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Surveillance & Society Alerts

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


November 5, 2013

I’m very interested in the way in which surveillance and control appear at the intersection of material and virtual worlds, and a topic that has been appearing in marketing articles recently, ‘geofencing’ is causing me some concern. According to Wikipedia (as of 213/11/05), a geo-fence is a virtual perimeter for real-world geographic areas. It seems to be largely connected to mobile commerce and the ongoing desire of marketers to be able to sell to capture customers dynamically, on the move in real-time (see also the piece by myself and Kirstie Ball on ‘Brandscapes of Control’ from earlier this year). There have also been uses of this kind of technology in parole-violation monitoring and child-protection, where alerts can be sent if a device carried by the users strays outside a certain area.

However there is also another aspect of geofencing that works slightly differently: this has been highlighted recently by Russia Today, which reported on discussion at the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference into attempts by US police departments, hardware manufacturers and service providers to block users from certain services based on geographical location or particular events. This would essentially make the kinds of actions taken by the Egyptian authorities during the Arab Spring in closing Internet access more dynamic and targeted. So, the example used by RT is protestors trying to organize using Facebook could find that they were unable to access the social media site in particular places etc.

As we use the Internet and Social Media more in more intimate ways to organize all aspects of our lives, the question of not just monitoring but restriction becomes ever more pertinent. If the tracking of objects and people in real-time in order to permit (and speed up) or restrict (or slow down) flows, is one of the key current goals of surveillance, then this interface between virtual and material becomes particularly important and one to which we need to pay a lot more attention.


Surveillance as ‘Solution’

November 1, 2013

In his book, To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov called the predominant contemporary technocentric politics, ‘solutionism’. Surveillance may be one of the best contemporary examples of this trend, at least many surveillance technologies are promoted as a technological solution to some problem whose roots are in way ‘technological’ but social and economic, and therefore whose resolution, equally, must be social and economic.

What got me thinking about this (again) was a little puff-piece in the Ottawa Citizen today, which presented panoramic thermal imaging as the ‘solution’ to the monitoring of the US-Canada border. Now, in recent history the formerly largely unguarded US-Canada has not really presented much of a problem to anyone. However, post-9/11 paranoia has recast the border as a source of threat, not least because of the widely believed myth that some of the hijackers entered the US through Canada. Whether propagated deliberately or through sheer ignorance, this myth has served to harden the US-Canadian border for ordinary people, and especially people of colour, at the same time as the economic liberalization of North America proceeds ‘beyond the border’ (to use the name of the Obama-Harper initiative).

However, the piece in the Citizen isn’t about security as such, but about drugs, and largely marijuana trafficking. This, let us not forget, is at a time when the failures of prohibition are increasingly recognised, when the Organization of American States has published a major report arguing for the decriminalization of the illicit drugs trade in order to better regulate it, and when Canadian police themselves don’t really bother with enforcing existing laws when it comes to marijuana, and Uruguay and several US states have actually voted to legalize it. Surveillance on this context is a ‘solution’ not only to a ‘problem’ that is essentially a legal artifact but one that is a counter-productive and pointless waste of resources which leads to the unnecessary prosecution and demonification of many people.

Where this comes back to 9/11 is that the war on terror has served to ‘securitize’ a lot of these social problems. It does matter that a particular law is ineffective and on the way out, the trade in illegal drugs is bundled together with terrorism and other threats under the rubric of security, and therefore the border is ‘insecure’*. In this context, the manufacturers are able to step forward with technological ‘solutions’ and rather than being laughed out of town, or condemned for overreacting, they are taken seriously by the media and policymakers.

*it should be noted that this process didn’t start with 9/11: ‘narcoterrorism’ was a catchword in US policy in South America for some time before. As Armand Mattelart has argued, in these counter-insurgency operations carried out under the banner of the war on drugs, we see the beginnings of many of the tactics that have become more widespread since 9/11.

Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1954

October 30, 2013

Long-term readers of this blog (if there are any left after my infrequent posting over the last two years) will recall that I’m very interested in the different adaptations of Nineteen Eighty-Four, that have been produced over the years (see here and here, for example).


