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Monday, January 30, 2006

Shopping futures: Buyer Beware

The shopping experience of the future, what will it be like? It's certainly a question on the minds of many anarchists these days. In all seriousness, though, even the most self-righteous dumpster diver who never sets foot in a Wal-Mart or a mall would do well to pay attention to developments in the retail industry.

"From an operational point of view, self-scanning removes human intervention from the equation," says Nick Gladding, senior researcher at retail analyst Verdict. Gladding was interviewed in a recent article for IT Week online, and what he meant by 'human intervention' is that the cashier can't hook you - or him or herself - up anymore. RFID - coming soon (maybe already here) to a store near you - will usher in a new era of tracking and regulation of goods in and around the store (and probably beyond).

The elite has always placed great value in technology as a class war weapon, and RFID is no different in this respect. Workers power will be increasingly reduced on the job as more and more work becomes deskilled or replaced, and wages and benefits will suffer accordingly. And, this being capitalism, redundancy brings starvation, not retirement, for workers.

Terry Crookes, IT manager of retailer Streetwise Sports, says, "It is all about loss prevention and stock control. The other big thing is to know the amount of theft committed internally." That's nothing new to regular readers of this blog. Technological advancements at work generally focus on increasing management control of workers or 'inventory control' - a codeword for 'theft.' Not the kind of theft like when your boss forgets to pay you all the hours she owes you. The kind of theft where you get even with your thieving boss. The kind that can get you fired or sent to jail.

As reported in the business section of the Scotsman last week,
In Japan, the process is set to go further as department store Mitsukoshi pilots radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to help improve customer satisfaction.

In the ladies' shoe department, every pair of shoes is fitted with an RFID tag. By scanning the tag at a nearby kiosk salespeople can instantly receive detailed information about available sizes, colours and descriptions.

Where the necessary shoes are in stock, staff in the stockroom can be called to bring the shoes to the customer.
It's sold as customer convenience, but RFID, combined with data mining, will put the lie once and for all to the myth that the capitalist hates regulation, because the new technology will allow them to count and quantify almost everything, down to the most painful and embarrassingly private details. They may not like being regulated themselves, but as much as it sounds like a socialist dream, the capitalist in the next few years will be revealed for the pathological regulatory fetishists that we knew they really were all along. They want to know where everything - and everyone - in their store is at every possible time. And RFID will help them do it.

You may not have known it, Mr. and Ms. American Consumer (or anti-consumer, as the case may be), but it turns out that you have been demanding this technology all along. Frustrated at the amount of time pulling your wallet out several times a day steals from you, you have forced the powerless capitalists into spending massive amounts of money on this new technology - all for your convenience!

The capitalists have successfully shifted most Americans' identities within the system from workers to consumers, and as such we think of ourselves coming in contact with the capitalist system as demanders of services rather than receivers of orders, as receivers of discounts rather than providers of low wage labor. With a title that reflects this transformation of identity, the article, "How retailers can keep the customer satisfied," illuminates the point at which the two identities come into conflict.
Analyst Gartner predicts retailers using RFID to improve on-shelf availability will begin to outperform rivals in customer satisfaction by the end of this year.

The number one issue for the shopper is out-of-stock merchandise – an inconvenience that causes 47 per cent of customers to shop elsewhere as a result. New RFID implementations must be linked to workforce management technologies to ensure that replenishment tasks are allocated and completed.
The problem, and what most Americans don't seem to realize, is that workforce management comes hand in hand with this alleged consumer satisfaction. Can someone be a satisfied consumer at the same time the boss is looming over her shoulder with "workforce management technologies to ensure that replenishment tasks are allocated and completed." Time will tell.

More commonly known as subsidies or entitlements when they go to poor people - which they increasingly do not - this technology has been massively supported through 'guaranteed markets' in the Defense budget, where all DoD suppliers will be required to utilize RFID by 2007. In fact, the Department of Defense now provides RFID manufacturers their biggest market, second only to Wal-Mart, itself renowned for its reactionary attitude towards workers. CircuitAssembly.com reported on January 26th that,
[s]ales of RFID tags and related products will hit $2.71 billion this year, and rise to $12.35 billon by 2010, says research firm IDTechEx.
The impact on the overall market is expected to be huge. Under the ominous subheading, "A trillion tags by 2015," an article from PhysOrd.com claimed
[t]he potential impact of RFID is so vast it is attracting the attention of industry and government worldwide. In October 2005, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) dedicated a special session to RFID's economic promise and social implications. Delegates from business and research organizations highlighted applications from healthcare to tire pressure monitoring.
It's interesting how one rarely hears the capitalists complain about the distortions in the market caused by governments subsidizing or facilitating the adoption of technologies intended to dominate workers.

