Category Archives: Surveillance

What is neoliberalism?

robinjames (@doctaj) on neoliberalism:

I want to hone in on one tiny aspect of neoliberalism’s epistemology. As Foucault explains in Birth of Biopolitics, “the essential epistemological transformation of these neoliberal analyses is their claim to change what constituted in fact the object, or domain of objects, the general field of reference of economic analysis” (222). This “field of reference” is whatever phenomena we observe to measure and model “the market.” Instead of analyzing the means of production, making them the object of economic analysis, neoliberalism analyzes the choices capitalists make: “it adopts the task of analyzing a form of human behavior and the internal rationality of this human behavior” (223; emphasis mine). (The important missing assumption here is that for neoliberals, we’re all capitalists, entrepreneurs of ourself, owners of the human capital that resides in our bodies, our social status, etc.) [3] Economic analysis, neoliberalism’s epistemontological foundation, is the attribution of a logos, a logic, a rationality to “free choice.”

I particularly like the way she enrolls Big Data and the algorithmic in her understanding of neoliberalism:

Just as a market can be modeled mathematically, according to various statistical and computational methods, everyone’s behavior can be modeled according to its “internal rationality.” This presumes, of course, that all (freely chosen) behavior, even the most superficially irrational behavior, has a deeper, inner logic. According to neoliberal epistemontology, all genuinely free human behavior “reacts to reality in a non-random way” and “responds systematically to modifications in the variables of the environment” (Foucault, sumarizing Becker, 269; emphasis mine).

This approach ties to what others have been saying for a number of years now on the algorithmic (I’m thinking of the work of Louise Amoore on data derivatives, among others) and the calculative (eg., Stuart Elden’s readings of Foucault and Heidegger). I’ve just completed a paper on Big Data and the intelligence community which tries to make some of these points, and Agnieszka Leszczynski and I have a cfp out for the Chicago meetings next year which we certainly hope will include these issues.

(Via this excellent piece on NewApps)

CFP: Spatial Big Data & Everyday Life (AAG 2015)

Call for Papers: Spatial Big Data & Everyday Life
American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting
21-25 April 2015
Chicago

Organizers:
Agnieszka Leszczynski, University of Birmingham
Jeremy Crampton, University of Kentucky
“What really matters about big data is what it does” (Executive Office of the President, 2014: 3).

Many disciplines, including the economic and social sciences and (digital) humanities, have taken up Big Data as an object and/or subject of research (see Kitchin 2014). As a significant proportion of Big Data productions are spatial in nature, they are of immediate interest to geographers (see Graham and Shelton 2013). However, engagements of Big Data in geography have to date been largely speculative and agenda-setting in scope. The recently released White House Big Data report encourages movement past deliberations over how to define the phenomenon towards identifying its material significance as Big Data are enrolled and deployed across myriad contexts – for example, how content analytics may open new possibilities for data-based discrimination. We convene this session to interrogate and unpack how Big Data figure in the spaces and practices of everyday life. In so doing, we are questioning not only what Big Data ‘do,’ but also how it is they realize particular kinds of effects and potentialities, and how the lived reality of Big Data is experienced (Crawford 2014).

We invite papers along methodological, empirical, and theoretical interventions that trace, reconceptualize, or address the everyday spatial materialities of Big Data. Specifically we are interested in how Big Data emerge within particular intersections of the surveillance, military, and industrial complexes; prefigure and produce particular kinds of spaces and subjects/subjectivities; are bound up in the regulation of both space and spatial practices (e.g., urban mobilities); underwrite intensifications of surveillance and engender new surveillance regimes; structure life opportunities as well as access to those opportunities; and/or change the conditions of/for embodiment. We intend for the range of topics and perspectives covered to be open. Other possible topics include:

• spatial Big Data & affective life
• embodied Big Data; wearable tech; quantified self
• algorithmic geographies, algorithmic subjects
• new ontologies & epistemologies of the subject
• spatial Big Data as surveillance
• Big Data and social (in)equality
• “ambient government” & spatial regulation
• spatial Big Data and urbanisms (mobilities; smart cities)
• political/knowledge economies of (spatial) Big Data

We welcome abstracts of no more than 250 words to be submitted to Agnieszka Leszczynski (a.leszczynski@bham.ac.uk) and Jeremy Crampton (jcrampton@uky.edu) by August 29th, 2014.
References:

Crawford K (2014) The Anxieties of Big Data. The New Inquiry. http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-anxieties-of-big-data/

Executive Office of the President (2014) Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values. The White House. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/big_data_privacy_report_may_1_2014.pdf

Graham M and Shelton T (2013) Guest editors, Dialogues in Human Geography 3 (Geography and the future of big data, big data and the future of geography).