However, for those who have seen it, the 1954 BBC version of George Orwell’s novel, subtitled ‘The Last Man in Europe’ (one of Orwell’s original possible titles for the book) and starring Peter Cushing, is often mentioned as the most faithful and closest in ‘feel’ to the book, produced as it was, so close in time to the immediate post-war era of ruins and rationing by which the book was at least partly inspired. There were several big technical problems with this version, and these, combined with political and commercial interference over the years by government and the producers of other film versions have conspired to mean that it has been very infrequently reshown. However, there is a fantastic version happening right about now in London produced by Horse Hospital, which uses original visual material combined with a new soundtrack by electronic composer, Zbigniew Karkowski. I wish I could be there…

*Thanks to Atau Tanaka for noting this one.

Japan and the NSA

October 29, 2013

I’ve been combing media for any mention of Japan’s involvement with the NSA, and so far, as I noted a while back, there hasn’t been any. But finally an agency story came out recently, reported in the Japan Times and this is what it said:

The U.S. National Security Agency sought the Japanese government’s cooperation in 2011 over wiretapping fiber-optic cables carrying phone and Internet data across the Asia-Pacific region, but the request was rejected, sources said Saturday.

The agency’s overture was apparently aimed at gathering information on China given that Japan is at the heart of optical cables that connect various parts of the region. But Tokyo turned down the proposal, citing legal restrictions and a shortage of personnel, the sources said.

“The NSA asked Tokyo if it could intercept personal information from communication data passing through Japan via cables connecting it, China and other regional areas, including Internet activity and phone calls, they said.

Faced with China’s growing presence in the cyberworld and the need to bolster information about international terrorists, the United States may have been looking into whether Japan, its top regional ally, could offer help similar to that provided by Britain, according to the sources.

Based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, British newspaper The Guardian reported that the agency had been sharing data intercepted by Britain’s spy agency, GCHQ, through transatlantic cables since 2011.

But Tokyo decided it could not do so because under current legislation, it cannot intercept such communications even if the aim is to prevent a terrorist act. Japan also has a substantially smaller number of intelligence personnel, compared with the NSA’s estimated 30,000 employees, the sources said.

A separate source familiar with intelligence activities of major nations said the volume of data that would need to be intercepted from fiber-optic cables would require a massive number of workers and the assistance of the private sector.”

(Kyodo News Agency in Japan Times)

I’m not sure who the ‘sources’ are, but they are either practicing the art of disinformation or they simply don’t know what they are talking about. The basic data gathering and processing is done by automated systems not human beings. And, as to what special ‘permissions’ the NSA needs, I’m not sure why they need more than they already have under the existing secret agreements. I can only guess that this is a pre-emptive story that is designed to assuage any public or political concern in advance of possible information being released by Greenwald and Snowden in the same vein as that recently released about Brazil, Germany and Spain.

If you see this alongside the new law that has been introduced into the Japanese Diet by the current government that would extend government secrecy in Japan (including longer sentences for whistleblowers – more about this tomorrow) then it seems pretty clear that Japan is still one of the USA’s most loyal subjects not a nation that can say ‘no’.

Why I’m finished with Facebook

October 11, 2013

In changing its rules so that we can no longer exlude our private data from searches, Facebook has now gone too far down the lines of exploiting our apathy and/or good will, and I will very soon be deactivating my Facebook account. This has been a long road, and Facebook has gradually encroached further and further on the unacceptable in its quest to squeeze every possible drop of commercial value out of the personal data of its users.

It’s always difficult to leave a system that feels as if it has become central to your social life, but this is exactly the feeling that Facebook relies on for its users not to leave, however much they exploit them. As Kirstie Ball and I wrote in our piece ‘Brandscapes of Control’ earlier this year:

“It should be recognised… that brandscapes remain both an emerging apparatus and an attractive apparent solution to risk and complexity in a world where data underpins everything from purchase to social relations, and where those data are too numerous and complex for any individual to parse. Thus it is not so much a ‘logic prison’ (Mitchell, 2003) but, if it is analogous to confinement at all, it is an affective prison, not because one openly emotionally identifies with it, but because it begins to mark the boundaries of emotional range and becomes simply too inconvenient or uncomfortable to be without. Outside the brandscape, the world might seem not just dangerous but also painful, dull, limited and lacking in content: the dead, heavy ‘meatspace’ of William Gibson’s retired cyberspace jockeys in the Sprawl Trilogy, or the reality without compulsory drugs in Huxley’ Brave New World” (Murakami Wood and Ball, Marketing Theory, 2013 – but you can find a pre-proof verison on

Maybe I should pay more attention to my own work! However, it’s undeniable that social networking adds something positive to life. The questions are what you are prepared to give up for that or, if that is a question you refuse to accept is necessary, whether there is a better socio-economic model for social networking than relying on basically sociopathic corporations to provide it for us. I have tried to persuade people to join Diaspora but it’s too badly designed and unattractive to use easily. Linked In is dull, but for professional notifications etc., it works just fine and that’s all I use it for. I do have a Twitter account, though I’ve hardly used it and in general they’ve shown themselves to be a little more concerned with users’ rights and feelings. Maybe I’ll have to look at Google+ again, but Google isn’t fundamentally better than Facebook just not quite as bad.

And, in the end, all of these corporate systems are entirely infliltrated by National Security Agency surveillance systems and so Brazil’s suggestion of a non-US internet is interesting here as are murmerings about a DiY version, mesh-nets that would link together on a more ad-hoc basis. I’ll be writing about some of these suggestions soon. But in the meantime, it will soon be ‘So long, Facebook…’

Japan and the NSA: no cause for concern?

September 30, 2013

(This is an article that I wrote for The Japan Times; they never made any reply to my submission… sources are listed after the article)

Given the friendly relationship that the Japanese state enjoys with the USA, and the equally cordial relationship the Japanese media has with its government, it comes as no surprise that few questions have been raised about Japan and the recent revelations about the Internet surveillance operations of the US National Security Agency (NSA). Yet, undoubtedly, there are questions to be asked.

One of the sources from 2010, revealed by NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, confirmed that the NSA was wiretapping Japanese diplomatic communications, as well as those of 37 other countries including South Korea, the European Union, India, Mexico, Turkey, France, Italy, Greece and Middle Eastern countries. The reports could not shed light on any specific reasons for the tapping of these nations’ official communications, but contrary to some Japanese media reports of this story, it would not be the first time that information had come to light that documented US spying on Japanese diplomatic channels.

According to New Zealand-based writer and researcher, Nicky Hagar, in his book, Secret Power, the NSA had involved the New Zealand Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) in “a project targeting Japanese embassy communications” back in the early 1980s, and since that date all the ‘first party’ countries in the UKUSA Signals Intelligence alliance (USA, UK, Canada, Australia and NZ) “have been responsible for monitoring diplomatic cables from all Japanese posts within the same segments of the globe they are assigned for general UKUSA monitoring”. So although Snowden’s revelations are recent, many of the programs, including the tapping of Japanese diplomatic communications, are not.

Likewise PRISM. PRISM is in many ways simply the Web 2.0 version of an earlier system, commonly known as ECHELON. With the explosion of social media and other online systems, it would more surprising if an agency like the NSA had not developed systems for collecting data from these new forms of communications. And despite the denials of major service providers like Microsoft and Google, nor is their involvement new. It was documented in a major report for the European Parliament in 1999, Development of Surveillance Technology and Risk of Abuse of Economic Information that Microsoft was installing ‘backdoors’ in its software for NSA use in the 1990s and that export versions of many important pieces of US software had deliberately reduced cryptographic functions to make NSA snooping easier.

So it is very likely that the NSA is collecting metadata (and much more) from Japanese electronic communications, both official and unofficial. How does it do it? The answer is not to be found overseas but in Japan itself. Japan has a substantial US military presence, and not all of the US bases are dedicated to basic warfighting operations. While most of the US presence is in Okinawa, it is at the other end of the country, in the northern region of Tohoku that we have to look to find the NSA’s main Japanese centre of operations. Misawa Air Base in Aomori is one of the largest US intelligence bases outside of the USA itself. According to the GlobalSecurity website, Misawa was originally an Imperial cavalry training center in the Meiji period, converted into an air base in 1938 and also used as a communications site from 1941. Following the US invasion in 1945, it was converted into a US air base and from 1948, Misawa operated as a High Frequency (HF) Radio interception station targeted mainly at the eastern part of the USSR. This was upgraded in the 1960s with AN/FLR-9 “Elephant Cage” antenna, a huge circular array which remains a significant visual component of the base.