But, unsurprisingly, the public dialogue is framed in terms of customer convenience, not class struggle. Consider the glowing terms that Digital Life Magazine uses to describe the digital shopping cart of the future.
It's the greatest feeling in the world to walk into a busy supermarket and leave without saying a single word. Now, that's possible with the super electronic shopping cart that comes loaded with an RFID scanner, an LCD screen, all hooked to a kart [sic] for purchasing up at the register. You never have to ask for assistance about how much something costs, or maybe even the location of products in the store - if the technology includes a "search" feature.
I shudder to think just how terrifying an experience contemporary shopping must be for these folks. Their already crippling social anxiety disorders amplified due to reduced human contact, these folks seem to relish the lack of human contact future shopping will afford them: "It really would be awesome for this technology to spread world wide, as if would make operations a whole lot smoother, and easier to execute. "

Efficiency is definitely one of the key advantages highlighted by RFID enthusiasts. Never is it explained just how or when paying cash had become inconvenient; the point is that cashless transactions - aside from being easier to regulate (not generally mentioned) - are just plain more convenient, or simpler. Again, from PhysOrg.com:
Nonetheless, the benefits of RFID are undeniable. It makes life easier - and not just in what might be called 'typical' applications. Philips has recently showcased product concepts that represent an expression of our promise of Sense and Simplicity over the next three to five years. Many incorporate RFID and / or intuitive wireless connectivity.
But because RFID's main application - regulation of workers and consumers - is beyond dispute (and comment in the mainstream), the arguments made in favor of the technology often border on the ridiculous.
Hospitals are stressful for adults and can be positively scary for children. The Ambient Experience brings together an MRI or CT scanner, ambient lighting, dynamic projection, surround sound and RFID technology to turn scary into fun.

"Let's say a young boy is going for a CAT scan," says John Anastos, Chairman of Radiology at the Lutheran General Hospital. "First, he gets to preview various animation themes. He chooses his favorite and takes a holographic RFID badge with a Philips ICODE chip. When he goes into the examination room, he waves the badge at the scanning equipment, and the walls and ceiling come to life with animations, accompanied by music and other sounds. It keeps him relaxed and it's a great way to give him instructions. When it's time for him to hold his breath, he sees a cartoon character holding his own breath!"
In America, almost any law can be passed if it's "for the kids." Counterintuitive arguments are par for the course when it comes to RFID, and, as with the computer shopping cart, humans are generally treated as infants overwhelmed by life's complexities or numbskulls unable to see the benefits - so frustratingly clear to elites - that the technology offers. And so we get lectured in patronizing tones:
"RFID is a prime example of how advanced technology improves people's lives. It may be hidden, part of a wider whole, but it is a fundamental enabler that makes a product, service or experience simpler and easier."
The benfits are supposed to be so obvious and yet at the same time they require so much explaining. All the while we are supposed to believe that the customer - the consumer - is the driving agent behind the changes! Clearly there is a major propaganda effort in full swing.

But, when you break it down, the argument goes like this: Simplicity and convenience - that's what simple-minded Americans need. And they need to be tracked. According to TMCnet.com,
Already, grocers in the Orlando area, including Albertsons, Winn-Dixie and Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market -- which opened a fourth Central Florida store this week -- have rolled out self-serve checkout machines, a technology that is expected to become much more common.

Marshal Cohen, retail analyst for the research firm NPD Group, told those at the convention that today's consumers are increasingly looking for a shopping "experience" that caters to individual needs and entertains.

To that end, retailers hoping to stand out from the crowd are embracing cutting-edge services such as a Web-based shopping assistant that can help you navigate through a store to find that favorite brand of chocolate ice cream.

Wal-Mart Stores, which continues to expand in the region -- its next supercenter is scheduled to open in Clermont at the end of the month -- said it has been testing a digital assistant that attaches to a shopping cart and can point you to store specials, download your shopping list, and keep a running price total of the items in your basket.
And so the argument naturally flows that
[f]or patrons with American Express RFID-enabled ExpressPay cards, fast food can now be even faster at 12,000 U.S. McDonald's locations. That's because these stores are now accepting the cards, which use radio frequency to send encrypted account data to readers integrated in point-of-sale systems. ExpressPay transactions are quicker than paying with cash or conventional magnetic-stripe cards.

"Given that so many of our customers are all about speed of service and convenience, this is a perfect fit," says McDonald's spokesperson William Whitman. "We're hearing from our customers at front counters and drive-throughs that this is a convenience they appreciate."
RFID boosters are quick to cite the numbers:
American Express began pilot tests of its ExpressPay system in 2002, completing them in 2004. The results of the tests showed that, on average, ExpressPay transactions were 63 percent faster than using cash, with consumers involved in the tests citing convenience and simplicity of use as two of ExpressPay's major benefits.
A major propaganda victory! What Americans require, from their own mouths: convenience and simplicity. Finally, the tyranny of not finding an item you're looking for - or forgetting what you came for - is over:
With the scan of a loyalty card, smart carts — using grocery lists shoppers have entered online — can plot routes around the store and remind shoppers of what to buy. Shoppers also can place orders in the deli or bakery from the device, which notifies them when their food is ready to pick up.
With such a low opinion of us, you'd think that capitalists would be afraid that we'd leave our money at home. What a disaster!

