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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Marked, recorded and deterred: Technology and the future of the class war

Sometimes an article comes along that really says it all. In this case, I'm tempted to post the whole thing, to tell you the truth. I'm a firm believer that even the least critical articles can tell you a whole lot. While David Downs' recent Wired article, Dragnet, Reinvented, isn't totally uncritical, it sure gives the cops a lot of copy to convey their point of view. And that's not always a bad thing.

In his article, Downs writes about a ride along he took through the Rampart District with LAPD's vanguard in stolen vehicle recovery, a cop car equipped with
a digital license plate reader. The $20,000 system consists of two sets of cameras mounted on the squad car's roof, two more pointing out the rear window, a processing system in the trunk, and the Dell on the dash. Each Ding! means the LPR has processed a plate, checking it against the department's hot list of 123,000 stolen autos and outstanding warrants. As fast as [Officer Christine] Labriola can gun it through the littered streets, the Dell keeps pace. We pass an idling Chevy Impala. Ding! It appears on the screen. An ancient jalopy stripped to its axles sits near the curb. Ding! And up it pops.

"In the old way of doing business," Labriola says, gesturing out the window, "I'd see a suspect car like this one, an older import, and say to Ryan, 'Four-Zebra-Zebra-Nancy-Seven-Two-Five.'" Riding shotgun, officer Ryan Nguyen continues the old-school demonstration, tapping 4ZZN725 into a mobile data terminal mounted near his left knee. The device dials headquarters and checks the list. Nada. "We call it 'playing the stolen-car lotto,'" Nguyen says.
Regular blog readers (Valley residents take note) may remember a past PI entry (Arizona's ever-watchful eye: moving towards a maximum surveillance and deterrence society) in which I pointed out, like this article does, that the Mesa, Arizona, PD also has one of these devices, which it has already deployed. Now, with the technology poised to spread to the infamous Maricopa Sheriff's Department, headed by the notorious paranoid, megalomaniac, Sheriff Joe Arpaio (1) (2), there is even more cause for concern. This Wired article claims that Mesa now has two such readers.

Wired has reported on the plate reader before.
An automatic license-plate reader that can scan 500 license plates an hour looking for stolen vehicles underwent its first field tests by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department last week.

Using character-recognition technology developed for the Italian Post Office to read postal addresses, four robot eyes in the course of one night queried more than 12,000 license plates, recovered seven stolen cars and resulted in three arrests.
The reader offers many advantages, but its pure capabilities are really quite amazing.
The system works at "patrol car speeds," optimally at about 35 mph. It can scan the plates of vehicles almost anywhere on the road.

"We read them coming at us. We read them going by us. We read them parked," said Mark Windover, president of Remington-Elsag.
Made by the French/American hybrid company Remington-Elsag, the company boasts that they want to "[h]elp Law Enforcement Agencies fight crime and secure the homeland [by] bringing the benefits of innovative information technologies right to the point of operation." They further claim that their "[c]ameras are able to read up to 4 lanes of traffic with a single vehicle. Efficient High Speed cameras allow officers to read 8-10,000 plates in just one shift with just a single vehicle mount."

There's no escaping the unblinking eye of Sauron.

Other reporters have written about this sort of thing, as it makes it's way across the country, from one police department to another. A few months ago, Ramsey Al-Rikabi, writing for the Times Herald-Record, also did a ride along.
State Trooper Matthew Forestire pulls his cruiser onto Route 17 and drives west. He's on the road only seconds when he pulls over a school bus for an expired license plate.

How did he know so fast that the plate was no good?

He knows because a computer told him so.

He's got a new gadget in his cruiser that the New York State Police are testing out: A license plate scanner that checks almost every plate near it, telling the trooper if the plate is suspended, expired or reported stolen.

