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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Of "generational wars" old and new

Remember our last "generational war"? No, not the Cold War. The Drug War. Declaring neither victory nor admitting defeat, the elites have rhetorically moved on from the Drug War, preferring these days to capitalize on white middle class fears by focusing on terrorism rather than crack dealers.

The rise of meth, very much a white drug, doesn't offer the same opportunities for manipulation of the middle class. According to the government's own figures, only 1.6% of all those convicted of Federal meth crimes in 2001 were Black, while 60 percent were white, a figure that maintains today. For a political elite that has framed the War on Drugs in terms of Black and white, meth just doesn't hold the same promise that crack did. And the routine jailings of thousands every day for drug crimes has made it easy to forget that the War on Drugs chugs on, leaving millions upon millions in prison or otherwise under direct state supervision.

As a class war tool, prisons have served the elites well, although expensively. But even if these days their attentions seem elsewhere, that doesn't mean the elite hasn't learned a thing or two from the War on Drugs. One important tool they developed was property seizures. In many places, possession of even small amounts of drugs could permit the government to confiscate property and assets without conviction, including property unrelated to the crime. Increasingly, revenue from this seized property, often derived from public auction, has been funneled back into police budgets, providing an obvious institutional incentive for police to increase seizures.

So, it should come as no surprise that, as policing veers more and more into the territory of the high tech, city governments would begin applying drug seizures to technological improvements to their policing infrastructure. I have pointed out several times on this blog the key role that municipal wireless will play in increasing police power in the 21st Century. Hyped as an egalitarian project aimed at bridging the "digital divide", municipal wi-fi networks are spreading across the country as fast as drug seizure laws did in the 80's. Rarely mentioned in the same tone, however, are the myriad opportunities such technologies offer elites and police forces interested in checking the self-organization of the ever-growing ranks of the poor.

With such benevolent language coming from a political class otherwise very stingy when it comes to programs for the poor, we are right to treat these pronouncements with a fair amount of skepticism. SearchMobileComputing.com news editor, Amanda Mitchell, reported in February 2006 about the Florida city of Riviera Beach's plan to go wireless.
Riviera Beach's project, powered by Motorola's MOTOMESH multi-radio, mesh networking system, has an interesting twist because it was funded by drug-money seizures.
Motorola's MOTOMESH is one of the hottest things in wireless. Cities across the country are linking their police agencies up to the technology in the hopes of vastly increasing their ability to wage their generational war on the poor and working class.

Beth Bacheldor reported for Federal Computer Week in early March 2006 on the technology. The article starts off framing the issue in the fake benevolent language typical of the debate.
“We wanted to prove that better-quality Internet access does lead to better jobs and better economic development,” said Mike Miller, chairman of the Marshalltown Economic Development Impact Committee, a volunteer organization charged with improving economic development in the region.
But if we hang in there, the truth is revealed at the end of the article, and we get a glimpse at the true value elites hope to derive from the technology.
For some, wireless mesh networks are already proving their worth. In Ripon, Calif., which spent about $550,000 to install Motorola’s Motomesh technology, the network of 50 access points, 25 IP wireless cameras and mobile cameras installed in police cars has already caught its first criminal. Last month, cameras on the mesh network recorded an adult male beating a child and stealing his skateboard. The victim called 911 and gave details of the assault and the suspect’s description. The dispatcher accessed the wireless cameras near the skate park to locate the suspect and track his moves. The dispatcher summoned the police, who made an arrest within minutes.

“It was one of those things where you see how the technology works, and that it really does make a difference,” said Richard Bull, Ripon’s police chief. “I’ve heard some people say this network is kind of a ‘Big Brother’ thing. But it isn’t. We are trying to protect our community in the best way we can.”
Wireless Week reported around the same time that Plano, Texas, plans to wire up all 200 of its police vehicles to Motorola's MOTOMESH system.

Aside from the increased power that faster and easier access to more information will afford police, MOTOMESH also provides easy networking of surveillance cameras, which previously required expensive cables, wires and other infrastructure to install. No longer. Intelligent cameras can now, thanks to MOTOMESH, self-organize their own networks without actually connecting physically to one another or to other city infrastructure. This lowers the installation cost of stationary cameras and also allows the flexibility to utilize mobile cameras at public events or crime scenes, as police did at the Texas State Fair in Dallas in 2005.

In what sadly does not appear to be an April Fool's joke, the LA Downtown News reported on April 1st on the use the LAPD is getting out of wireless surveillance cameras. Over the last year, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Historic Downtown Business Improvement District (HDBID) spent more than $450,000 setting up surveillance cameras in LA which the police now use to crack down on illegal DVD sales and all manner of other crimes. Cops monitor the cameras from a central control room.
The officers are able to manipulate the cameras with a joystick and keypad, allowing them to zoom in to capture more detail and rotate 360 degrees. They can switch between cameras, and the feeds are recorded for evidence.

Most of the time officers are looking for suspicious behavior or something out of place, Gong said. In the Santee Alley area, that means illegal vendors. In the Historic Core, the vast majority of time is spent watching for narcotics sales.

When an officer sees something illegal, a call is radioed to a car patrolling the neighborhood. This produces about 40 narcotics arrests a month.
HDBID president Farhad Yousefzadeh comes right out with his organization's motivation behind it's supposedly benevolent gesture: "We paid for these cameras in order to improve our district. As time goes by, as people realize cameras are there, crime will go down."