Well, they are. But, they have a solution.
According to a study by an analyst at financial firm Sanford Bernstein, both Wal-Mart and Costco are "looking ... closely" at biometric checkout systems, which would allow consumers to pay via finger-scan (neither company would comment on the report). To use the system, customers would register at an in-store kiosk, where they would provide credit-card information that would be attached to a fingerprint. At checkout, the customer would place their finger on a scanner, and the appropriate credit info would be pulled up. According to the study, biometric checkouts -- which are already in use in branches of some supermarket chains, including Albertson's and Piggly Wiggly -- could save Wal-Mart as much as 20% in processing costs. Of course, privacy advocates are likely to balk at providing major retailers with fingerprints, but we sort of assume that, as big as it is, Wal-Mart's already got the ability to collect any data that they want, and withholding our prints isn't going to change that.
Note the cynical dismissal of technology critics on one hand, and the resignation before the looming total surveillance society on the other. It's an odd reversal of the role of critic, where the naive techno-sympathizer criticizes the dubious luddite while admitting the inevitability of the doubter's argument, essentially attacking anyone skeptical of the technology with a razor-edged "Yeah, so what?"

So, just in case the propaganda didn't work, retailers are looking at a variety of ways to coerce and entice shoppers into participating in their RFID network.
Accenture's [director of research, Michael] Redding said one bank in Latin America wants to roll out RFID-chipped cards to its VIP clients. "They are trying to make it a status symbol," he said. "By making it an object of desire they can get people to elect to take part."
The transition won't be that hard for some businesses.
This vision of the branch of the future isn't just sci-fi whimsy, Redding said. All of these technologies are "being used somewhere by a bank. All these things are happening in a piecemeal fashion."
However, there's always the critics.
While some people might be concerned about carrying around so many RFID chips, Redding is confident they will be accepted. "It's not a question of will people do it," he said. "It's a case of how many ones will they carry."

Many customers will see such technologies as bringing advantages--trading off some of their privacy in return for shorter lines or better services, he said. "It's about letting the customer choose. Forcing the customer is not a good story because people won't accept it.
See, you will pay, one way or another. So much the better if they can make you think you chose it, even if you don't remember electing it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Bright lights, small city: Who's watching small town America and why?

Surveillance cameras are spreading like crazy in small towns, according to an article in the Washington Post. Post reporter David A. Fahrenthold writes that the village of Bellows Falls, Vt.,
in the shadow of Fall Mountain and alongside the iced-over Connecticut River, is the kind of place where a little of anything usually suffices. There are eight full-time police officers on the town's force, two chairs in the barbershop and one screen in the theater.

A little of anything -- except surveillance cameras. Bellows Falls has decided it needs 16.
The town of 3200, with money from a $100,000 Federal grant specifically earmarked for technology, hopes to set up 24-hour cameras in the town square, intersections, recreation areas and the water treatment plant. With 16 cameras, Bellows Falls will have three less police cameras than Washington, D.C., if Fahrenthold has his facts right. Other small towns across America, like the Virginia towns of Galax and Tazewell, have already set up camera systems.

Apparently things have changed in small town America.
"People don't notice things" as they used to in Bellows Falls, Police Chief Keith Clark said. "Technology is there to do that."
Clark concedes not everyone in town is as enthusiastic about the new unblinking eye of the police as he is: "I have a new nickname-- I am Big Brother," he jokes. If he gets his way, the cameras will be monitored 24 hours a day by a dispatcher who can send out police to investigate signs of trouble.

At a public meeting Tuesday night, Clark defended the investment.
"Your concern [is] I'm going to be watching you all the time-- ladies and gentlemen, I've got news for you-- you're not that interesting," Clark told the standing-room only crowd.
Retired Army officer Roy Lidie, a Bellows Falls resident didn't like the idea:

"My service and the oath that I swore was to protect and defend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights of the United States of America," Lidie said. "The business of running rough-shod over the rights of the citizens of this country and the citizens of this village really disturbs me."

Clark reflects on the impact the cameras will have on his force with an argument with which readers of this blog will be quite familiar. The intent is not to replace officers - it is to enhance the ability of the cops to bring their force to bear on society.
Clark says crime has fallen, but not far enough, especially when it comes to vandalism and drunk driving. Clark says he doesn't have the manpower and his budget won't let him hire more. So he hopes cameras would both deter crime and catch criminals.

"Security cameras provide a tool. They're not the end all be all-- I know that," said Clark. "If we can cut vandalism by 10% I can use those officers for something else."
Because the goal is to increase the power of police, cops often make seemingly contradictory arguments for the deployment of these kinds of technologies. In their eyes, when crime is high, the stats justify cameras to increase police power. Likewise - and seemingly paradoxically except when viewed as a power grab - camera supporters often cite low crime rates to justify them as well. According to another article in the Battleboro Reformer,
Clark said that while crime was down significantly in Bellows Falls, he needed the security system to continue that trend and improve on it.

