Security and its Publics

September 22nd, 2012

I am wrapping up here at Security and Its Publics, a fascinating workshop that I was invited to participate in. The workshop aimed to bring, “sociological, political and cultural theories of publics into a dialogue with critical security studies. To date these important literatures have evolved largely in isolation from one another. At an empirical level it will collect and compare cases, experiences and experiments in the making of publics in relation to questions, issues and controversies of security.”

I’m not in the critical security bunch, but snuck in on my surveillance cred, and the work I’ve done around securitization of mega-protests. I’m also the only communication person here – it’s an assortment of sociologists, criminologists, lawyers and artists. Happily, though, there were several activists, so I found a small niche there. I was quite humbled to be put on a panel with Cynthia Weber and Ricardo Dominguez.

Recently I have been intrigued by the small world phenomenon as it has been unfolding in my life. Years ago when I was doing alternative journalism, I encountered the work of the Critical Art Ensemble and the Electronic Disturbance Theatre. This was before I even knew how to use the internet. And long before I would write my dissertation on tech activism and open source development as a method for social transformation. Last year I was asked to be part of an art project called Subversive Technologies, where Ricardo was a starring participant. I was not able to be in town for the various events associated with the project, so did not meet him (but I did write this).  This time, Ricardo had to bow out at the last minute, so I have yet to meet him, but that meant Cindy and I had more time on our panel ;). See my slides here.

Cynthia Weber is an activist-academic-filmmaker whose work reveals and critiques American patriotism and jingoism in her short films, including the “I am an American” series and more recently, her #Occupy set.

Later, talking to Cindy, I discovered that she has interviewed Steve Kurtz, another founding member of the Critical Arts Ensemble, and a guy I want to interview for my book. But she also knows one of my favourite academics, Lucy Suchman, partner to my collaborator and mentor Andrew Clement. She told me she is responsible for the war resisters in their basement. Small world, hey?

Artist Paul Shambroom‘s presentation, Artist-as-Canary, was equally as impressive. He showed some of his own photos documenting military and nuclear sites, and the people and technology that congregate there. Shambroom summarizes his work as an attempt to “probe the boundaries of citizen/government power, test citizen access to information, learn which activities draw government surveillance and test citizen freedom to see and record/photograph.” He plays with classic artistic interpretation and presentation, creating jarring contrasts with the subject matter. One site he visited he described as “Disneyland for first responders.”

Audrey Macklin presented alongside Paul in an interesting juxtaposition of context and content. Audrey is a lawyer who has represented Human Rights Watch in its interventions in the Omar Khadr case. She described the utter opaqueness of the legal process as it unfolded at “Camp Justice”, Guantanamo Bay. The commonality between the two presenters was drawn out by Cindy, who noted that both were bearing witness and giving warning. Shambroom as artist, Macklin as advocate as they draw back the veil on our hyper militarized, securitized, untransparent and grossly immoral society. The panel ended with a frank discussion by the panelists about the inefficacy of their work in terms of producing certain outcomes, like nuclear disarmament or the repatriation of Omar Khadr. Paul noted a certain humility to their work, and the importance, indeed need, for bearing witness against injustice.

The workshop closes with The Art of Security, a public art exhibit featuring the work of Cynthia Weber, Ricardo Dominguez and  Paul Shambroom, part of Ottawa’s first Nuit Blance.

Overall the workshop has been fantastic – superwell organized, good food, and fun nights out – not to mention a stellar lineup of most interesting, challenging and dare I say entertaining presentations. Even though it seems as if I’ve invoked the Vancouver rain, Ottawa has been great, and I’m glad I came.



First public outing for BC Services Card project

September 19th, 2012

The new BC Services Card combining the driver's license and health care card.

It never rains but it pours. I have been steadily busy completing Phase II of my research project, A National ID Card by Stealth? The BC Services Card: Risks and Opportunities for Privacy, funded by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. I am working on the project in partnership with the BC Civil Liberties Association, and in consultation with Andrew Clement, from the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto.

Today I gave my first presentation on my findings (such as they are) to date, at the BC Information Summit 2012, hosted by the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. It was very different from my usual presentations, riddled with dramatic images of surveillance technologies, riot porn and social movement protest. There is very little shock value in identity cards and privacy legislation. And no chance for swearing.

Still, and happily, the response was positive. I guess the privacy nightmare of mega-databases of personal information with undisclosed or inadequate access controls resonates. Our panel was pretty smashing, if I may say so: you can’t go wrong with the ever-dynamic Micheal Vonn, of the BCCLA, and Colin Bennett, Canada’s preeminent privacy researcher. You can check my slides here. And I saw BC’s privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham taking notes – always a good sign.

Tomorrow I fly to Ottawa for back-to-back-to-back presentations: a guest lecture in Aaron Doyle’s third-year class on social movements (one of my favourite topics!); a paper presentation at Security & its Publics workshop; and a public talk.