Police agencies and city governments have been working hand in hand with capitalists to install the networks. Just like the MPAA and HDBID, Google, despite it's "don't be evil" slogan, has had no problem putting its energies and finances behind the wireless class war in it's Northern California home town.

Melanie Turner, writing for the Modesto Bee, reported in early March about the wireless mesh system in Ripon, California, population 13,000. Thanks to the mesh, Ripon cops can watch video feeds from the city's 25 cameras from laptops in their cruisers. Ripon's system, paid for in part with "a $75,000 grant from Homeland Security and a $10,000 grant from Pacific Gas & Electric", allows police to "access federal, county and local law enforcement databases, pulling up mug shots and fingerprints while on patrol."
"It's really cool," said Police Chief Richard Bull, who spearheaded a move to the wireless system that he says saves money, fights crime and enables workers to do their jobs more efficiently.
More efficiency under capitalism means more exploitation, so it's quite convenient to the capitalists that mesh technology serves to keep tabs on workers while it also forces on them speed ups, increased workload and reduced autonomy on the job.

The role of Homeland Security in driving police wireless systems can't be ignored, either. Fleet Owner magazine reported that a $856,000 grant from DHS funded a wireless surveillance system at the Narragansett Bay port in Rhode Island. And a $202,000 DHS grant was behind the Alaskan city of Dillingham's plan to install 80 cameras in that town of 2400 residents. In Chicago, DHS is funding a pilot program to install wireless cameras on city buses, which nearby police officers in specially-equipped squad cars can use to monitor riders. Maryland's Ocean City Today recently reported that a $100,000 dollar Homeland Security grant will pay for the installation of surveillance cameras that will plug into the city's wireless network.

In Pinehurst, North Carolina, James Tagliareni, chief technology officer of Moore County school system described the impact that wireless technology has had in his district.
"The joint project bolsters our efforts to provide our students a safe learning environment and serves as another example of how technology can make a positive impact in education. This cooperative effort strengthens an already close partnership we have with the Carthage Police Department and Moore County Sheriff's Office."
Cognitive dissonance is par for the course when it comes to discussing technology, but Tagliareni is describing a new program, which he hopes to expand with Federal grants, that allows police off campus to hook up to wireless cameras in schools.
“We’re now able to monitor what goes on in the school. It gives us the ability to respond appropriately to any given situation,” said Sheriff Lane Carter. “It’s a tool we will use to keep the school and the community’s children safe. We are committed to working with all local agencies, including the schools, to use the technology that is available to us. If we’re working together, we’re saving taxpayers’ dollars.”
Last week, police and sheriffs staged a mock raid on Union Pines High School. 100 students played the part of wounded and trapped kids. "It was scary. I even started crying," said Amber Bell, a participant. “That was the first time any of us had been in a situation like that,” she said. “It does prepare us for the real world. If some of us do go into the Army, we’ll have to be going into people’s houses and helping them.”

Not to beat a dead horse, but the Peoria Journal Star reported this week on that city's debate over wireless. As in LA, proponents in Peoria also hope to forge a public-private partnership in order to fund the multi-million dollar project. As the article begins, we are treated to more of that benevolent language:
Not only are many professionals coming to expect Wi-Fi, which allows for online connections via radio waves, but the service could also help bridge the digital divide by providing free or low-cost Internet service to everyone.
But, again, as we move towards the end of the piece, we get the heart of the matter.
Meanwhile, the city is exploring how Wi-Fi could improve some plans the city has, such as surveillance cameras the city plans to put in certain high-crime areas.

"(Police) officers could monitor different cameras (through Wi-Fi) from their cars," Mayor Jim Ardis said. "They could be blocks or maybe miles away."
The city already has money set aside for the purchase of surveillance cameras, although they are still investigating the best places to put them. One possible location: the city's low-income housing projects. According to Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, the system's flexibility is a major selling point. "My intention is to have something up and running this summer," he said. "The nice thing about this network is you can just keep adding to it."

Remember the LAPD's surveillance program I mentioned above? Well,
[w]ith attention increasing, some think Central Division officers could be monitoring as many as 100 cameras within the next few years. That type of "success" could yield its own problem.

"We've kind of outgrown this room. There's only so much space in a police station," Gong said.

Central Division Capt. Jodi Wakefield said the department is looking for a larger room to house the equipment. "The whole Downtown has gotten on the bandwagon with [donating] these cameras to us," she said. Despite the space concerns, Wakefield said the police appreciate the help. "With the few cops we have, it's ideal for us."
Be careful what you wish for, it seems. But, thanks to mesh wireless technology, adding new cameras - or even moving old cameras - is not a problem.

Finally, the Contra Costa Times ran a piece by Ryan Huff recently describing various California cities' wireless plans. Pleasant Hill cops already use wireless to "access mug shots and file reports," but Concord has bigger plans.

In a scenario that ought to be familiar by now, the paper reports that,
[a] citywide WiFi zone would come at no cost to taxpayers. In fact, Concord would save thousands of dollars every year because building inspectors and other city employees wouldn't need cell phones to transmit reports from laptops back to City Hall, Dragovich said.

Such a system also would provide new avenues for Concord police to battle crime.

For example, if a robbery were taking place at a convenience store, officers could tap into a security camera on a secured Web site and monitor it from their patrol car laptops. This would help them decide how to respond in real time, said Rob Evans, Concord police technology manager.
"It's definitely the wave of the future as far as law enforcement goes," he adds.

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