"I have done what you asked me to do." He said. "Now I am asking you to work with me."
Further, when the cameras seem to provide no tangible results, police still defend them, as Capt. William Zbacnik of the Pittsburg, Calif., Police Department did recently. "We have not actually captured any crimes on video," he conceded. Nevertheless, he defended the 11 cameras his small town installed last year. "It costs you virtually $100,000 to put an officer on the street versus $5,000 for a camera," he said. "I'd put as many cameras out there as you can."

Of course, when they do catch criminals, police hype the capture.
In Newnan, Ga., for instance, Chief D.L. Meadows recalled a case in which one of his 20 cameras spotted a drug suspect sitting on his front porch, then provided the chief with an electronic view of the arrest.

"I was sitting in my office and watched him break and run" as officers arrived, Meadows said.

"It was great. I mean, I enjoyed it."
It's a win-win situation for cops, and for the elites they exist to defend. And, while there is often a desire to see technology as beneficial, or neutral - even amongst anarchists - we would do well to reconsider the role that past technologies we take for granted have had on the power of police, such as the telephone, radio and the automobile. These technologies, when viewed negatively at all, are rarely viewed in terms of the increased power they gave to the ruling class.

Nevertheless, their deployment has very negatively impacted social movements. Consider the massive increase in the powers, responsibility and reach of the police that signal boxes ("call boxes"), primitive telephones and telegraphs, had on policing. According to the Chicago Public Libraries history of the Chicago Police.
Advances in technology precipitated the establishment in 1861 of the Police Patrol and Signal Service. In order to respond quickly to the alarms generated by the new call boxes, there was stationed at each precinct house a patrol wagon manned by police officers. Since these men had to respond to calls resulting from a variety of problems, they had to serve as medical attendants and ambulance drivers, arbiters of family disputes, apprehenders of thieves as well as aid those foot patrolmen who did not have the advantage of speedy transportation.
The signal box for the first time allowed police on the beat to communicate directly with the precinct, and to summon reinforcements in large numbers to put down riots and insurrections. The signal box itself led to the creation of the "patrol wagon," "sort of a nineteenth century SWAT team," which was able to deliver large numbers of police quickly and, for the first time, to permit regular mass arrests of strikers and rioters.

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago:
Chicago's police were first to adopt a “signal service” in 1880, combining telegraph and telephone, to allow patrolmen on their beats to summon an ambulance or patrol wagon. Patrolmen were required to report hourly to ensure they were awake and on the job. A few “respectable” citizens were given keys to the signal system, which was also used as a field communications system for controlling crowds and riots.
Indeed, businessmen often rented the signal boxes, installing them in their homes so they could call on help in case the workers got out of hand and headed for the boss's neighborhood. Anarchists who still entertain the idea that such technologies have brought more - or even equal - benefits as problems would do well to remember the prominent role that these technologies played in suppressing the massive labor uprisings of the time, which as we have seen certainly included Chicago - and the Haymarket riot. Surely the benefits of a revolution outweigh the ability to make a phone call.

In that context, it is important to recognize the role that the new wireless technology is playing in the spread of surveillance cameras. I have written about how the city I live in has pushed it's wireless internet plan without bothering to explain that one of its main uses will be to allow police to set up mobile and fixed wireless surveillance cameras thanks to mesh technology - and to more broadly utilize face recognition and other automated policing technologies.

The links are clear, and the enthusiasm of the ruling class and the police for these technologies ought to at least give antiauthoritarians serious pause when considering the possible benefits they will allegedly deliver. I find it unlikely that the very elites who benefit so clearly from increased police power would invest so much time and energy into these technologies if they were so easily hijacked or unreliable in their effect - or didn't deliver for them heightened security through increased deterrance, regulation and punishment.

As reported on Chron.com:
Wireless access technology has quickly evolved from the coffee shop hot spots to city-wide wireless networks. Lebanon, Oregon, with a population of nearly 13,000, recognized the opportunity to utilize a city-wide outdoor wireless mesh solution for critical communications requirements of the local Police Department, Fire Department as well as local utility companies. The city intends to provide city and emergency workers with the ability to wirelessly connect back to their departments and apply technology without the constraints of physical network access, extending the reach of all services. The broadband technology will enable field workers to access large data files such as GIS maps at any time and any place within the wireless network area. Excess bandwidth will be available for public access via a secure virtual segmentation of the wireless network.
Yuppies will surf the internet in the sun while their police protectors wirelessly crack down with increasing efficiency on the poor and working class in town that they want to dislodge from the home we have known for so long.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that, according to many in leadership positions - in small and large towns alike - the mere existence of the technology itself demands utilizing it for oppressive purposes. Bellows Falls Town Trustee Chairman Charlie Jarras said, "I think it would be silly if they vote against it and we still have it."

But, as for me, I'm on the side of Bellows Falls camera opponent John Hyslop, who put it quite eloquently: "We're citizens, not subjects. Being monitored whether for the best intentions or whatever-- makes you a subject, not a citizen."

