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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Surveillance equals class war

Surveillance technology will soon become ubiquitous. Increasingly, face and movement recognition algorithms are merging with camera technology, including digital cameras you can buy at retail outlets. Unregulated space will soon disappear. What will this mean for social change, much less revolution, as it becomes increasingly difficult to organize both illegal and legal actions that are capable of impacting or getting the upper hand on the state and capitalist interests?

Contrary to prevailing opinion, surveillance tech is not neutral, and it is not just the state we have to worry about. Vigilantes, cops, bosses and all kinds of "legitimate" and self-appointed authorities will use the technology to control and manipulate us so as to maintain their control and, in the end, their profits, power and wealth. The image of a cop using face recognition technology to nab speeders in court by establishing their identities is an application we're not too surprised by, however disturbing it may be, but what about when your boss installs movement recognition technology to make sure you're not taking unauthorized breaks or chatting with co-workers - or a union representative? What about when you can't supplement you measly paycheck by grabbing something out of the register or pilfering a little something off the loading dock because the computer knows what that kind of movement looks like?

We should listen to officers like PC Pat Knight when he tells us that he
...has pioneered a new approach that is seeing offenders imprisoned, banned from driving and having their car seized and sold or crushed.

His team, based in Crouch Street, has started using the latest in face-recognition technology to expose people who falsely claim they were not driving the car at the time of the offence.

And its use of perjury laws and a change in magistrates' powers has seen cases dealt with quicker and more appropriate offences meted out.

"False declaration – it's a massive, massive problem," Mr Knight said.
"People think by lying about who's driving they'll get away with speeding and by giving false addresses we'll give up chasing them; we won't.

"I'm like a terrier; when I get my teeth into something I don't let go and I'll keep coming after offenders until they're caught and punished."
But we shouldn't expect the surveillance to end there. Increasingly, mobile and wireless technology are making surveillance possible anywhere, at any time, as we learn in a recent article in India's Daily News and Analysis:
Moving beyond the four walls of corporates, malls and shops, video surveillance is set to become mobile, courtesy a new generation of devices allowing security monitoring through laptops, handsets and PDAs.

United States-based mobile manufacturer UTStarcom has come out with a pocket PC on CDMA platform and plans to make mobile video surveillance technology available in India.

"Using a black box, one can upload feeds from a surveillance camera to the Internet which in turn can be accessed through a mobile handset," UTStarcom Personal Communications Director-South Asia Mohit Kapoor said.

The company introduced its Pocket PC that functions on a CDMA platform allowing video surveillance through mobile handsets at the recently concluded Mobile Asia 2006.

Although, the black box is provided by another company, Fling, UTStarcom's product costs around Rs 33,000.

"We are targeting not only the corporates, shopkeepers and parents who want to keep tabs on children when they are away," Kapoor said.
"Time to lean, time to clean," as they used to tell me when I worked retail. Today I watched a worker wipe down the screen on a self-checkout machine - not in use at the time - for five minutes straight while the camera above her looked on. Or perhaps not. The surveillance state eats unregulated space and actions with a voracious appetite and you never know when it's on. Soon, it will always be on.

Capitalists and the state are dreaming big when it comes to surveillance and they are investing big as well. These technologies are the cutting edge of class war, and we should never mistake them for anything else. And the elites don't just want to control our individual actions. They also want to make sure we can never challenge their power in the streets either. As reported by Defensetech.org today,
SOCOM just gave Colorado Springs-based Securics, Inc. a $100,000 grant to start developing programs for "Monitoring of Crowd Activities." The idea is to train cameras to find faces from afar, and to "develop new algorithms explicitly for crowd management, rather than building on the traditional intelligent video surveillance algorithms that are focused on isolated targets." Oh, and by the way: this should all happen in a small, self-contained system that takes up barely any power at all.

Securics will start small, looking at algorithms for a crowd's "vertical motion energy," like a group of people "pumping its fists, or raising signs," says company chief Terry Boult.

There will also be some comparisons to how much activity is usually in the area. "If normally, on Tuesdays, there are only three people on this corner, and now there are 50, maybe there's a problem," Boult adds.
Legitimate political action - as opposed to that which comes from the elite through the state and capitalist institutions - require that people be able to engage freely in actions that challenge the status quo and the elite it benefits. Said another way, freedom requires dark places and law breakers. The harder it becomes for oppressed and exploited people to challenge the system through means other than those pitiful few already firmly controlled by the elite - like elections or petitioning, for instance - the more power that elite will have. And that's not a recipe for freedom.


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