So instead of a trooper "running" your plate by calling it in, the scanner is like a thousand eyes, a thousand call-ins, a thousand checked plates - all with two cameras and a computer.
Further, it doesn't just work on car thieves and insurance scofflaws. Inspector Steve Smith, a field commander in Albany, said, "It has great potential, especially for Amber Alerts." That's bad news for revolutionaries and kidnappers alike and serves to point out how the mobile plate runner fits into the larger surveillance society context. Just because you haven't seen an Amber alert for an anarchist yet doesn't mean it isn't coming.

And the system is capable of saving the information it collects. While some civil liberties advocates have justifiably voiced privacy concerns, in general they miss the point.
"It's always a question, when the government collects information on individuals: Is there an administrative procedure to govern how the information is collected, how it's stored, and what happens to it?" said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, DC.
Police respond that they aren't saving the information, at least for now.
"It's not an intelligence gathering tool," said Maj. John Melville, commander of Troop F in Middletown. "It's more for enforcement."
Certainly, if it is convenient to use it for intelligence - for instance, to record license plates at a protest or political event - they surely will use it that way. To expect them not to is to be criminally naive. However, the primary effect of these technologies is to increase the power of the police to engage in their class war against the poor, primarily by increasing the opportunities for police contact, and, partly because of that, to deter autonomous action by the working class and others under attack by the state and capitalism.

In fact, the technology appears to be quite efficient at targeting poor people. According to the earlier Wired article,
[President of Remington-Elsag, Mark] Windover said false positives are "virtually nonexistent."

"In California, where we have the most experience, false positives are rare, occurring less than 1 in 100,000 reads," he said. "Importantly, 100 percent of all alarms from any read are verified by the operating law enforcement officer prior to a traffic stop or other action."

Cmdr. Sid Heal, of the L.A. County Sheriff Department, said that the license plate reader improved spotting stolen cars by "an order of magnitude."

"This makes us more efficient than we've been in the past," he said. "We would never check 12,000 license plates the conventional way."

Currently, officers have to read plates and call them in to a communications center to verify if the car is stolen. Because it is so cumbersome, officers tend only to check vehicles they are already suspicious of.
No longer. The more efficient the police are at targeting "criminals" (i.e., poor people), the less the system will appear to be in conflict with key underlying principles of democratic capitalism: freedom and equality before the law.

To take another technology for example: all the disproportionate hype surrounding projects like the Innocence Project obscures the overall tendency of the technology to support policing (and therefore the elite class interest) - and indeed to make it harder to challenge the overall system by eliminating the question of guilt, a liberal argument which has always tended to support or reinforce the system anyway. Increasingly, policing is becoming a scientific process, not a legal or political one. Indeed, increasingly refusal to participate in such surveillance leads to police attention. Likewise, these technologies - rather than uprooting or supplanting white supremacist, classist, sexist or homophobic systems, have instead tended to reinforce them.

Likewise, the more society is able to deter "criminal" behavior in the first place, the stronger the capitalist dictatorship over society will become. Increasingly, technology at once supports the false claims of capitalist democracy and at the same time camoflauges the contradictions lurking within it in a way that authoritarian communism and various earlier forms of capitalism could not. At the same time, it's clear that the right and ability to commit crime is not only vital for revolutionaries, but also for the autonomous activities of the working class and often just the very human need to put food in one's stomach. What does this mean for the future of social change, let alone revolution?

In a society in which white supremacy is so central to the maintenance of the status quo, and in which economic opportunity remains very racially and economically stratified, rather than subverting the rule of law or evening the playing field, technology like this only puts police in increasingly legally justified contact with the poor. The supposedly neutral arbiter of technology masks the internal biases of police officers themselves and the system in general. Is it any wonder that the capitalists and the state continue to pour so much money into technological research, even if it means contradicting their own free market rhetoric through massive subsidies and public/private associations? Technology is not up for debate, so what harm could it possibly do?

