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Surveillance & Society Alerts

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

CCLA urges restraint from Canadian Parliament

October 27, 2014

There’s a great letter from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association to Canadian MPs, urging them not to overreact to the attacks in Ottawa and Quebec last week:

We currently await the legislation, which is due to be tabled at 3pm on Monday…

The Attacks in Ottawa and Quebec – some thoughts

October 24, 2014

Here’s a collection of thoughts on the Ottawa and Quebec attacks this week. Let me make it clear that my first thoughts are with the families and friends of the victims, Nathan Cirillo and Patrice Vincent. This is not a coordinated and clear essay, rather it’s a series of comments that I’ve made on various social media platforms in one convenient place:

1. Media coverage of the attacks in Canada was initially measured, serious and did not exaggerate or speculate unduly. This was noted by American publications (for example, Mother Jones). The broadcast media, particularly the CBC, were much better than the papers in this regard. However, within a day, the usual narrative that accompanies these kinds of events in their aftermath started to emerge, in particular the idea that ‘everything has changed’ or must change – for example, this piece in the National Post. This is the worst possible reaction to what happened. The best way to be is not to be intimidated or afraid. To remain committed to a democratic and open society. To reject the politics of fear and of violence and aggressive intervention overseas. To perhaps rekindle that (however mythical) vision of Canada as a peace-maker and peace-builder.

2. It is quite instructive to compare the government’s reactions to these attacks with their reactions to the disappearance and deaths of hundreds of aboriginal women and girls and their complete rejection of action in the latter case. Why is pretty much everything still the same after the death of Tina Fontaine but ‘nothing will be the same again’ after the murder of Nathan Cirillo? Something to think about…

3. Of course, a lot of the reaction, including already some racist and Islamophobic attacks, have focused on the supposed religious affiliations of the attackers. But these murders were carried out by alienated young Canadian men on other Canadians, just like Justin Bourque who killed three policemen in New Brunswick back in June. Unlike Bourque, both the recent attackers claimed radical Islamic affiliation and identity. But at least one of them had been turned away from mosques for behaving strangely, and few Muslims here or anywhere else in the world would recognise either of them as fellows. Why are we still concentrating on IS / the Middle East in looking for answers and responsibility… and continuing in our aggressive (re)action there, when it is our young men who are doing this? What is it about our society that is failing our young people?

4. What about the role of the state in preventing these attacks? Why it is that Canada’s intelligence services didn’t stop the attackers this week, especially as the first was on the top priority watchlist of 90 ‘radicalized’ people; and the second was a known career criminal who had just been refused a passport because he was considered too dangerous. Well, one reason is that under Harper the priorities of the intelligence services have been clearly misdirected for political / economic ends. Take this list on CSIS’s public website: top of the list is environmentalists trying to prevent logging activities. If you can find me a single example of a Canadian environmental activist who even tried to endanger anyone’s life, I’d be very surprised. These aren’t ‘terrorists’, these are activists. The intelligence services should not be used as a political tool to benefit particular industries and target those who actually care about saving our lives and our environment, whether those are environmentalists, indigenous people or others. The intelligence services, if they are to have any ethical purpose at all, should be to prevent real and present threats to life.

5. Yet of course, for the current Canadian government, the attacks serve as evidence for existing (and probably as yet unproposed) new laws or changes to the law. But te attacks this week were not evidence of the need for new powers, they were evidence of the failure of the intelligence services and police to use their existing powers properly. There should be no fast-tracking of bills to increase security powers using these events as an excuse – instead any changes in the law should be only be proposed following a full, open and accountable inquiry into what happened and what went wrong.

6. Let’s hope that any inquiry into these attacks doesn’t exclude the possible role that the abolition of the long gun registry might have played in hindering the ability of police to prevent the second attack… I trust of course that the government will be entirely open to exploring the possibility that allowing people to have unregistered rifles and shotguns might just have been a mistake. It is also ironic that the same people who are now demanding increased government powers of surveillance and security are the ones who justified the ending of the registry on the grounds that it constituted unnecessary government interference in private lives.

7. Finally, the attacks are already being packaged and presented as if they are finished and, now, we respond. It’s convenient in many ways for the official narrative that is emerging that both attackers are dead. I’m not saying they were killed deliberately with this in mind, not at all.

NB: Some witnesses also seemed to indicate that the shooter was being driven by another attacker, and I reported this in earlier versions of this post, but this seems to have been incorrect.

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…