Maybe it's time to do some hard thinking about the true nature of technology and the kind of world we want to live in. The mere existence of this technology may well demand its use against us. If so, that's a problem for anarchists and others who think that technology is neutral, just waiting for us to decide what to do with it. If surveillance is embedded in wireless technology, then perhaps some rethinking is in order.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Sheriff Joe's 'techno cops' goes online and Scottsdale's freeway cameras go live

"While we make every attempt to ensure the accuracy of our web based arrest warrants, there is no cause for arrest based on information found here. In ALL cases, warrants must be confirmed with the originating agency AND the issuing court prior to attempting arrest. While warrants are issued, cleared or quashed hourly, it is not possible to ensure all data is current. "

So reads Sheriff Joe Arpaio's new Techno-Cops website, where you can search in a wide variety of ways, including last name and zip code and, according to news reports, gender and race, to see which of your friends have outstanding warrants. Everybody's least favorite county sheriff has compiled and put online a database of 30,000 warrants (updated daily), searchable by anyone with access to a computer. Turn in your friends and neighbors, comrade.

"Some people may say this is a new kind of community policing," said Sheriff Joe in a recent Arizona Republic article. "Some might say, 'You want people to spy on their neighbors.' I don't like that word: spying. (I'm asking them to) keep their eyes and ears open . . . It's all geared to protecting the public."

According to the article, about 40 percent of the warrants online are for failure to appear. Nevertheless, the Sheriff's Office recommends that "[a]ll felons should be considered armed and dangerous." Channel 3 TV, not known for either their objectivity or their anti-authoritarian tendencies, uncritically advises us in a story on their website: "If you find someone you know, you can report them anonymously through the Web site."

Republic reporter Lindsey Collom, however, gets right to the heart of the matter.
Arpaio said anyone who knowingly submits false information is "going to jail." But what about those who report anonymously?

"I'm not giving up a program just because some jerk wants to play a joke on the sheriff," he added.
Hit the nail right on the head, I'd say. But, will Arizonans go for it? Just one day into making the database public the MCSO had it's first arrest.
Ulises Ayala... was wanted on a narcotics warrant when a tipster saw his name on the Sheriff's Office Web site and e-mailed information on where he would likely hide to avoid capture, officials said Friday.

Within hours of receiving the tip at 4:45 p.m. Thursday, deputies captured Ayala at a home near Thomas Road and 37th Avenue. Sheriff's officials said Ayala tried unsuccessfully to flee.
A second arrest was made the next day. Since it's debut, county cops report that the site had received nearly 170,000 hits and 45 tips.

Some of the Sheriff's fans may remember his other notable forays on the internet, such as the live webstream broadcasting from jail video of folks who hadn't even been convicted of a crime, and his infamous "women in prison" toilet cam. Currently, you can also view booking photos online of county jail inmates, many of whom just can't afford the bail money to get out (make sure you turn the volume on if you go to the booking photo page).

In other police state news, as many are aware, Sunday was the first day that Scottsdale's controversial freeway speed cameras went live, snapping photos of anyone their radar system catches going more than ten miles per hour over the speed limit. It's the first time anywhere in the country where a city has used speed cameras on a freeway.

For the first 30 days, the system will only issue warnings. Following that, the cameras, which are scheduled for a nine month trial, will provide the photos of smiling drivers that accompany $157 speeding citations from the city. A lot of public agencies are watching the results closely, hoping to use similar cameras to coerce drivers into driving slower in other cities and jurisdictions, once the precedence has been set.

As with surveillance cameras in general, the idea is not to catch you; it's to get you to self-police - and to substitute the decisions of largely unaccountable social scientists (Arizona State University traffic engineering professor Simon Washington, for one), bureaucrats and politicians for that of your own. Or, as reported in the East Valley Tribune today: “The whole idea, really, if it’s effective, is not to give tickets,” said Doug Nintzel, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Transportation. “The idea is to get people to drive the speed limit.”

The city of Scottsdale's data shows that more than 50 percent of drivers on that section of the 101 are travelling more than the speed limit on weekdays (outside of the six hours of bumper to bumper rush hour, that is, when no one moves much at all). While moderate speeding is common on the 101, officials and media boosters quite frequently push more spectacular copy. The East Valley Tribune said yesterday that the 101 "has been deemed a serious problem, with the highway patrol pulling over motorists driving as fast as 120 mph."

Needless to say, that sensational and quite exceptional figure serves the purposes of those who advocate for more cameras and further state intrusion in our lives. But maybe the cameras don't go far enough.

Remarking on the new cameras, Scottsdale resident John Lutz, 66, of Scottsdale said, "I'm 100 percent for photo enforcement. Now I wish that the pictures they take of the drivers could be blown up to show if they are also talking on a cellphone." Maybe they can be posted on Sheriff Joe's website. After all, more enforcement means more tickets, which means more people unable or unwilling to pay and therefore more fugitives from the law.

While speed cameras on Scottsdale freeways continue to chip away at our freedom and criminalize ever more Valley residents, there is some good speed camera news out of the UK. For the second time in a week someone set a speed camera on fire along the A370 freeway. The camera's suspicious location - partially hidden behind a telephone pole - has cast doubts in the minds of local residents about the supposedly public service motivations of local authorities.

