Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Seminar 6: Steve Wright Position Statement

UNIVERSAL TARGETING – Can it be avoided?

Steve Wright

Applied Ethics, Leeds Beckett University

Much of Surveillance debate in Criminology quarters has been taken up with issues of privacy and accountability and rightly so. Technological capacities have advanced in ways which were undreamt of when surveillance studies as a discipline emerged in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Now respectable scientific journals such as New Scientist have asked if we have entered a new era, is this – “The end of anonymity” and “what happens when we cannot hide who we are anymore?” (New Scientist – 26 October 2013). These are significant issues for debate but in my mind they do not capture the core future issue of this important field. To me the single most important future issue is “What happens in Human terms When you Pass Your Surveillance Agenda Over to the Military and Their Ancillary Toolboxes, Ideology and Architecture with all of its capacities?”

Paul Lashmar has recently circulated this news item: - 9 April 2016 .Britain's top secret kill list: How British police backed by GCHQ fed names of drug lords to a US assassination unit, which - under cover of the war on terror - wiped out an innocent family with a missile strike  By David Rose for The Mail on Sunday. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3531814/Britain-s-secret-kill-list-British-police-backed-GCHQ-fed-names-drug-lords-assassination-unit-cover-war-terror-wiped-innocent-family-missile-strike.html
In a nutshell it is about extrajudicial killing using surveillance and British collusion with a process which has gone beyond the limits of the law. And they got it wrong so who can the family call? At the time of writing, I am sensitive to the subject since the European Parliament Library Information Service has recently published a report on Fighting the Trade in tools of Execution and Torture: https://epthinktank.eu/2016/04/05/fighting-trade-in-tools-for-torture-and-executions-eu-legislation-in-progress/. I spent time serving as an expert on the relevant committee making the EU a torture and execution technology-free zone. Yet here we have an operation which, outside of Northern Ireland, would never be legally countenanced in Europe? But we outsourced it from here and brokered the necessary surveillance and killing tools which then got the wrong people but the military are in the luxurious position of burying their mistakes….

Military style surveillance operates on budgets which are beyond the reach of most civilian counterparts. And yet that technology and its integration with civilian counterparts is beginning to proliferate down into our street operations and overall apparatus of policing – albeit it with a C4I dimension of communication, computers, command, control and intelligence. This cybernetic approach is goal orientated and is essentially about targeting and of course there is an economic benefit of key or Prime manufacturers advocating such “solutions” using big data for civilian policing. 

The danger is that such military approaches are custom-built to move beyond simply observational surveillance into targeted functions, if permissions are incorporated into such systems - including intelligence and geo-location of wanted groups or suspect communities or high security installations around which designated new rules apply. So there will always be the danger of new norms arising to which there is precious little awareness or effective opposition. Right now, in Europe, that propensity is most likely to arise under the guise of counter terror operations or border management operations where the status of the group under surveillance is suspect or the borders, including maritime borders are just far too extensive for humans to do an effective job. Here we can foresee a perfect storm of migrants, suspect communities and potential threats demanding not just new levels of scrutiny but new capacities of exclusion if need be. Surveillance, targeting and area denial are natural operations in military practice but in most European areas such overt military presence on the ground is unusual, or was. Now military personnel are common sites in both Paris and Brussels after recent attacks and they are in their own words on “a war footing” which means operationalizing targeted surveillance backed up by lethal force. Future attacks in Europe are almost inevitable and will accelerate this process. The biggest challenge is talking about such realities now rather than in the highly emotional aftermath of some directed terrorist swarm attack with causalities in their hundreds across more than one state.  If any part of such a nightmare scenario were to be realized, the rules of surveillance as we know them will be rapidly dropped in favour of the militarized paradigm outlined here.
I hope we can discuss the pragmatics of avoiding such a depressing future.

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