From 1972, when the US removed its jet fighters, Misawa was primarily a reconnaissance and intelligence site and major investments occurred in the late 1970s when a lot more NSA activities were moved outside the USA following US congressional inquiries into its activities. According to the official Brief History of US Air Force Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), Misawa was designated as one of a network of satellite interception stations, known as Operations LADYLOVE, which came online in 1982. Misawa now has 19 satellite antenna, all covered by geodesic radar domes (radomes), which provide protection from both the elements and observation of the direction of the antenna, which help determine which satellites’ transmissions were being received.

The jets returned in 1985, and the site is still nominally controlled by the US Air Force, with several American fighter and reconnaissance squadrons, and some Japan Self-Defense Force planes. However, its US intelligence presence is so large that this is really its primary function. Several of the operational units present betray Misawa’s identity as an NSA field station, particularly Company E, Marine Support Battalion, a cryptologic and electronic warfare unit that reports to the NSA. There are also intelligence units from all three other US military branches, in particular those relating to space surveillance and other military satellite operations, many of which connect to, or are the under the ultimate control of, the NSA.

What is more, in all the previous reports on the NSA’s telecommunications interception activities, particularly on ECHELON, Misawa was always listed as a key component site in this international snooping system, along with more famous (or notorious) sites like Menwith Hill in the UK, and British investigative reporter, Duncan Campbell noted that declassified US military intelligence sources agreed that by 1994, Misawa was part of the ECHELON system, with the number USA39.

With the combination of the Snowden revelations and Misawa’s historic and contemporary importance to NSA operations in the Pacific region, it would seem very surprising if the NSA was not operating programs like PRISM in Japan. And certainly, the revelations that the NSA specifically gathers social media, e-mail and other Internet communications metadata from citizens of allied and friendly countries, which have electrified Germany and Brazil, most recently, should give cause for concern to Japanese citizens too, particularly given the protests that periodically hit better known but more ordinary US bases in Okinawa, for example.

So where’s the fuss? It would seem to be a combination of two things: firstly, the Japanese government and mainstream media appear to be successfully managing information on behalf of their US allies. The stories about the Snowden revelations on Japanese news almost always refered to Snowden (incorrectly) as a CIA employee and rarely mentioned the NSA, and no reference to US intelligence operations in Japan, despite the fact that the media regularly carries stories on all manner of controversies relating to US conventional forces here. Secondly, and perhaps relatedly, there does seem to be a distinct lack of knowledge and concern amongst Japanese people not simply about the NSA and US intelligence operations but surveillance and privacy more generally. The combination leads to the USA facing very little scrutiny over its international surveillance activities in Japan compared to that faced in other parts of the world


When your employer knows what you are eating

March 4, 2013

Way back when we published the Report on the Surveillance Society in 2006, one of the things we included in our vignettes of the future surveillance society was that companies would have extended their interests in their workers into their private exercise and dietary habits. And, lo and behold, the Wall Street Journal is reporting today that AT&T, Johnson & Johnson and others are now paying employees to gain access to health and diet data “to lower health-care and insurance costs while also helping workers.” The measures include blood-pressure cuffs and other kinds of 24/7 medical monitoring, with the promise of special health and weight-loss programs for those showing signs of high blood pressure and obesity in particular.

The problem is not so much the authoritarian nightmare of order – that such schemes might become formally compulsory – but more that they will from being simply voluntary experiments to being informally expected or appended to employee performance assessments and reports, just ‘to help’. The ‘helping of workers’ via the monitoring of health and diet then becomes a form of soft control, an insidious organisational blackmail which incorporates private personal decisions into the purview of not just the employer but also the insurance industry which provides the health benefits in employee packages (in the USA at least).

(Thanks to Jenn Barrigar for the link)


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