And interrupting the preparation for this was a spate of CBC radio interviews yesterday on the privacy implications of the Kate Middleton semi-nude photos scandal. Well, it’s not a story of critical importance, but it’s a gig.

I have some academic writing deadlines upcoming as well: a chapter for a collection, to be published by UBC press, on the G20 (also a favourite topic) and another for a textbook, on tech activism and the Occupy movement. And I’m awaiting the publication of a couple other chapters, including the second edition of Josh Greenberg’s textbook Communication in Question. Exciting!

No rest for the wicked and all that…

Hacking the Stacks: Geeking out with radical Librarians

June 8th, 2012

Today I gave my keynote at Digital Odyssey 2012, the annual conference of the Ontario Library and Information Technology Association. I was flattered to be asked, and immediately wondered if @lisaslo was behind it. She is among a few rad librarians I know, including @copystar and @tararobertson as well as Liz Hunter, who (likley wisely) eschews social media.

I couldn’t have been happier to talk about the conference theme and my favourite topic – liberation technology. Libtech is the apple of my academic eye and has been the focus of my academic investigations for the last 8 years. Aside from being brutally jetlagged, the talk went well (incomprehensible slides here). There was an enthusiastic response to my ever passionate exposition of “technologies of resistance” that tech activists build to support and advance contemporary social movements. It’s a good talk where you play a Downfall video, reference South Park (the infamous “South Park blink”) and call Quebec the “Fuck You Province” (in the context of the Printemps Erable, bien sur). There were lots of engaged questions (incl. great commentary on the Twitter backchannel), and I ended basically on time, which is always the best. And I got a goody bag and a bottle of wine for my troubles. Thanks #olita!

My keynote was followed by @librarycult’s fascinating talk on open hardware. What a fun research gig to travel from hacker space to hacker space, hanging out with maker geeks. He promised that slides and resources would be available on his blog. I’m heading back shortly for the afternoon program for the session on Tor. The closing keynote is by Carys Craig, from Osgoode, on digital copyright. What a good day… Free software and the open web for the win! Go radical librarians!


Alternative Media in Canada – finally!

May 9th, 2012

AMC presserMy chapter in Alternative Media in Canada began as a conversation over beer at the International Communication Association’s annual conference in Montreal in 2008. Many versions and almost four years later, the book is in print! And net neutrality and digital copyright, the subject of my chapter, are still as important as ever. I’m chuffed to be in the presence of rad colleagues, including Scott Uzelman, Evan Light and Sandra Jeppesen. Go us! And of course thanks to the patient and great editing from David Skinner, Pat Mazepa and Kirsten Kozolanka – you made me look good :)

#OccupyEverywhere: Breaking up with capitalism

October 19th, 2011


#OccupyWallSt has grown from a site specific protest to a global movement in just one month, moving from the obscurity of a corporate media blackout, to the limelight of a media circus. Talking heads and corporate media puppets are literally beside themselves with the growing occupation, unable to make heads or tails of what it is, “what protesters want” and wtf it all means.

What is the #OWS movement? In a word, it’s a breakup. The people – that disenfranchised, exploited and thoroughly alienated majority – are finally breaking up with capitalism. This was the objective of the Global Justice Movement, which made its North American debut at the “Battle of Seattle,” 1999′s massive protests against the World Trade Organization. Its ranks were globally networked and its rallying cry was “Another World is Possible.” Like the  #OWS movement, it identified a common enemy in capitalism. Its analysis centred on the mutilating influence of money and greed on politics, democracy and the environment, reviving class as a focal point for understanding inequality. The GJM also organized horizontally and nodally, eschewing the leader- and institution-based activism of the Countercultural Revolution. They did, however, retain the consensus-based decision making model that emerged out of the early feminist and environmental movements. Borrowing from anarchist revolutionary practice, the Global Justice Movement incorporated affinity groups and the directly democratic spokescouncils. For the first time, the movements were global, unified by a common oppressor and shared values of justice, equality and liberty for all, not just a lucky few.

#OWS shares many of the traits that made the Global Justice Movement so unique, and so inspiring. It is a movement of movements, globally united by its stand against capitalism, yet locally diverse, independent, and adaptive. What’s different this time? It is a question of scale. The GJM, for all its internationalism, its borderlessness and commonality, did not scale. It was born of seasoned activist groups and individuals fighting against free trade, tracing the human effects of corporate greed. Certainly many young people and trade unionists were radicalized by their experience in Seattle, but they had come there with a political agenda in mind, and some idea of what it meant to be engaged in the political process, even if it was from the outside of that process. But folks outside the activist scene just didn’t seem to get it.