Felicity Down, a local business owner, blamed officials: "They have only got themselves to blame. If they hadn't tried to hide the camera and instead put it in a spot where everyone could easily see it then this would never have happened."

The camera was destroyed, fittingly, by burning a car tire on top of it. I wonder if some of the new cameras on the 101 are big enough to balance a tire on top of?

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.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

India's ultrasonic patriarchy: technology and sex-selective abortion

"India is missing about 10 million daughters since the widespread use of ultrasound, estimates a new study," according to an article from NewScientist.com.
Over the last 20 years, about 10 million female fetuses may have been selectively aborted following ultrasound results in India, suggest [Dr.] Prabhat Jha at the University of Toronto, Canada, and colleagues.

Their study of 1.1 million households across India reveals that in 1997, far fewer girls were born to couples if their preceding child or children were also female. “There was about a 30% gap in second females following the birth of any earlier females,” Jha told New Scientist.
If the eldest child was male, the chance of the second or third child being female was 50 percent. However, if the first child was female, the ratio of female to male children born next was 759 girls for every 1000 boys.

A woman's right to control her own body is fundamental to her ability to assert the rest of her rights in society, and anti-abortion activists will probably use this study for their own ends, but I bring it up here because, if accurate, it offers us an interesting insight into the intersection between two systems of domination: patriarchy and technology.
“Female infanticide of the past is refined and honed to a fine skill in this modern guise,” says Shiresh Sheth of the Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai, India, in a commentary accompanying the study in The Lancet.

Sheth notes that in India’s patriarchal society, daughters are regarded as a “liability”, as she will belong to the family of her future husband.
Gendercide.org explains the phenomenon this way:
The bias against females in India is related to the fact that "Sons are called upon to provide the income; they are the ones who do most of the work in the fields. In this way sons are looked to as a type of insurance. With this perspective, it becomes clearer that the high value given to males decreases the value given to females." (Marina Porras, "Female Infanticide and Foeticide".) The problem is also intimately tied to the institution of dowry, in which the family of a prospective bride must pay enormous sums of money to the family in which the woman will live after marriage. Though formally outlawed, the institution is still pervasive. "The combination of dowry and wedding expenses usually add up to more than a million rupees ([US] $35,000). In India the average civil servant earns about 100,000 rupees ($3,500) a year. Given these figures combined with the low status of women, it seems not so illogical that the poorer Indian families would want only male children."
The site also confirms the general prevalance of sex-selective infanticide and abortion in India.

To be clear, selective abortion and infanticide ought to be kept distinctly separate in our minds, and conflating the two tends to undermine vital abortion rights. Right wing rhetoric aside, aborting a fetus is clearly not the same as killing a baby. Nevertheless, the spread of ultrasound gives us an opportunity to see how an old practice changes with the introduction of new technology.

As gendercide.org suggests, female infanticide is often thought of as a backward practice that takes place in rural areas where poverty, cultural and patriarchal norms, as well as the need for labor, put pressure on couples to have male children. Surprisingly, however, the new study found that educated and urban women with higher incomes were twice as likely as their poorer, illiterate and rural counterparts to engage in selective abortion based on sex. After all, it requires resources to afford the multiple trips to ultrasound clinics and the hushed-up abortions. The evidence strongly suggests that the practice has adapted to the new technology quite fine.

At the same time, the lower female to male birth ratio in urban versus rural areas perhaps offers an alternative gauge of the dim view women and couples currently take on the likely social status of future women in India - a point I find especially interesting given the better relative economic position of the women most likely to have sex-selective abortions. According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor,
Karuna Bishnoi, spokeswoman for UNICEF in Delhi, says it shouldn't come as a surprise that educated women are among the most likely to use prenatal sex determination.

"I personally believe this as a failure of society, not a failure of women," says Ms. Bishnoi. "Women who choose this technique may be victims of discrimination themselves, and they may not be the decisionmakers. Nobody can deny that the status of women is very low in India. There is no quick fix to this.
Looking at higher income parts of the country, CSM reports, the numbers stand out starkly.
In the prosperous farming district of Kurukshetra, for instance, there are only 770 girl babies for every 1,000 boys. In the high-rent Southwest neighborhoods of New Delhi, the number of girl babies is 845 per 1,000 boys.
The numerical conclusions of the study do not significantly differ from Indian government census data, but some experts dispute the final numbers. The 178,000 member Indian Medical Association, which has a professional and institutional interest in defending it's members from charges of performing illegal procedures, says the practice has decreased since Indian courts ordered a crackdown in 2001.
Madhu Gupta, a leading gynecologist in the country's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, agreed that couples still abort female foetuses, but insisted the practice has diminished.

"Its rate has definitely come down. Small-time doctors do it, but there is drastic reduction," Gupta said.
However, the evidence is clear that a disparity exists, and that it's worse in urban centers than in the country. Merely because the law may have attempted to curtail it doesn't change the effects the technology has had.