Kitchin R (2014) Big Data, new epistemologies and paradigm shifts. Big Data and Society (1): In Press. DOI: 10.1177/2053951714528481. http://bds.sagepub.com/content/1/1/2053951714528481.

 

Contractor receives $400K federal funds for automatic license plate reading

According to reporting by Bloomsberg News the IRS, the Forest Service and the U.S. Air Force’s Air Combat Command have awarded a contractor over $400,000 in contracts for its automated licence plate recognition (ALPR) system since 2009.

It’s not clear if the contracts to Vigilant Solutions are ongoing, given the context that Homeland Security dropped similar plans in February of this year following widespread opposition form civil liberties groups.

“Especially with the IRS, I don’t know why these agencies are getting access to this kind of information,” said Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based privacy-rights group. “These systems treat every single person in an area as if they’re under investigation for a crime — that is not the way our criminal justice system was set up or the way things work in a democratic society.”

Other countries (including the UK) have long had such systems in place.

If you go to the Vigilant website they have a long complaining blog post about the lies and distortions by civil liberties groups:

License plate readers are under siege nationwide, thanks to a well-funded, well-coordinated campaign launched by civil liberties groups seeking to take advantage of the growing national debate over surveillance. 

Unfortunately, the campaign led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has deliberately clouded and even omitted those facts.

According to this article, Vigilant actually successfully used the First Amendment to overturn an anti license-plate recognition law in Utah:

Vigilant Solutions and DRN [Digital Recognition Network] sued the state of Utah on constitutional grounds, arguing that the law infringed on the First Amendment right to take photographs of public images in public places, a right that everyone in Utah shares.

The law was overturned, but Vigilant com,plains that state agencies were then barred from using any of the data collected, impacting their profits. They also complain about data retention limits.

What’s also interesting about companies such as this is that they illustrate the argument for understanding policing and military together (see this blog post by Derek Gregory for example).

Society & Space piece on security

My piece “Is Security Sustainable?” has just appeared in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol 31(4).

If you’re outside the academic fire curtain or don’t want to read the whole thing my basic question is whether  the security we have now is sustainable in the long run, and at what cost. Rather than taking a “all security is good security” approach I ask what our current security surveillant state is costing us in terms of:

–Dollar amount (estimates go as high as $1T per year);
–Physical and mental health (of those charged with enabling security such as PTSD and amputations, but also health of those “living under drones”);
–Environmental costs.

I argue we are very far from knowing the answers to these costs, or even of identifying consensual ways to measure them. The piece is part of an ongoing project, but was occasioned by the Edward Snowden news. 

Thanks to EPD for being interested in this and getting it out in so timely a fashion! Update: As Stuart notes below it is available on open access now!

“Collect it all”

Glenn Greenwald this morning identifies what he calls the “crux” of the NSA surveillance revelations: the desire to “collect it all.”

What this means is that instead of targeting, surveilling, collecting or storing information on individual suspects for whom there is “probable cause” (evidence), everybody’s information is collected; guilty and innocent alike.

As a matter of fact I agree that this is a crux of the story, although for anybody interested in the study of surveillance this is hardly news. It is useful and important that this is now a matter of public debate, however.

For those interested, Foucault argues that this switch from “discipline and punish” individuals to mass surveillance is characteristic of modern states, and gives rise to their characterization as the “surveillant society”) (eg., John Pickles wrote about his as long ago as 1991, see also the work of David Lyon).

I discuss this in my 2003 piece on geosurveillance (Downloads tab):

Prior to the legal reforms of the 18th and early 19th centuries, Foucault argued the law focused on the nature of the crime committed, the evidence of guilt or innocence, and the system of penalties to be applied. In other words: crime and punishment. The person of the criminal was important only insofar as he or she was the individual to which the crime would be attributed.

Foucault argued that a second system of power emerged in the early eighteenth century that regulated, counted, and surveilled the mass of people as a population. Foucault called this “biopolitics of the population” (Foucault 1978, p. 139) or, more simply, “biopower.”

Given the recent NSA story I think it is easier to see the crucial insight of biopolitics here. One could say that this mass surveillance is necessary because we are all a kind of “pre-criminal” (in the eyes of the state every person has a criminal potential) to some degree or other. Therefore, as I argued (Downloads tab) in 2007:

First, we need to stop seeing the issue as one of security and surveillance versus privacy or rights. Arguing about this or that surveillance technique misses the point that, both historically and today, surveillance is a core component of the modern state; that is, surveillance and geosurveillance are characteristic of certain types of political rule based on a politics of fear (Foucault [1975] 1977; Lyon 1994; Graham and Wood 2003).