Many participants in the Seattle WTO demonstrations and subsequent summit protests against the World Bank, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the Organization of American States and the G8/G20 brought their ideas of radical, direct and participatory democracy with them. The difference with #OWS that it was born not as a coherent and intentional political action, but almost as an act of desperation—more a freakout than a protest. People are at the end of their ropes, literally; they are at their wits end, with little to lose and everything to gain. Rather than apply previously theoretical models of democracy to the emerging movement, #OWS is inspiring participatory democracy. It is being created, almost out of thin air, by people who have not thought much about this sort of stuff before. This democracy stuff. This direct action stuff. This taking responsibility for making our world better stuff. By practicing democracy for the first time (no, voting doesn’t count), by learning through doing, they are in the process of creating democracy, of living it in a way that has been denied citizens of formal western democracies since, well, ever. The GJM never made it out of committed activist circles. It never went mainstream. The #OWS movement is mainstream, and it’s breakup with capitalism is network news.

Some seasoned activists have been frustrated at the slow-moving consensus process, the cacophonous messaging, and the disorganized occupied spaces. While #OccupyNewYork, as the oldest site of #OWS protest, has their process and organizing  down to a science, the growing pains are more obvious in younger, smaller occupations, like #OccupyVancouver. What #OccupyVancouver lacks in critical mass and experience, it makes up for in heart and in hope. At times it seems like the blind leading the blind, and this is a bit scary. We’ve seen how social movements that threaten to destablize the status quo get co-opted, and derailed. We’ve seen how liberatory revolutions descend into military dictatorship. But this is what has to happen if the #Occupy movement is to continue to grow: the process has to scale. It has to be taken up by “regular people,” those who are just realizing the connection between their lives and the economic system that has been ruining them.

These “regular people” are smart, savvy, hardworking folk who have played by the rules and been fucked over for their efforts. They now see the connection between the economic system, and the ruling political and corporate elite that underwrites it. They see how it has to change. This is not about “fettering” capitalism. It’s about dumping it altogether.

In breaking up with capitalism, media and political pundits ask: What is your alternative? I don’t think a fully formed answer is required to legitimize the break up. As Dan Savage would say, DTMFA. But if we look to the process unfolding and evolving, we can see the beginnings of an answer (or answers, more like). In making decisions together, in listening and speaking to one another together, in forging a path forward together, we find a nascent alternative to domination under capitalism. In time, if this process deepens and strengthens, it will produce viable, practicable outcomes. In the short term, however, we can take practical, if small, steps to hasten the change.

The trick now is to turn this populist uprising into a sustainable movement that can produce meaningful change, to harness the outrage and emotion fueling this revolt and channel into progressive social transformation. According to one smart analysis, we need to “dismantle the body of law that perpetually subordinates people, community and nature to wealthy corporate minorities” and make a new one that values and protects human beings and the natural environment that sustains us. This entails reclaiming government at the local level, and seizing “lawmaking authority to make government work on behalf of a majority, rather than continuing to serve as a colonized entity to corporations.”

#OWS signals the decline of the politics of demand, where we beg for a few scraps from the captains of industry and their political yay-sayers. It indicates a new vision for structural change rather than tweaks to the existing system of endless exploitation and growing immiseration. But this structural change must be forced: ruling powers do not concede willingly. Rather than negotiating the terms and conditions of our existence under capitalism (a process which necessarily involved concession bargaining) we must rewrite these altogether. #OccupyWallStreet spread to other cities in North America and across the globe; it then grew from a site specific protest to a citywide occupation. If it is to #OccupyEverwhere, and grow from a movement to a revolution, it must build from its base of strength: cities. Each occupation must educate and empower its people to define their rights and needs, and use existing municipal structures to fulfill them.

One of the early action items from #OWS has been the call to divest of the banking system: close our bank accounts and move our money (if we have any) to credit unions. Marc Lee makes the connection between the cooperative movement and credit unions, suggesting they “could ultimately be what resonates most as an alternative economic model.” He goes on:

The link between the radical democracy of the Occupy movement and coops is straightforward. Coops are member-owned and more deeply anchored in the local economy. They are a way of doing business that is not capitalist but democratic (though you probably won’t see any hands twinkling in the air at general meetings)…Based on principles of cooperation and reciprocity, the mandate of coops is to serve members, not maximize profits for distant shareholders.

Credit unions as “banking cooperatives” are better at the banking basics than banks themselves, including providing mortgages, personal loans and financing for small and medium sized businesses, and offering better service, with smaller fees and a lower loan rejection rate. Because of their risk aversion, steady lending practices and strong regulatory oversight, credit unions “can play exactly the stabilizing influence on the economy that averts the type of crisis we find ourselves in.” The #Occupy movement has set November 5 as Bank Transfer Day. Anonymous is calling it Operation Cash Back.

Marx knew that the revolution would be social, not political, because the heart of the economy is, in fact, people. The root of oppression is social relations—in how we treat one another. Under capitalism, people relate to one another as things, disposable, replaceable, purchasable things; these mutilating, alienating social relations permeate all of social life, not just work. With #OWS we’re seeing the blossoming of a humane form of social relations based on consensus and participatory democracy and a fundamental commitment to justice. There’s revolution in that. Here’s hoping the breakup sticks.

