proportionnalité, sa minimalité et son efficacité, le fardeau de la preuve incombant à l’État dans chacun des cas. En outre, les failles de sécurité dans les systèmes de communication doivent être corrigées plutôt qu’exploitées par les organismes publics.

4. Que les pouvoirs des commissaires à la protection de la vie privée, tant au niveau fédéral que provincial, devraient correspondre au statut quasi-constitutionnel des lois de protection des renseignements personnels. Les commissaires devraient donc jouir de pouvoirs étendus, d’un financement et d’un personnel permettant de réaliser des enquêtes, de donner suite aux plaintes, ainsi que de poursuivre et de mettre à l’amende les organismes publics et entreprises privées qui enfreignent la loi.

5. Que les services de sécurité, de renseignement, de police et de douane doivent être soumis à une réglementation, une autorisation judiciaire, une transparence et une reddition de comptes adéquates. Bien qu’il puisse être nécessaire pour un gouvernement de tenir des choses secrètes et de conduire des activités dans le secret, cela ne signifie aucunement que de ces dernières doivent être régies par des lois secrètes ou des exceptions à la loi. En particulier :

  • Que les organismes publics doivent divulguer entièrement les définitions légales des termes employés pour effectuer de la surveillance, le type de données qu’ils recueillent et les justifications complètes de la surveillance et de la cueillette de données.
  • Que le gouvernement doit reconnaître publiquement tous les traités, accords et protocoles qui exigent le partage de données, affectent la libre circulation et la sécurité personnelle ou mettent la surveillance de l’État canadien au service d’autres états souverains, d’autres organisations internationales ou du secteur privé.
  • Que le gouvernement doit mettre en œuvre les recommandations de la Commission d’enquête O’Connor sur les actions des responsables canadiens relativement à Maher Arar1, y compris la mise en place de mécanismes intégrés de supervision et d’examen.

6. Que la négociation de tout nouveau traité, accord ou protocole international, y compris dans le cas d’un accord commercial international, qui pourrait avoir une incidence sur le droit à l’information et le droit à la vie privée, doit être transparente, conforme à la Charte et aux lois sur les renseignements personnels, en plus de faire l’objet d’un examen minutieux de la part du public et du parlement et si nécessaire de la Cours suprême.

7. Qu’un processus complet, transparent et ouvert à la participation du public doit commencer à bâtir un cadre juridique détaillé pour les libertés et les droits relatifs à l’information et à la vie privée, reposant sur la Charte et reconnaissant la réaffirmation par les Nations Unies du droit à la vie privée comme droit fondamental de l’être humain.2

Notes de bas de page:

[1] Rapport sur les événements concernant Maher Arar, 2006.

[2] Résolution adoptée par l’Assemblée générale de l’ONU le 18 décembre 2013. 68/167. Le droit à la vie privée à l’ère du numérique.


Signatures (as of 22/05/2014):

Prof. David Murakami Wood, Dr. Jonathan Obar, Prof. David Lyon, Prof. Ron Deibert, Prof. Micheal Geist, Prof. Andrew Clement, Prof. Leslie Shade, Prof. Benjamin Goold, Dr. Monia Mazigh, Prof. Cindy Blackstock, Dr. Yasmeen Abu-Laban, Prof. David Grondin, Prof. Lisa Austin, Prof. Colin Bennett, Prof. Elena Razlogova, Prof. Christine Bruckert, Prof. Gabriella Coleman, Dr. Andrea Slane, Prof. Teresa Scassa, Prof. David Phillips, Prof. Maritza Felices-Luna, Prof. Martin French, Prof. Ian Goldberg, Prof. Randal Marlin, Prof. Laureen Snider, Prof. Valerie Steeves, Prof. Lori Stinson, Prof. Bryan Sacks, Prof. Dwayne Winseck, Prof. Benjamin Muller, Shawna Finnegan, Nadim Kobeissi, Sharon Polsky, Steve Chapman, Mathieu Gauthier-Pilote, Annette DeFaveri, Philippe Frowd, Dr. Brenda McPhail, Jennifer Barrigar, Ozgun Topak, Dr. Adam Molnar., B.C. Civil Liberties Association, National Council of Women of Canada, Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University, Amnesty International Canada, Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, FACIL, International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, Privacy and Access Council of Canada, National Council of Canadian Muslims, Privacy International, North American Association of Independent Journalists, Free Dominion, B.C. Library Association, B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, Pirate Party of Canada, Canadian Civil Liberties Association.



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