 

Transparency and secrecy

I’d like to consider in more detail some papers published in Theory, Culture & Society last year. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, these papers represent some very interesting inroads into a better understanding of secrecy, transparency and ultimately perhaps even truth.

Clare Birchall’s article, which introduces the special section, makes some sensible suggestions already in her abstract:

Despite common demands to support either transparency or secrecy in political and moral terms, we live with the tension between these terms and its inherent contradictions daily.

She sets up the terms of the debate as opacity and openness, but goes on to say that “we must work with the tension between these terms” rather than choosing one or the other. There is a tension between them.

This is a good start, but we need to go even further. Obviously the relations between privacy, secrecy, transparency are not symmetric. We can know very little about the state, but it can know a great deal about us, as I’ve said many times before. This is to say only that there are power dynamics at work.

Some of her remarks about a perceived love of transparency, or at least transparency talk, are widely off the mark a year and a half later. “Open government is the new mantra” she writes, “a sign of cultural…authority” (pp. 8-9). Today, this reads like little more than government talking points, but even in 2012 (post sealed indictments against WikiLeaks and the imprisonment of Bradley Manning) they are more than a little optimistic. She does note that some Obama administration transparency efforts have been “compromised” but relegates this to a footnote instead of a central problem to be taken into account. Are there really “countless copycats” of WikiLeaks (p. 15)? I don’t think so.

Also optimistic is her partial history of transparency, at least in the US. Her examples (Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, FOIA, etc.) could all be rebutted by pointing out that often, these were hard won, partial concessions, and that they permitted many other activities to go on in secret. That is, these transparency moves are covers; a kind of secret themselves.

The most striking of these in recent years, for me, was what happened to the government’s transparency website, USAspending.gov. Unveiled with some fanfare at the tail end of the Bush administration, it was meant to provide a public, user-friendly and authoritative source to government spending on outsourced contracts. In fact, intelligence agencies almost immediately gained exemptions to it (including the NGA and NSA), while others (such as the NRO) just never took part in it. We tell the story of this a bit more in a forthcoming paper “The New Political Economy of Geographical Intelligence” for the Annals. Nowhere on the site does it mention any of this–you have to read obscure GAO documents, and CRS articles that are not directly released to the public.

(Ironically, I recently emailed the NGA press office to inquire if they were still exempt, but have not received a reply or even an acknowledgement. So much for transparency!)

Birchall argues, following Derrida, that the state is placed into an “infinite hesitation” in the face of transparency. It cannot be too transparent, because then it allows no room for personal privacy, and it cannot not be transparent because then it is also hegemonic and clandestine, if not covert.

But could the issue not be resolved by splitting apart the object of analysis and instead of arguing for all-or-none transparency, see citizens as in a relation with the state? To citizens go the choice of privacy-transparency, but to the state goes no choice but the requirement of transparency (and not just the state, but corporate actions).

Ah, but how much choice to the citizen? Well, that’s up for debate, but in my view it’s a better one that debating all-or-nothing transparency/privacy. Here I like what she has to say about the need to resist going “beyond” either term, and get used to inhabiting it strategically (p. 12). I think this is absolutely correct.

One thing to be mentioned here is the role of corporate America. If oversight of government activities is bad, try business, especially intel businesses. These often operate with even less transparency than government (what really does Booz Allen Hamilton do? That $15m intel contract–what’s it for?) As Birchall notes, this can give rise to “lip-service transparency” in the neoliberal context.

There are lots of provocative questions here, and it is surprising that more people have not considered the relations between secrecy, lies, truth, and transparency. (Birchall does give examples of these.) One angle that continues to intrigue, is that between secrecy and knowledge.

Isn’t it interesting that one of the great foundational stories of western religion is that of the tree of knowledge. This tree is forbidden because it has dangerous knowledge (not all transparency is good). So here we enter forbidden knowledges, arcana, Pandora’s Box, the occult, secret societies. The “will to knowledge” then, in Foucault’s words, becomes something both highly problematic and yet compelling.

So in some ways this could be read as another consideration of truth, and the difficulties of truth. Knowledge is about getting the truth. But I do think there’s still a lot to be worked through about secrets, and the relationships between knowledge and truth. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the articles in the TCS special section.