It hardly requires pointing out, but consider that an August 2004 report by the Center for Government and Public Affairs at Auburn University found that "21 percent of officers surveyed 'believe officers in their department currently practice bias-based policing.'" And that "one out of ten officers, even in management, stated the belief that 'there are Virginia police departments that officially support biased policing practices.'" While the technology promises to put everyone under suspicion, the fundamental biases of the enforcers have not changed. Everyone may be considered guilty in the new society, but not everyone will be considered as guilty as everyone else.

In an article from the Hudson Falls Post-Star (and hosted on the Hudson Falls Police Department website),
Ken Brown, a DMV spokesman, said the [license place reading] camera is a good tool to crack down on fraud and theft, resulting in increased traffic safety. The DMV's investigative unit has used the camera for a month. Brown declined to say where or how often the camera would be used.
NY State cops are justifiably ecstatic. Lt. Col. James Schepperly of the state police, said, "Quite frankly, the results far exceeded our initial expectations." Soon, the capitalists will regulate society in a way that the communists hardly dared dream.

Returning to the most recent Wired article, we find that the cops claim the plate readers are doing the work of ten officers, and that they hope to have 19 cruisers outfitted with the scanners by Summer 2006.

Describing a disturbing vision of the future, Downs writes:
Europe provides a glimpse of what even bigger deployments can do. In France, 1,000 mobile and stationary plate-reading cameras have doubled speeding ticket revenue and halved speeding-related deaths in just two years. In the UK, 200 cameras policing London's Downtown Congestion Charge Zone generated 13,000 arrests in one year. British law enforcement loves the technology so much that the government has plans for a $43 million campaign to install enough cameras to monitor every motorist on the country's highways, major roads, and bigger intersections, digitally reading some 35 million plates per day. This could catch not just every stolen car but nearly every moving violation as it occurs.
Every crime recorded. Imagine that. How confident must the American ruling class be to deploy such technologies? Or how threatened? Certainly, the technologies indicate not just a dystopian forecast, but also an indication of the kind of world elites want to have. In a world in transition, in which the domestic working and middle classes in the First World are increasingly viewed by elites as replaceable by Third World labor and therefore open to attack, the liberals are useless to us. Meanwhile, the elites build their dark utopia.
The idea of cameras monitoring every highway, boulevard, and alley might strike some Americans as Orwellian. But even the American Civil Liberties Union acknowledges that the public has no right to license plate privacy on public streets. After all, cops can enter plate numbers by hand, so why not by camera? "There's absolutely no bar on collecting plates in public," says Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's technology and liberty program. "There haven't been any legal challenges, because it's not illegal."
Lacking an anti-capitalist analysis and maintaining a sympathetic attitude towards the redeeming power of technology (which, like the return of Jesus, we wait for eternally), they can't get a broad picture of what is really happening in America and the world in general. America's class war still rages in a lot of old fashion ways, but the policing and deterrent power of technology will be a key and increasingly important expression of the global and domestic elite war on anyone who threatens - even potentially - their grip on power. Downs records it this way:
"This is a big piece of the force's push into the 21st century," says commander Charlie Beck, a 28-year veteran and assistant director of the Office of Operations. "It will have as dramatic an effect on police work as the radio did in the '40s and '50s."
Are anarchists and other revolutionaries looking back at the impact that past police technologies had on revolutionary movements and on the class war in general? Where is the class war analysis of technology in the anarchist movement? The blindspot of much of the class war anarchists historical analysis when it comes to technology is almost as bad as the liberals.

But, while the pro-technology view of police managers makes sense, what about the rank and file? Will they embrace the new technologies as enthusiastically?
"I'm to the point where I need my fix," Labriola says with a little laugh. "My daily felony fix."

As sunset ignites the downtown skyscrapers, we head back to the station. [Officer Christine] Labriola takes the long way home - hoping for one final score - and the Dell chimes away like we just hit the jackpot.
But make no mistake, this is more than a war on crime.

Even officer Nguyen knows the real deal. "Truth is, most people steal cars to save gas on the drive to work, then dump them."


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