Ultrasound was introduced in India in 1979 and has since spread all over the country, to every district. In that same time period, according to to an article in the Independent, hosted at peopleandplanet.net,
Population censuses in India show that the number of girls has been falling steadily for the past 20 years relative to the number of boys. For every 1,000 boys up to the age of six the number of girls dropped from 962 in 1981 to 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001.
Despite the denials of the IMA, while sex-selective abortion has been illegal in India since 1994, it isn't hard to get.
Few doctors in regular clinics offer the service openly, but activists estimate that sex-selection is a $100 million business in India, largely through mobile sex-selection clinics that can drive into almost any village or neighborhood.
Ironically, the smaller families that urban, educated living makes possible under industrialism may have exacerbated the problem. Further, the Indian government, like China, has offered financial incentives and through educational campaigns advocated for smaller families, putting pressure on couples to limit family size.
"More educated women have more access to technology, they are more privileged, and most educated families have the least number of children," says Sabu George, a researcher with the Center for Women's Development Studies in New Delhi, who did not participate in the study.
There is a familiar and disturbing tendency in patriarchal society to blame women for the trend. However, women's rights advocates point to another source:
The main cause for the "girl deficit," they say, is the arrival of ultrasound technology and the entrepreneurial spirit of [mostly male] Indian doctors [my link].

"This is not a cultural thing," says Donna Fernandez, director of Vimochana, a women's rights group based in Bangalore.

"This is much more of an economic and political issue. It has got a lot to do with the globalization of technology. It's about the commodification of choices."
Rajesh Kumar, of the School of Public Health in Chandigarh and co-author of the report, agrees:
"This problem started when these ultrasounds were introduced, this new technology came and people became aware that even before the birth of the baby they could know the sex of the baby and then if its a female baby then for social reasons for other reasons they do not want that there should be a female birth in the family [sic]."
Interestingly, this goes against a trend in the United States, where right to life groups have been running "crisis pregnancy centers," pre-natal screening clinics where ultrasound is routinely used to humanize the fetus in the hopes that women will not seek abortions. One program, for instance, called Option Ultrasound and linked of the Family.org website (a right wing site), uses the slogan "Revealing life, to save life." Because of these believed effects, anti-abortion groups often sponsor or gift ultrasound machines to these centers. One testimonial from a worker at the LifeNetwork pregnancy center in Colorado Springs reported:
Jane's face reflected her changing emotions as each image appeared on the screen. Tears intermingled with smiles as the light turned on in her heart. She was indeed carrying a baby, and a very playful one at that. She could not abort then, not after she’d seen the image of her child so clearly.


As a recipient of one of the first ultrasound machines in the Option Ultrasound™ Program, we want to let you know that this incredible "window to the womb" has already begun to save lives in our community.
Clearly, anti-abortion activists, generally enemies of progressive women's rights worldwide, have high hopes for the technology in the first world. Among other places, the anti-feminist right wing agenda in the United States and the anti-girl selective-abortion trend in India intersect where patriarchy and ultrasound technology meet.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The inescapable network: does the exception prove the rule?

John Stephens is thanking his lucky stars he has a cell phone. When Stephens entered his part time residence on Friday night, someone shot him in the chest. Turning to flee, he was shot again, this time in the back. He managed to make it to a neighbor's house, and when the doctors were done treating him they said that his cell phone had probably saved his life. Not because he called the police with it, but because the bullet hit the phone he carried in his shirt pocket.

But the cell phone news for the rest of us isn't so great. Of course, there's a context. A semi-regular study released at the end of last year revealed that American's personal misery has gone up since the last time the survey was done. The study, “Troubles in America: A Study of Negative Life Events Across Time and Sub-groups,” reveals the following:
Overall, the number of people reporting at least one significant negative life event increased to 92 percent from 88 percent in 1991, the last time the survey was done. Likewise, the total level of troubles grew by 15 percent. Individual problems were not evenly spread among the population, however. Troubles are greatest among those with low income and less education, younger adults, and families with a high child-to-adult dependency ratio (mostly unmarried mothers).
Well, of course, that last bit's hardly surprising. The bad news continues:
* In health care, 17 percent of people reported being a patient in a health care facility, while 14 percent reported being a patient in 1991. Eleven percent reported being unable to afford needed medical care, compared with 7 percent in 1991, and 18 percent said they lacked health insurance, compared with 12 percent in 1991.

* On employment questions, 15 percent said they were unemployed and looking for work for as long as a month in the latest survey, compared with 11 percent in 1991. Sixteen percent said they were being pressured by bill collectors, compared with 13 percent in 1991.
Things don't look good for Americans these days. But what's the connection to cell phones?

Another study published almost exactly at the same time revealed that
...of more than 1,300 people, those who regularly used cell phones or pagers "experienced (an) increase in psychological distress and (a) decrease in family satisfaction" compared to those who used these devices less often, according to study author Noelle Chesley, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
the technology... is somehow facilitating the process" of psychological distress and decreased family satisfaction, adding to the "debate about whether these technologies are causing these problems."
A primary problem was the spillover of work into home life through the phone. While the effects were found amongst both men and women, women took the hardest hit.
"What we found was that it was a negative experience for both men and women, but women had the added problem of home life invading work," Chesley says. For women, the consequences of cell phone access may be increased calls from children or elderly family members, calls that are usually placed because a problem has arisen at home.
The patriarchal organization of the family, disguised behind two incomes, frequently puts a much heavier burden on women, who have to balance responsibilities at work with an unfair division of labor at home. It seems that cell phones may even have aggravated that problem by allowing the terrain of work and home to overlap, causing more, not less exploitation for women.