Snowden’s flight, as it was tweeted

Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong, as it was tweeted. I sort through the mass of tweets so you don’t have to! Includes plenty of argument. Most recent at top.

https://twitter.com/WilliamsJon/status/348794144321318912

https://twitter.com/EllenBarryNYT/status/348790361696653312

Snowden interview–2 points

There are two points that stand out for me from the amazing Edward Snowden interview this morning in the Guardian. By the way, I cannot recall another occasion where  a “hunted” man (as someone put it on Twitter) was interviewed live–quite an awesome experience, and just a bit surreal to see it unfolding.

Anyway, here’s the first quote:

The consent of the governed is not consent if it is not informed.

Snowden refers here to the idea that we-the-people give our consent to be governed, which comes from the US Declaration of Independence. Snowden distinguishes between generic consent and a specific “informed consent.” This is the phrase that is used in scientific research when researching with human subjects. The consent must be informed, and furthermore, the consent can be withdrawn at any time.

The other quote that struck me:

The US Person / foreigner distinction is not a reasonable substitute for individualized suspicion…

What he’s saying here is that there is a huge difference between a specific, targeted and individualized suspicion that could give grounds for surveillance and a mass surveillance of people based on a “US person/not US person” division. Especially as the latter is easily shown to be nonsensical. You might think that Snowden is against all surveillance or for the abolition of the NSA, etc. but clearly he is not. Worth remembering.

Jeremy Crampton – The Costs of Security

Jeremy:

“The Costs of Security.” My new piece at the Society & Space open access site. Thanks to Stuart Elden and the editors at EPD for their interest in this, as well as the longer version coming out in the print journal.

Originally posted on Society and Space - Environment and Planning D:

Jeremy W. Crampton discusses recent developments around security, surveillance and the state. This is a shorter version of a commentary forthcoming in Society & Space, Vol 31 No 4, entitled “Is Security Sustainable?” [Update: now available open access here] Jeremy also runs the Open Geography site where he discusses a range of related questions, as well as his long-standing interests in cartography, Foucault, and other geographical issues. 

Addendum: Crampton has added further thoughts at his site Open Geographies since Snowden’s online interview today at the Guardian site. –eds.

The recent revelations in the Guardian by Glenn Greenwald and his colleagues about the mass surveillance operations of the US intelligence community (IC) have brought unusual attention to government activities that typically operate in conditions of extreme secrecy.

There’s more to come—Greenwald has promised further stories on the National Security Agency (NSA). Amidst all the revelations and the speculation, however, we…

View original 33 more words

Is a secret a lie?

Is a secret a lie? That is, in and of itself, are secrets lies?

This thought was engendered by the events of the last week about previously classified court orders and data mining programs at the NSA, and the larger world of classified activities.

In “history of the lie” Derrida states that a lie is not an error. You can be in error about something, mistaken about it (“why did you miss the meeting at 1pm?”, “oh I thought we were meeting at 2pm“) without lying. As he also says, one does not lie simply by saying something that is false, as long as “one believes in good faith in the truth of what one believes” (p. 31).

Instead, “to lie is to want to deceive the other, sometimes even by saying what is true” (31). Is that what a secret does? A secret withholds, it withholds the “whole truth” in the first instance, and so deceives. And it might also be deceptive in the sense that it says “there are no secrets here,” as the Verizon FISA Court Order says, you cannot tell of this secret order. You cannot tell of the fact of, this order, nor may you tell of the content of, this order. Not all secrets do that. Sometimes you may tell of the fact of, a secret. the “fact of” Prism was not a secret. But for it to be a secret you can never tell of the content of, a secret. What Prism does, is a secret (and very contested between the tech companies and some interpretations of media reports).

So yes, secrets do seem inherently to be lies, and in a double or triple sense. They don’t tell the whole truth (they withhold, and sometimes even doubly withhold that they are withholding), and secondly they “want to deceive,” which is the definition of a lie, according to Derrida.

Update: In the intelligence world, there’s a related distinction that is often made, between “covert” operations (ops) and “clandestine” ones. Covert ops are deniable by their sponsor. They hide the “fact of” a secret activity or mission (eg., by providing innocuous cover story for an agent). You may see something, but not know it’s a secret. Clandestine means the ops are hidden, but if they were to be observed, could not necessarily be denied. Clearly, covert ops are the “double secret” whereas clandestine are merely the ordinary secret.

In our context, Prism was an ordinary secret, what it does is unknown. The FISA court order to Verizon, however (and National Security Letters, NSLs) is covert, in the sense of having this double layer of secrecy (a recipient would be legally obliged to say they had not received one). /update

There’s a lot more to be said about secrecy than this, for example this special section of the journal Theory, Culture & Society from 2011 begins to critique secrecy’s supposed opposite, transparency. I am all for questioning the limits of transparency, but feel we still have some way to thinking through secrecy just yet. Perhaps more on this later.