Cities, (im)mobilities and the politics of visibility

October 19th, 2011

Capitalism - it's not you

I wrote this for
Subversive Technologies, the 2011 “digital event” hosted by e-fagia.  Consisting of an online exhibition of Internet art and art projects relating to technology, a gallery exhibition of video and electronic art, and online publications of curatorial statements and articles, Subversive Technologies investigates how artists respond to communication technology as one of the major sources of power in contemporary societies. Comments welcome…


With the globalization of capitalism has come the generalization of capitalist values on a world scale. Efficiency, privatization, and above all, profit have become doctrine, promoted and aspired to with something like religious zeal. The foundation of capitalism is freedom, claim its disciples. Freedom, we are told, is both prime mover and product of the new world economic order at the end of history and the end of ideology. Capitalism both relies upon and promotes the free flow of information, goods and services. Money and financial speculation also flow freely, uninhibited by borders, laws or state enforcers. But where where capitalism’s bounty—the booty of resource rich yet politically impoverished countries—transgresses geographical boundaries, experiencing the physical reality of immaterial geo-policial borders, it is a different story for human beings.

The tenets of neoliberal global capitalism in late modernity apply primarily to what Bruno Latour calls “non-human actors”—those essential components of the social network that nevertheless do not eat, breathe or feel, although they may participate in the production and reproduction of social life. The rules for human beings, also essential in the functioning of capitalism, are different. Where global capital and its attendants may—indeed must—circulate freely and with impunity, people are required to stay put. Freedom in capitalism appears as a shibboleth, or at least as something accorded only to things. The immobility of people under the global rule of neoliberalism is as much a foundational component of new world economic order as the hyper-mobility of things. The terror attacks of 9/11 provided both context and justification for the increased securitization of borders, materializing political lines as militarized barriers against “unknowable unknowns.” Physical obstructions—fences, walls and blockades— erupted to entrench and fortify immaterial borders, creating an infrastructure of control. “Technologies of security” reinforced this infrastructure: video cameras, Xray scanners, metal detectors, full body scanners and explosive detection swabs. The all-seeing, all-knowing eye of surveillant technology would overcome the inevitability of human error and keep us all safe.

As borders and fences became increasingly dense and opaque, humans travelling across the geo-political divides they defended became more and more transparent. David Lyon (2009) calls this the “new transparency” whereby the identities of individuals become increasingly visible to state institutions and corporations through a variety of surveillance measures. The new transparency is made possible not only through surveillant technology that exposes even the most private of body parts, but through new regimes of identification. These new ID regimes have intensified requirements, necessitating more and greater proof of identity, with less certainty on the part of the traveler of her mobility. Terrorist watch lists and their by-product, no-fly lists are one example of lessening of mobility due to new regimes of identification. Another example is racial and ethnic profiling at borders, airports and other such security check-points. The increasingly restrictive immigration and refugee policies that limit the flow of people based on country of origin are yet another. So while capital enjoys unfettered circulation as a precondition for its globalization, the movements of human beings are constrained by the “free” market.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the “war on terror’s” discourse of fear supported the growing securitization of the world’s borders, making people more transparent and less mobile on a global scale. But this is not only a global phenomenon; it occurs at a local level in the militarization of the city. Graham (2010) calls it the new military urbanism—the tendency of militaries and law enforcement to view domestic urban terrain as a conflict zone and city-dwellers as targets to be monitored and controlled. This was what residents of Toronto saw happening to their city in the lead up to the 2010 G20 Summit, an economic meeting of the world’s wealthiest nations. Although Canadian law enforcement agencies had been making their preparations for more than a year, the physical reconfiguration of public space began in earnest several weeks before the meeting. Inner and outer security zones were established around the summit site. A 10 metre high metal fence encased in concrete was built, stretching three kilometres and encircling vital parts of Toronto’s financial and transportation hub. This infrastructure of control was enhanced by technologies of security, largely in the form of 71 new post-mounted video surveillance cameras deployed in the downtown core, and complemented by a temporary identification regime, which required employees and residents of the outer zone to obtain special ID cards. Toronto police warned residents to expect traffic delays, and to avoid the inner city, as mobility would be limited. The mayor of Toronto, David Miller, advised people to “avoid downtown” during the G20 weekend, so as to avoid this inconvenience. The message was clear: new, if temporary, borders within the city would obstruct human mobilities.

What people didn’t know was that the securitization of Toronto via infrastructures of control, technologies of security and regimes of identification would devolve into martial law and the de facto suspension of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Infrastructures of control, technologies of security and regimes of identification are inherently social, born of human wants and needs and deployed by socio-political mechanisms. But there is another manifestly social component to the new urban militarism: law enforcement. In the case of the Toronto G20, 20, 000 public police officers and private security guards descended upon the city to complete its fortification. In securing and defending the summit site against possible violence, the coalition police force, led by the Toronto Police Service, conducted illegal detentions, searches and ID requests of protesters and passers-by alike. The effect of this unlawful behaviour by police was the forced transparency or visibility of people who, being deprived of their civil liberties (including the right to anonymity and privacy), were exposed to mistreatment of their person, as well as their personal information (gathered during ID checks and arrests) by police.

