Harvard CGA presentation

Last week I was a panelist at the annual Center for Geographic Analysis conference at Harvard University. The panel topic was on privacy and legal aspects of locative media and the geoweb.

My remarks focused on what I’m coming to call “sustainable security” and posited that in many respects we have lost personal privacy and are willing to lose even more for the promise of being safer. Sustainable security seeks a level of security that is sustainable in the long run, and does not accept that all security is good or that it makes us safer.

Are we safer for all the money we spend on security? I suggested three reasons why we might not be (I’ve pasted my ppt below and I believe it was recorded on video).

1. outsourcing is growing the old military-industrial-academic sector, this outsourcing is for-profit, and leads to lack of oversight;

2. geographical research is being enrolled into the securitization agenda, converting “peaceful” research into militaristic purposes;

3. numerous legal provisions which enable the security state undermine civil liberties (not just privacy).

My co-panelists were Kirk Goldsberry (Harvard CGA), David DiBiase (Esri) (my first boss at Penn State) Nicolas Oreskovic, and Sarah Williams (MIT). We might have had some good discussion but unfortunately one of the panelists spoke for at least double the allotted time (we were asked to speak for about 10 minutes).

I would have especially liked to engage more with David, who felt I was being hypocritical in flagging Esri’s government (and DoD) contracting without mentioning the huge sums pulled in by universities (including UKY). This is certainly true–universities like UKY, and George Mason, Penn State and indeed Harvard do take large government contracts (although I was told that Harvard does not allow “secret” research)–but I think the reason to flag Esri is that (along with DigitalGlobe and GeoEye) it is a top ten contractor with the NGA, and as a privately held company does not publish its contracting details with DoD and NGA. (For its part, the NGA has had a special dispensation since 2006 not to report dollar figures it contracts out.) Esri is also a major mover in the GIS/locative space, and government funding of its efforts, and its role in working with DOD combat-support intelligence agencies, is worthy of note.

Nevertheless, as I noted in a tweet reply to David, he is right to wish for a more complete picture of the political economy of the geoweb. This is something I’d like to work on a bit more, and something some colleagues and I have discussed in more length in a paper in submission. 

Data on government spending is available at a couple of different places, eg., fedspending.gov and usaspending.gov, but for both the source is the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS). According to the FPDS the following government awards have been made:

  • Esri $878m ($479m from DoD)
  • University of Kentucky $260m ($23m from DoD; including four awards over $1m, all from the Army)
  • George Mason University (a previous employer), $185m ($78m from DoD)
  • Penn State (David’s previous employer and my alma mater) $2.8b ($2.5b from DoD)
  • Johns Hopkins (top university recipient of federal contracts) $9.7b ($9.1b from DoD)
  • Harvard University $146m ($29m)

Penn State and Johns Hopkins’ size seriously dwarf the other examples given here. Harvard’s relatively tiny numbers (for an institution with a $32b endowment) are presumably a factor of its refusal to do “secret” research.

It would be worth looking at what these institutions are being funded to do, but here we run into problems of accessibility, absent sending in multiple FOIA requests. (If Esri wants to release financial summaries of its government and DoD contracts, I would be obliged, and give it due credit for transparency.)

These flows of money may seem like a lot, but in context of government and DoD funding they are relatively small. (Perennial government consultants Booz Allen Hamilton has absorbed more than $11.3b of tax-payer’s money; the top government contractor of all time is Lockheed Martin at $393b–how’s that for corporate welfare?)

But surely dollars are only part of the story. There’s also personnel and the rotation of government contractors, such that contractors become government  employees with the power to award contracts (and vice versa). This is partly why so many contracts are awarded on an “uncompeted” or if competed then only done so by a single company.

As I allude to in point 2. above, there are also the circulations of knowledge between various parts of the academic-military-intelligence-contractor “nexus.”  These are harder to pin down but potentially more illuminating. In my case, I am interested in how geography gets put to work.

In other words, how does expertise (concepts and methods) get co-opted (advertently, inadvertently) and circulate?

Take this story in The New Republic for instance. They found

at least 49 people who have simultaneously worked as lobbyists for outside entities while serving as top staff, directors or trustees of 20 of the 25 most influential think tanks in the United States.”

The list includes people who worked on national security issues at think tanks, but simultaneously lobbied for military munitions manufacturers:

[Center for American Progress] senior fellow Scott Lilly, whose beat includes national security issues, lobbied for Lockheed between 2005 and late-2011.

Should this reduce the credibility of Lilly or CAP? What if the financial support gained is not disclosed or only partially disclosed? Would transparency completely fix the problem–is it enough?

We also have this:

This should remind us that there is no such thing as the efficacy of pure knowledge–knowledge has a politics. How can we then develop reputable or consensual knowledge about what constitutes sustainable security (rather than security for security’s sake)? And of what do those consensual knowledges consist?

Harvard CGA slides: Sustainable Security

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