In this blog first published on the website of the Scottish Left Project, GRAEME ARNOTT points out the human rights implications of increased surveillance in Scotland, much of it using technology first developed by the Israeli military and tested on Palestinians.
“The [Investigatory Powers Bill provides us with] powers that I believe we need, whether on communications data, or on the content of communications, I feel very comfortable these are absolutely right for a modern, liberal democracy.” – David Cameron
In contrast to those who would prefer a revolution without a revolution, radicals are possessed by what Alain Badiou calls the ‘passion of the Real: if you say A – equality, human rights, freedoms – you should have to say B – the terror needed to really defend and assert the A’. But what, if, rather than applying Badiou’s formula to the radical left, we apply it to Cameron’s unrestrained Conservative majority government? If you say A – inequality, loss of human rights, freedom of capital, freedom to privatize, deregulate, and exploit the planet – then you should have to say B – the terror needed to defend and assert the A.’ Then we see that when Jen Stout wrote in an earlier Left Project article that austerity and surveillance are the primary features of unrestrained Tory rule, she wasn’t simply stating an empirical fact about the government’s future policy plans but rightly setting out that both need to be regarded in their proper historical context. Whereas austerity is the unrestrained class war of A, the paranoid surveillance spy-state is the Tory terror that will be used to ensure its success.
Stout is also right to point out there are complications that arise with the abolition of the Human Rights Act in Scotland. And the question then arises as to just how the neoliberal surveillance state will be implemented and managed in a country that has once again rejected conservatism and elected fifty-six SNP MPs on an anti-austerity ticket? The answer to that question is much like the solution in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express in so far as there is one simple, relatively straightforward solution and another that is much more complex.
Big Brother is just so 1980s
Anyone who has read Anna Funder’s remarkable book Stasiland will have experienced a palpable sense of relief in the tonal shift from the bureaucratic austerity of brown plastic linoleum, Mielke’s nuclear mustard-coloured furniture, and the grey landscape and architecture of Germany, to the blossoming spring in a German park. But it would be wrong to think that today’s technocrats possess that same drab East German tone. Today’s modern day surveillance state is built upon the high definition of Silicon Valley: today’s modern day surveillance state is smart.
In 2013 the Technology Strategy Board (now called Innovate UK) announced that Glasgow had beaten nearly thirty rival cities to win £24 million of UK Government money. None of this money, Hamish Macdonell has pointed out, was earmarked for regeneration, or housing or schooling or renewable energy schemes: it was all spent on technology. And it’s here in the ‘future city’ that the simple answer lies. Here we can see how the Tories, once again in collaboration with the Labour Party, will seek to police their frontier zone.
The stated aim of the TSB future city money is ‘to explore innovative ways to use technology and data to make life in the city safer, smarter and more sustainable’. The future city’s emphasis on technology and data shouldn’t be misunderstood as only extending to those with computers and smart devices – the digital divide is not a factor here. The future city doesn’t simply seek an efficient shift in the delivery of public services, but seeks a transformation of everyday analogue human actions and activities into digitally recordable and analyzable data. As it says on the Glasgow Future City website, ‘cities and their citizens generate a huge amount of data which can be used in smart ways to achieve great things’. The future city thrives on data. strolling along a city street; cycling in the park; pushing the kids in the prams; taking part in an impromptu march in support of an OXI vote; supporting striking council workers – all become digital acts. Indeed, every single physical action performed on the streets of Glasgow will become storable data, smartly linked to every other one of your digital acts, and analyzed by some of the smartest technology available, provided by one of the most militaristic, aggressive states on the planet.
Wandering around the future city this year, Macdonell observed that the changes in Glasgow were invisible. It was a significant observation. Rather than initially taking a physically brutal approach to public order, an emphasis on technology allows the authorities emphasize the objective violence the underlies the city’s passivity. In other words, there will be no need for anyone in authority to stop you performing these actions – indeed, such a brutal approach hinders the collection of data. Consequently, most people will not perceive any change, and it is this reality of unfreedom that makes the surveillance system of the future city such a threat.
From Gaza with hate
We have learned lots from Gaza. It’s a great laboratory. – Israeli Army Brigadier General Elkabetz
The Israeli military has a prestigious history in the development of digital technology. Unit 8200, for example, is an elite technological unit of the Israeli army intelligence services responsible for the development for what have become everyday tech objects as the firewall, the memory stick and Instant Messaging. In its size and function, Unit 8200 has been compared to that of the NSA.
Blumenthal describes Gaza as one of the most closely surveilled and intensely controlled patches of earth on the planet. But what is unusual about the cameras and the associated smart software technology being used in Gaza is the unease that the technology provoked in the Israeli military Unit itself. This became public in September 2014 when forty-three veterans signed a public letter stating their refusal to become involved in the practices that involve ‘the widespread surveillance of innocent residents’. The purpose of the surveillance, the Israeli veterans claimed, was not to protect Israeli citizens but to politically persecute the Palestinian civilian populace and to create divisions in Palestinian society. One feature of the Israeli veterans’ complaint was that such practices characterize ‘every undemocratic regime’.