Not only did people in Toronto experience limited mobility caused by the physical reconfiguration of the cityscape—fences, roadblocks, traffic, riot police lines—the web of videos surveillance cameras that enmeshed the downtown core arguably reconfigured the city’s psyche. While video surveillance cameras might not deter crime, they may be productive of other effects such as self-censorship or the absence of the expression of freedoms promised by democratic societies. The enactment of war measures legislation, in the form of the Public Works Protection Act, enabled police to further restrict the circulation of people within the city by requiring them (unlawfully as it turned out) to produce their ID upon threat of arrest. People were warned not to go within five metres of the summit fence if they did not want to show their ID to police, although in practice police demanded identification up to five kilometres away. This forced transparency on the part of citizens or civilians occurred at the same time as law enforcement were removing signs of their identity. By adopting the black bloc tactic of invisibility through anonymity, G20 police were empowered to operate outside the law, as ample documentary evidence indicates. Ironically, police stood down and allowed black bloc protestors to roam unrestricted through the financial and entertainment districts engaging in property destruction. It was after the vandalism spree that police mobilized in what appeared as a vendetta, blocking, corralling and terrorizing peaceful, often seated protesters. Police kettled hundreds of protesters in at least three separate events, detaining lawful protesters and non-protesters for hours at a time. Over the course of the weekend, police arrested more than 1100 people (the largest mass arrest in Canadian history), detaining them in a makeshift jail for up to three days. Thus we have the continued reduction of mobility during the G20: the movement of protesters and city-dwellers alike was gradually constricted, shrinking from the downtown core to the individual spaces of protests to highly delimited kettles to jail cells.

On a global level, we see the militarized demarcation of geo-political borders in order to limit transnational mobilities while securing open flows for money and things. At the local level, we see the encroaching militarization of cities as world leaders and their unelected financial captains establish temporary zones of exclusion where they meet to oil the wheels of the capitalist economy. Like intensified ID regimes at national borders and airports, the zones of exclusion that attend global economic summits force a visibility—and hence a vulnerability—on those seeking to move in, around and through them. People become more identifiable, more transparent as the inner-workings and motivations of state institutions grow increasingly opaque. Law enforcement take liberties with our liberty, invoking an anonymity which elsewhere they decry as criminal, in order to criminalize dissent while engaging in criminality themselves. The Toronto G20 is by no means an isolated event. On the anniversary of 9/11 we soberly remember Maher Arar’s extreme rendition, which occurred secretly and illegally under the cover of “war on terror” hysteria, and his year-long imprisonment and torture.

The reduction of liberties is a reduction of mobilities that goes hand in hand with the increased liberty of things and money, essential for the smooth operation of neoliberal capitalism on a world scale. The promise of freedom, then, is a promise held out to largely to non-human actors in an economic system that has few human beneficiaries. Visibility becomes political when identification becomes a means of categorize and therefore constrain, the movements of human actors subject to the dominant and inescapable capitalist world order.

September dance card: Full

September 3rd, 2011

Kate shaddowSummer has been busy, as I’ve continued working on the special issue of Surveillance & Society that I’m co-editing with Colin Bennett and Andrew Clement. The theme of the issue is cyber-surveillance, and will comprise a selection of papers presented at Cyber-Surveillance in Everyday Life, the international workshop we hosted at the University of Toronto last May. I am also putting the final touches on a journal article, co-authored with Clement, about surveillance techniques and technologies deployed during last summer’s G20. Then of course there was the beach, and other summery distractions, that Vancouver + no rain make appealing…

But September’s shaping up to be even busier. I head to Kingston to present the G20 paper September 8 at Queens University as part of the workshop Expanding the Surveillance Net: Ten Years After 9/11. Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend the associated public event in Ottawa, Liberties Lost? Surveillance since 9/11, where Maher Arar and Maureen Webb (author of Illusions of Security, a fascinating and frightening look at the scope of government surveillance. See her Democracy Now! interview  here).

Then on September 15, I’ll take part in a panel discussion after the screening of the critically acclaimed documentary Article 12, “a thought-provoking exposé on our current obsession with voyeurism, surveillance technologies, power and control.” The event runs from 7:30-10:30pm at W2 and you can purchase tickets online (no one turned away) here.

Photo: Kris Krug

Photo: Kris Krug

On September 24, I’ll give the keynote speech at another screening, this time for the premiere of With Glowing Hearts, a documentary about the use of social media in the Downtown Eastside. The premiere will be preceded by an unconference that will explore potential that social media and citizen journalism have to strengthen communities. Tickets for that are here.

Finally, we are planning the launch of our Lawful Access video, which features Canadian experts on privacy and surveillance discussing why this legislation is such a bad idea, and encouraging concerned citizens and internet users to get involved. This will be for the end of September – I’ll keep you posted!

