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Friday, January 20, 2006

Hope among the ruins: Wildcat versus Asbo TV

Bus drivers in England staged a spontaneous wildcat strike yesterday, walking off the job and shutting down routes in North West London. The workers "refused to leave their garage in protest against management bullying and 'spy' cameras in their cabs." Management has installed closed circuit cameras in the buses, ostensibly for safety, but workers found that the cameras pointed right at them.

A spokesman for the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) said,
"There's no problem with CCTV on buses in principle. We welcome it because it gives extra protection to the drivers, it helps the police solve crimes and it makes the travelling public feel safer.

"But drivers are unhappy that a new lens is focused just on their cab and seems to have no reason to be there other than to spy on them."
Perhaps betraying the union's function as a second layer of management, he continued, "The union's role was to get people back to work and we have made sure that the issues which led to the strike are now being properly addressed by the company." Mean while, the managing director of the company had this to say:
"Whilst we understand that constant monitoring of what goes on inside a bus can be an emotive issue, our policy has always been only to view such images in the case of public complaint, personal injury to passengers, assault or road traffic accident."
It should be no surprise that, given the nature of hierarchies, there would be little difference between the union leadership's position and that of management, while workers are left on their own to fight new levels of surveillance on the job.

Also from Britain, the Hornsey & Crouch End Journal reports that police used a mobile cctv system to bust up a mob of 200 masked partiers who swarmed a Muslim celebration being held in a West Indian Cultural Center. It's not clear why the mob chose to crash the party, though if one draws a few conclusions from the fact that "white" is generally considered a default description and so is very often left out in press coverage, what we may have here is a white mob attacking festivities organized in a West Indian Cultural Center by a man "believed to be of Somalian origin."

Then there's the police's side of the story. A police spokesman, "When police arrived on the scene the crowds were very aggressive and began to mask their faces. Police, using tact, diplomacy and positive directive policing [my emphasis], ensured that the tension was diffused and a potentially serious incident was avoided." I think we've heard this kind of thing before.

Meanwhile, some folks are angry about a proposed cctv plan in Shoreditch, England. Dubbed "Asbo TV,"
The project will enable Shoreditch residents to compare suspicious characters with an on-screen "rogue's gallery" from their living-room.

Viewers can then alert police to anyone in breach of an anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) or committing a crime.
About a thousand residents of the trendy, gentrifying neighborhood will participate in a pilot plan before the full deal is expanded to the entire town of 20,000. Residents will have access to around 400 cameras. The plan comes as part of an interactive digital TV package, but is funded by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister as part of a plan to "regenerate" poor neighborhoods. Viewers can utilize email to anonymously tip of the bobbies to any crime they see going on.
Atul Hatwal, strategy director of the Shoreditch Digital Bridge, said while crime in the area has fallen, the community safety channel will address the fear of crime.

"The scheme aims to empower members of the local community to support police in tackling crime and supporting each other in making Shoreditch a safer place," he said.
In an article from the Times of London, supporters summed it up in clear terms:
“The CCTV element is part curiosity, like a 21st-century version of Big Brother, and partly about security,” said Atul Hatwell, of the Shoreditch Digital Bridge project. “This is a much more intensive neighbourhood watch, where everyone can be involved in the fight against crime.”
One resident, Luke Evans, 27, a marketing adviser sees things positively. “If residents can report crime from the safety of their own living rooms it’s got to be a good thing,” he said.

Also across the pond, British police, very much on the cutting edge of surveillance technology (which is why I give it so much attention here), are investigating how to integrate face recognition technology into their national mugshot database. According to silicon.com ("driving business through technology"), police - already hard at work creating a national "database of still and video facial images, marks, scars and tattoos, linked to criminals' details on the Police National Computer" - hope to incorporate the new technology in order to increase the rapidity and efficiency of their policing.