In June this year the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign formed the Facebook group ‘Nae NICE Glasgow’. This was to raise awareness of the Israeli defence technology firm NICE/Elbit’s CCTV and software system that has been deployed on the streets of Glasgow as a pilot in Glasgow City Council’s future city programme. Whilst a classical technological determinist argument would take the position that technology is always in itself neutral, such an argument fails to take account of the political, social and economic context of the technology’s production and installation. It might be more appropriate to acknowledge that Glasgow City Council have decided to install, without any form of proper debate, a disproportionate level of surveillance that, has malignancy at the heart of its design. The obvious question is this: why is this necessary in Glasgow at this time?
‘Violence is perhaps an unexpected focus for a discussion about digital technology and urban design’
Like any other large scale urban conurbation, Glasgow has its fair share of what Žižek calls ‘subjective violence’ – the type that some media outlets like to focus on to characterize the city. But given that Glasgow was hosting the Commonwealth Games around the time when over two thousand civilians in Gaza lost their lives in a military onslaught, the suggestion that the streets of Glasgow bear any similarity is ridiculous. In fact it’s beyond ridiculous; it’s an insult to the people of Glasgow and a slur on the Palestinian dead.
Of course, the hackneyed arguments about security and terrorism will be competently and professionally ventriloquised by those now skilled in the art of fearmongering, but the function of the system in the laboratory of Gaza was not to protect the people of Palestine but to disrupt those communities. It’s no secret that the system, with its facial and emotional recognition capabilities, was put in place to facilitate blackmail amongst Palestinian activists, to seek contradiction, to generate fear and to bring about shame. This is the system that is currently being piloted in Glasgow.
It’s been suggested that some of the features of the NICE/Elbit software – such as facial and emotional recognition – will not be used in Glasgow. But it’s worth bearing in mind here a New York Times editorial in 2013. It criticised the Obama administration for proving the truism that any executive branch will use any power it is given and will very likely abuse it. The knowledge that your every movement and gesture is being added to your own personal file on some server is meant to bring about the desirable behavioural change of compliance, obedience, conformity – political docility – political death. That is the political return on the future city investment: to wage economic war on the poor, and discipline them should they think about stepping out of line – such is the passion of the Tory Real. Such are the powers that are ‘absolutely right for a modern, liberal democracy’.
Nae NICE Glasgow
Despite the obvious foolishness of the comparison, Glasgow is similar to Gaza: both are dangerous political places from which political elites feel threatened. Glasgow is a place where people are no longer happy to entertain the institutions that have governed their lives for so long; it’s a place where the institutions of unionism are under threat from an articulate and increasingly politically educated populace. The same might be said for many other towns in Scotland. Already Edinburgh has plans for mass surveillance of the city using digital cameras and software, and Police Scotland are now arguing for the upgrade of all cameras to a digital format and the centralisation of the accumulated data. Glasgow’s pilot of Israeli military grade technology is just the beginning.
Patrick Harvie recently wrote in The National that ‘every new use of technology subtly shifts our relationship with the state’. For the Holyrood election we could do worse than foreground and fight for our digital rights in the way that our predecessors fought for our human and civil rights. Cat Boyd was absolutely correct in her speech at June’s Anti-austerity demonstration in Glasgow to say that we need to continue to fight for those rights. To do that though, we can no longer think of digital rights as some sort of plug-in to our human and civil rights: digital rights are human rights. For the local authority elections we need, to borrow Funder’s metaphor, to take the opportunity to sweep away the old men and women of the current tyranny, and to disinfect the City Chambers from its stench of authoritarianism.
The SNP, as they currently stand, are not the solution to this problem. This is for two reasons. The first threat comes from the SNP’s own authoritarian tendencies. An excess of unity may lead to tyranny, wrote T.S. Eliot in Notes Towards A Definition of Culture, and it is the nature of authority to equate dissent with wrongdoing. Amongst other things, the authoritarian tendency of the SNP currently threatens to produce a national ID database. The second threat is inadvertent and more subtle. In his account of the Snowden leaks Glenn Greenwald points out that arguments for and against surveillance simply rotate based on which party is in power. A populace that trusts its politicians is inclined to accept harsh authoritarian surveillance when it believes, firstly, that the politicians in charge are benign and trustworthy, and secondly, that the surveillance is not directed against them but only directed against the ‘other’. Trust is not sufficient.
There is neither a technological nor a security solution to this issue. The answer is not to advocate a new Luddism. Geeks are going to continue to geek, and there is no point in advocating a mass rejection of the 21C technology: very few of us will willingly part with our devices, and, as Jim Sillars counsels, our approach must be real and achievable. The question is, fundamentally, one of democracy, and the solution needs to be political. We need to shift the discussion of surveillance away from the fascination of subjective violence and its perpetrators, towards a broader, political discussion about the relationship between people’s democratic and social practices, and the data that modern technology is capable of recording, creating and analysing.
There is not one single reason for any pro-independence politician to continue the terror policies of the Tories. Those standing in the forthcoming local authority elections in Glasgow should commit to dismantling the entire NICE/Elbit infrastructure. But trust is not sufficient. Pol Clementsmith from the Open Rights Group Scotland has suggested that a Magna Carta for the digital age should be produced to hold all of the people’s representatives to account. Such a charter could itself be crowdsourced using open technology, following the democratic principles that underpin platforms like Wikipedia. This idea has the potential to start the national conversation required for us to reclaim our streets and our data, and assert our control over them.
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Nae Nice Glasgow, https://www.facebook.com/groups/765091020273732/