Groundswell against Lawful Access gathering

August 23rd, 2011
big brother Harper

Image courtesy The Progressive Rambler

One of the outcomes of Cyber-Surveillance in Everyday Life was the formation of a group of scholars, civil rights advocates and privacy experts determined to do something about the lawful access legislation contained in the Conservatives’ omnibus crime bill.

Our opening public event, entitled (Un)Lawful Access: Cyber-Surveillance, Security & Civil Liberties, featured a panel discussion on the encroaching nature of digitally mediated surveillance, particularly that conducted by the state. It was standing room only as Micheal Vonn, of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, Jacob Appelbaum, (aka @ioerror), Christopher Prince, from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, Lisa Autsin, from University of Toronto’s Law Faculty, and Bell’s Dave McMahon discussed the current state and future direction of online surveillance. At the end of the workshop, it was clear that we couldn’t just leave it at a discussion: something had to be done.

At about the same time, OpenMedia was considering launching a national campaign against lawful access. Our groups came together to strategize and support a broad based grassroots effort to halt – or at least alter – the most egregious aspects of the bills. OpenMedia started a petition opposing mandatory Internet surveillance, calling the lawful access legislation a “scheme” that “is poorly thought out, costly, and will leave our personal information less secure. Unchecked mass surveillance is a breach of our fundamental right to privacy.”

After a couple months of consultation, drafting and editing, we logged our concerns in a letter to Stephen Harper, pointing out the serious negative implications for the privacy rights of Canadians. This is more worrisome because, due to the fast-track nature of the omnibus approach, these will not receive the public airing and scrutiny they need and deserve. As the Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic, one of the letter’s signatories, notes: “This type of expansion in surveillance power should only be undertaken with great care and where demonstrably necessary.”

I wrote about the problems of lawful access in its last incarnation under the Conservatives. It appears very little has changed in the upcoming legislation. Our letter highlights various troubling aspects of the lawful access bills as we last saw them, including:

  • The ease by which Canadians’ Internet service providers, social networks, and even their handsets and cars will be turned into tools to spy on their activities further to production and preservation orders in former Bill C‐51 – a form of spying that is bound to have serious chilling effects on online activity and communications, implicating fundamental rights and freedoms;
  • The minimal and inadequate amount of external oversight in place to ensure that the powers allotted in these bills are not abused;
  • Clause 16 of former Bill C‐52, which will allow law enforcement to force identification of anonymous online Internet users, even where there is no reason to suspect the information will be useful to any investigation and without adequate court oversight; and
  • The manner in which former Bill C‐52 paves the way to categorical secrecy orders that will further obscure how the sweeping powers granted in it are used and that are reminiscent of elements of the USA PATRIOT Act that were found unconstitutional.

Lawful access is part of what David Lyon, Andrew Clement and others have called “the new transparency” whereby state and corporate actors require ever more information, ever more data transparency, from us, while increasingly obscuring their activities and data trails from the public. In a democracy, this just doesn’t compute.

While we have yet to hear from Harper himself, our letter has nevertheless attracted a modest amount of attention. BoingBoing featured it after Chris Parsons, another of the signatories to the letter, wrote about it on his blog. OpenMedia plugged it and Ars Technica mentioned it in a comprehensive piece on lawful access legislation.

Our amplified voices add to the growing media attention and groundswell of opposition to this type of state-sponsored surveillance. The Globe & Mail published an op/ed piece linking the spying legislation to a 9/11 paranoia hangover, stating that lawful access legislation “will compel Internet service providers to disclose customer information to authorities without a court order. In other words – blunter words – law enforcement agencies will have a freer hand in spying on the private lives of Canadians.”

Writing in The Toronto Star, Michael Geist notes real problems in the legislation’s “three-pronged approach focused on information disclosure, mandated surveillance technologies, and new police powers.” It “raises genuine privacy and free speech concerns, particularly given the fact that the government has never provided adequate evidence on the need for it, it has never been subject to committee review, and it would cost millions to implement yet there has been no disclosure on who would actually pay for it”

Even The National Post is worried.

And Canadians are taking notice. Today, the OpenMedia petition today has more than 45,000 signatures. In releasing our letter, we academics and advocates joined not only OpenMedia but a national coalition of citizens and organizations working to expose the negative aspects of these bills, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the BC Civil Liberties Association, and all of Canada’s privacy commissioners, federal and provincial. That is really the heart of democracy: people. Raising their voices. Working together. Getting involved. And if we can take a page out of the late Jack Layton’s playbook, it’s this: change is possible. Not only possible, but necessary. So let’s go people.

Contact your MP here.

Sign the Stop Spying petition here.

Write a letter to the editor here (or your local paper).

Raise a little hell however you know how. And stay tuned for our video on Lawful Access, which I helped produce, featuring prominent Canadian academics and advocates speaking against increased state surveillance without adequate legal constraints and protections.