Full of biometric information, the new database will make such data more important in the future, said Geoff Whitaker, head of biometrics for the Police Information Technology Organisation (Pito).
"With the deployment of FIND [Facial Images National Database] in the near future it is inevitable that the use of facial biometrics will take on greater importance in policing. As with any biometric, such as fingerprints, iris or DNA, the usefulness of facial recognition in identification is dependant on the circumstances in which it is used. Whilst at the present time it seems unlikely that the accuracy of automated facial recognition technology will ever match that of fingerprints, it is nevertheless a powerful tool used by each of us everyday to identify friends, colleagues and loved ones and it has a vital role to play within the investigative process."
It's circular reasoning at it's finest, but it does highlight the often not so clear but "inevitable" relationship between the development and justification of technologies. One must not necessarily precede the other in the way we might conventionally think of cause and effect. This is often true for technology in general, but it is particularly true for developments in police technology. The first technology can be developed in anticipation of a second, more advanced technology, the mere potential of which can then be used in turn to justify the first technology. Kind of an oppression twofer.

Also interesting to note is the relationship between criticism of existing systems and the development of still more oppressive ones. Take September 11th. In the aftermath of the attacks, the Democratic Party began opportunistically criticizing the administration for failures, institutional, organizational and technological problems which, they claimed had hindered the government's attempts to catch terrorists. Bookended by a shared faith in the police state, the debate raged on, inevitably ending in the consolidation of spy bureaucracies and domestic police agencies, as well as the erosion of walls of separation between them. Thanks Democrats.

Anyhow, one of the other changes that came out of that debate was the Real ID Act. Passed in 2005, the law requires states to make their identification card systems compliant with facial recognition standards.

Flash forward to the present day. According to ABC Eyewitness News 5:
A day after the attorney general criticized the state's efforts at preventing identity theft, Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Thursday proposed a series of measures - including facial recognition technology on driver's licenses - that he said would make state-held private data more secure.

The governor said his proposals had long been planned and weren't a response to Wednesday's criticisms by Attorney General Mike Hatch - who also happens to be the Democratic favorite to run against him in November. But Pawlenty and Hatch sniped at each other extensively in dueling media briefings, both claiming they'd do more to prevent identity theft.

"Identity theft causes great trauma, damage and cost to families," Pawlenty said. "There's more Minnesota can do to strengthen safeguards on personal information and to crack down on identity thieves."

Likely to get the most attention is a proposal to use what's called biometric facial recognition technology on driver's licenses. The technology - which can be applied to existing license photos - converts the image into a mathematical algorithm to create a unique data file on every license-holder's face.
How's it gonna work? A Pioneer Press article on Officer.com explains it like this:
Here's how Pawlenty's office described it: "Facial recognition technology converts an image into a mathematical computer algorithm as a basis for a positive match. It uses the structure of a person's face -- such as width between the eyes, forehead depth and nose length -- to assign mathematical points of reference creating a unique data file."

The face scans will enable the state to detect people attempting to obtain licenses using the same photo with multiple names and birth dates, or the same name and birth date with multiple people's photos, said state Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion. "The technology will create a higher level of integrity for Minnesota's driver's licenses."

Pawlenty said 13 other states use the technology, and it has proved "highly accurate."

No new photos will be needed to develop the state's face-scan file. State workers will scan photos on current driver's licenses to create the new file.
Though none of the critics are willing to suggest it, I will say for the record that in a world like ours - so regulated, so restricted and not so concerned with justice - sometimes humans need to be able to get fake ID's, and to pass under false identities.

But, unfortunately, the elite dialogue on technology doesn't include such prespectives, so the self-reinforcing dialectic of technological oppression doesn't end there. Consider this excerpt from Minnesota Public Radio:
"We have statistics that show that more and more people are victims of these kinds of crimes, and we have a lot of work to do in this area, because the technology keeps changing," Pawlenty said.

As criminals' use of technology becomes ever more sophisticated, law enforcement is fighting back with technology of its own. Thirteen states use some type of facial recognition technology on their drivers' licenses. The system uses the structure of a person's face to mathematically check for identity fraud.
Absent a strong movement that can say no to these technologies, the technological dance has all sides - including criminals - spinning towards more and more intrusion, inspection and infringement on our basic rights as human beings.

Or, as politician Hatch told ABC, "Too many times we've had people stand up and say they want to do things to make private information more secure - and then they do the exact opposite."

To which Pawlenty responded, "There is gamesmanship going on here in terms of rhetoric," he said.

Yes, indeed.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Goddamn man, good coverage! Things are hot in Osaka, watch for us!!

you know hoo

Tue Jan 31, 03:04:00 AM 2006  

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