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They're watching us: states take up digital surveillance
In his ironically-titled book 'Surveillance Studies: An Overview', David Lyon talks about how the modern nation state has the concept of surveillance built right into it by virtue of its bureaucracy and capitalist forms of production.
States have, for many centuries, sorted, counted and identified their people. Nazi Germany and Apartheid-era South Africa are obvious, relatively recent (and fairly extreme) examples of this, but the practice stretches right back to the Roman Empire, where the the first census took place.
In its more apparently benign form, surveillance involves using research and data collection methods to count populations and to help with the provision and distribution of public services. Various details about our lives are also recorded and documented. We are given passports, and birth and marriage certificates. What we buy gets tracked by market researchers, loyalty cards, and so on.
Surveillance also exists in a more sinister and blatant form, of course: top-down watching, where the state employs population demographics to isolate and target particular communities, or uses technology to track down those who challenge its authority.
But whatever form the surveillance around us takes, we have all, in some way or another, had to accept it as part of our everyday lives. And increasingly so. Since the September 11 bombings of New York's World Trade Centre in 2001, surveillance has undoubtedly been stepped up.
This has been exacerbated by the fact that the last ten years have also seen digital technologies – including those used for surveillance -- get a lot more sophisticated.
At the end of 2011, online community Anonymous obtained information that it passed on to Wikileaks and its partner organisations about the staggering scale of the international surveillance technologies industry.
In a significant set of exposés, Wikileaks subsequently released the documents it had received -- dubbed the Spy Files -- and created an interactive map revealing the countries engaged in surveillance technologies trade.
The evidence showed that most of these technologies – from internet monitoring technologies to computer viruses to GPS tracking devices – are manufactured and sold by companies in Europe or North America, with a few notable exceptions like India, South Africa and Brazil.
Buyers are mostly corporations and governments in the global north, but also include authoritarian regimes in places such as Syria, where these technologies are actively used to identify and target human rights activists, political dissidents and free speech advocates.
Privacy International, a partner organisation of Wikileaks, published this and similar information as part of an ongoing investigation called Surveillance Who's Who / Big Brother Inc. In collaboration with the Bureau of Investigative Journalim and Open Spending, the project involves aggregating data about which governments and corporate agencies are attending surveillance technology trade fairs and buying and selling technologies.
What makes the surveillance technologies industry especially problematic is that it is largely unregulated, and trade tends to be secretive. As well as this, surveilance technologies generally fall outside the scope of country laws, for example the UK's prohibition on exporting dangerous commodities. This means they can be moved fairly easily across national borders.
Privacy International has also recently written to various companies engaged in the trade of surveillance technologies to ask about their due diligence with regard to human rights issues. These revelations are a direct challenge to Western governments who want to restrict authoritarian regimes like Iran or Syria while still maintaining harmonious trade relations with them.
The watching game is ubiquitous. And it is not only the surveillance technologies themselves that are bought and sold. In February 2012, Wikileaks released the Global Intelligence Files: a database of over five million emails from the Texas-based intelligence corporation Stratfor, which sells intelligence to a host of global corporations. From US government plans to target Julian Assange, to tactics to placate Hugo Chavez, to activists challenging Dow Chemicals for their role in the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984, Stratfor showed that the sale of information obtained through these technologies can also be turned into a viable business.
The spy files, the internet arms bazaar and the new reign of terrabytes, Washington Post, 2011.
Stratfor, WikiLeaks and the Obama's administration's war against truth, The Guardian, 2012.
Surveillance Studies: An Overview, David Lyon, Polity, 2007.