Smart thoughts on the London Riots + one dumb journo

August 22nd, 2011

There’s been a lot of reactionary claptrap on the London Riots, exemplified in the clip above – an interview conducted by a mainstream media drone. Here’s some of the more intelligent stuff I’ve read:

Shoplifters of the World Unite! – I expected nothing less of Žižek

Feral Capitalism Hits the Streets – David Harvey elaborates on the central problem: “that we live in a society where capitalism itself has become rampantly feral.”

Daylight Robbery, Meet Nighttime Robbery - Naomi Klein rips off Harvey a bit, but nails it for general consumption and so is forgiven.

No surprise: G20 cams *not* down!

December 9th, 2010


As of last week, this CCTV camera remained in place at Queen and Peter Streets, despite media reports that the security cameras erected for the G20 summit last June had been taken down.

Although Toronto Police announced the 71 CCTV cameras acquired for the G20 would be removed upon “the completion of the event, when there’s no longer an issue of security,” research has shown that mega-events such as the Olympics and global economic summits typically leave a security legacy. Equipment purchased and installed on an ostensibly temporary basis become incorporated into the permanent infrastructure, altering in subtle and obvious ways the physical and psychological terrain of the city.

“A distinctive attribute of securing contemporary mega-events is the increased use of technology,” including CCTV cameras, observe Boyle & Haggerty (2009). The desire to “seamlessly integrate technological, informational and human capabilities in order to hopefully anticipate, detect, and respond to security issues” concretizes in a security legacy that is quickly absorbed and naturalized as part of the cityscape.

This change in the security infrastructure of host cities is part of the legacy of mega-events: “the templates for what is entailed in being a global city consequently also undergo a change,” note Boyle and Haggerty, “increasingly appealing to urban exemplars that have been re-imagined in light of new security initiatives” (270). This is bound up in a process of “urban militarism”—the attempt “to translate long-standing military dreams of high-tech omniscience and rationality into the governance of urban civil society” Graham (2010).

So on November 17, when Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair told Metro Morning’s Matt Galloway of the proposal to purchase 52 of the G20 CCTV cameras, it came as no surprise. The only surprise was that this was considered news. On August 6, Toronto Star reporter Henry Stancu wrote of the Toronto Police Service’s intention to keep the security cameras, for which they paid half-price—about $175,000, with the federal government paying the balance. “The Toronto Police Service has ownership of them and they may or may not be deployed again,” said Meaghan Gray, of the police public information unit.

Blair insists that CCTV cameras are useful,  telling the media: “They’ve been very effective in the entertainment district but it’s starting to move a little bit west, so there’s some additional places we would like to deploy cameras.” He offered no evidence to substantiate his claims that police-owned cameras help “keep the city safe” or that they “have proven to be an invaluable investigative tool,” however.

In fact, research shows quite the opposite, pointing consistently to the relative inefficacy of CCTV cameras, except in parking lots. Although surveys about public perception of the crime prevention, reduction and solving capabilities of CCTV cameras abound, Ratcliffe (2006) notes that “evidence of actual crime reduction is harder to find.” Greenberg and Hier (2009) find that what evidence there is indicates “that surveillance cameras do not reduce the kinds of violent crime that citizens report to be most worried about (e.g., terrorism, muggings, rapes, et cetera).” A 2008 meta-analysis of 44 studies done on CCTV in the US and UK found that “CCTV schemes” in city centres, public housing and public transit “did not have a significant effect on crime” (Welsh & Farrington).  Nevertheless, as they note, “news coverage overwhelmingly focuses on violent signal crimes as the referent for increasing CCTV surveillance in public space” (473).

A Toronto Police report on its CCTV pilot program, which ran between May 2007-April 2008 in four neighbourhoods, does not offer strong support for continuing the program, let alone expanding it. It found that the cameras in the Entertainment District, where Chief Blair suggests the G20 CCTV cameras might be redeployed, “did not have a significant deterrent effect on violent crime” nor did they “appear to have had a significant effect on reducing the overall number of violent Calls for Service.” Findings as to whether the cameras assisted in criminal investigations were inconclusive.

Leveraging popular assumptions about CCTV as a force for crime reduction and prevention, as well as the media hype surrounding “violent anarchists” sure to descend upon Toronto, the TPS originally justified the additional G20 cameras as a means to “to ensure the safety and security for dignitaries, business owners, residents and people who work and visit the downtown area and protesters,” according to Police Const. Wendy Drummond. However, the cameras did little to protect citizens during the G20 weekend, when police engaged in flagrant abuse of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including assault of peaceful demonstrators (and here and here and here),  illegal searches (and here and here),  warrantless raids on activist homes, and snatch and grab arrests, (and here). This was apparently in response to a small group of about 100 (out of 25,000) protesters, who used the Black Bloc tactic to engage in property damage for about 1.5 hours on Saturday June 25, causing police to abandon their mandate of service and protection, delivered in an “impartial, equitable, sensitive and ethical manner.” The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, in its preliminary report of observations made during the G20 summit, concluded that “police conduct during the G20 Summit was, at times, disproportionate, arbitrary and excessive.”