When it comes to dealing with work and cell phones, workers seem to have a mixed strategy. There's no doubt that having a cell phone can offer some space for self-organization at work that using the company phone may not allow, especially with text messaging. But, still, Tiffany Rector, 25, of Muskogee agrees that there are downsides:
“I have two cell phones, one for work and one personal one. Too many people can get in touch with me.

“It’s hard to hide when you have two cell phones.”
The paradox is obvious. A recent study by Forrester Research revealed that 14% of US youngsters cannot live without their cell phones. We are increasingly, for a variety of reasons, dependent for escape from the system on the very technology that works so hard to suck us in.

An article in the Arizona Daily Star today sheds some light on just how difficult it has been for workers to find a consistent position on the relatively new technology of cell phones. Workers at the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, represented by the American Federation of Government Employees AFL-CIO, are fighting a new policy preventing them from "driving while talking on cell phones and from using the phones around work bays or near flammable materials such as jet fuel." The union's position is a mix of defending worker autonomy on the job and mimicking the security rhetoric of the authorities.
The union sees the new rules as a veiled attempt to "eliminate cell-phone use during work time," said John Pennington, president of Local 2924 of the American Federation of Government Employees AFL-CIO, which represents about 500 civilian AMARC workers.

Pennington said he checked with his union headquarters and couldn't find any other case in which a military employer has taken such steps.

AMARC's new rules call for cell phones to be stored inside employee lockers or tool-kit drawers during work hours. That makes things harder for staff members who have children or elderly parents who might need to reach them quickly in case of emergencies, Pennington said.
In a world in which we have less and less control over the minutes and hours of our lives, the 'convenience argument' often carries a lot of weight, even when the downside is centralization, increased monitoring and control. For instance, citizens of the Vogtland region of Germany can now pay for a variety of parking and travel expenses through their cell phones. However, while
[t]he system undoubtedly makes life easier for the user: no need to find a parking ticket machine, no need for small change, and the ticket can even be extended over the phone. Monitoring also becomes easier, which in turn means more money for the municipal coffers.
Participants in the system must register beforehand and apply a sticker to their vehicle identifying them as "mobile parkers." Meter maids patrol with camera phones linked to plate-reading algorithms that verify registration.

But, although resisting the encroachment of cell phones has become very difficult, some resistance is occurring. In a convergence of old and new religions that perhaps shouldn't be surprising,
Memorial Evangelical Lutheran Church in Afton wants a new steeple. Sprint Nextel wants a new cell-phone tower in the city's Old Village area to provide better coverage to customers.

Church and company officials thought they had reached a solution: Hide the cell-phone tower in a new church steeple, which, when added to the 34-foot bell tower, would rise 75 feet.

But health concerns raised this week by neighbors have sent planners back to the drawing board — while a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources official said it is unlikely the agency will approve the tall structure within the federally protected St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
In the typical security language of high technology, where any space not fully integrated into or regulated by the dominant technological system is deemed unsafe or dangerous, some local officials have come out in support of the tower.
Lower St. Croix Valley Fire Chief Kris Peterson said he hopes the matter is resolved soon and the tower is built.

He said cell-phone coverage is especially problematic in the Washington County Road 18 corridor, which runs north-south through the lower St. Croix River Valley.

"I find it absolutely vital for the safety of the citizens of the community that Nextel service in the area is vastly improved," he wrote in a letter supporting the tower.
However, residents of a Staten Island neighborhood in December demanded debate on the issue of cell phone towers near their homes, a significant demand in a society so resistant to mass participation in technological change beyond one rooted in consumerism.
"Nobody even said a word to us," complained Midland Beach resident Michael Gatti Sr. "It's all dollars and cents, but they should have a little consideration for the people who live here."

Gatti and his wife are worried about the long-term effects on their 3-year-old granddaughter, who lives with them.
Protests took place last summer over two cell phone towers in the area last year, but it hasn't been easy. The infamous Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed by Clinton, has made building cell phone towers easier than it was before, and the local Buildings Department ruled not long after that cell phone companies had to be afforded the "deference afforded other public utilities."

And, of course, coming soon to a cell phone near you: Porn. With the increasing merging of cell phones and the internet, the number one moneymaker online will certainly be coming to a phone near you.
"Certainly, this is going to make it easier to view porn in more places than ever," says Pamela Paul, author of "Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families."
Predictably, anti-porn activists are pushing for more regulation and censorship, but perhaps no one sums the dilemma up like "porn star Ron Jeremy, who licensed his name to RJ Mobile, which offers adult content in Britain and Holland. He's not sure of the U.S. appetite, though. 'Who wants to watch this stuff on a tiny screen?' he asks."

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