In this context of police violence, abuse of power and apparent lawlessness, the function of CCTV cameras, as part of the G20 security apparatus, shifted from that of crime prevention and public safety. It became, instead, forensic, with cameras upheld as investigative tools after the fact. Thus CCTV became enrolled into what Schneier (2008) calls “security theatre”—”security designed to make you feel more secure” (174). While the cameras did nothing to protect citizens from police abuse or harassment, they were touted as instruments of justice that would hold “G20 vandals” to account. It is important to note, however, that the majority of the 40,000 images collected in the “hunt for ringleaders” and others responsible for corporate property damage—80 percent by one media account—came from the public and not from police-owned security cameras. Further, the pictures released as part of the Toronto Police “most wanted” list appear to be taken at street level and not from the 12 metre height of the CCTV cameras.

CCTV as a “technology of security” was also  incorporated into the media spectacle of “rioting Black Bloc” and “Toronto burning,” despite the apparent impotence of G20 cameras—they neither prevented crime, ensured public safety nor assisted in crime solving. French Situationist Guy de Bord’s notion of spectacle is indeed fitting: as a tool of pacification and depoliticization, designed to stupefy and distract, now multiplied and magnified through the distorting lens of  corporate media. The emphasis on cameras for crime prevention and public safety shifted in the aftermath of Black Bloc vandalism and the violent police response. Members of the public were distracted from widespread police brutality as the TPS invited them to collaborate in their own surveillance by uploading private footage, anonymously, through its website.

In this context, CCTV was repositioned as a forensic tool designed to aid in solving  “violent crime” (as corporate property damage is portrayed), and in bringing  the “G20 vandals” to justice. Yet in practice, this has not been their function: most of the footage came from the public. Neither does it appear that any of the photos on the TPS’s “most wanted” list came from CCTV cameras. Further, none of these photos depict any of the so-called G20 ringleaders—19 well known community organizers, social justice activists and political dissenters who in any case were not apprehended as a result of CCTV evidence but  turned themselves in. Certainly, the “Black Bloc rampage” was not prevented by the presence of CCTV cameras, nor indeed by police themselves, who stood down by the thousands as Black Bloc-ers moved unimpeded throughout the financial and commercial districts.

The public has yet to learn how useful the g20 security cameras have been to the ongoing investigation into the property damage that occurred during the G20. This footage has not been made public, despite Chief Blair’s pledge to release at least some it to the media. At a press conference June 26, Real News Network editor Paul Jay asked for a comment on the targeting of journalists by police. He recounted an incident, just after the arrest of Emomotimi Azorbo, where RNN journalist Jesse Freeston was punched twice by police. Jay asked if police misconduct would be investigated and offered to make video footage of the assault available to Blair. Blair responded:

“We were videotaping it as well. We videotaped all aspects of it. One of the things people missed yesterday was a large cadre of Black Bloc dressed people in the centre of the crowd; as it approached along College St., they began to throw things at my officers. It was necessary for my people to put their helmets on, and it was also necessary for us to go into that crowd and arrest some of the people who were attacking them…All of that was videoed. Right from the balcony outside my office. I’d be more than happy to share that with you and all of the media.”

The incident where police assaulted Freeston, and where Azorbo—a deaf man who could not hear police orders—was arrested took place outside a Winner’s store at the intersection of College and Yonge Streets. There were no Black Bloc actions in sight, according to Freeston’s eyewitness report. While the G20 security cameras positioned outside Chief Blair’s office at police headquarters, midway between Yonge and Bay Streets on College, would not likely have recorded the incident, including Blair’s allegations of Black Block activity, the one positioned at College and Yonge Streets should have some documentary footage.

Blair has not shared that footage or indeed any obtained by police CCTV cameras, including from the temporary detention centre, where there were serious breaches of constitutional rights, according to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. This is not the first—or second—time TPS Chief Blair has made false statements on record, shattering what little credibility he might have, what with his blanket defense of G20 policing, and his refusal to participate in external investigations (like the one conducted by Ontario’s Ombudsman). However, the TPS was not shy about discussing its various “high tech” approaches to identifying “G20 vandals”, including using facial recognition software owned by a banking lobby group and scouring the internet for “clues” to the identity of “persons of interest.” The use of facial recognition software raised concern among privacy advocates as well as the Canadian Civil Liberties association. The concern, said CCLA general counsel Nathalie Des Rosiers, “is the lack of experience of the judicial system with facial recognition software and the danger of many people being arrested based on a technology that has not been fully explored and tested in our legal system.” The sharing of police surveillance data with a private entity could also raise privacy conflicts.
Given all of this, the TPS should be required to justify their bid to add more security infrastructure to the cityscape—a place where,  historically, people could meet and move about freely. And we, the public, should hold them to account. As famed civil rights lawyer Clayton Ruby put it, CCTV cameras “change the nature of public space and they change the nature of the kind of privacy the Constitution guarantees to every citizen.”
See a map of G20 cameras, prepared by the Toronto Star, here.
See “before” pictures of G20 cameras in the Surveillance Club’s Flickr group.