Sunday, May 28, 2006

Public-directed CCTV: Spot the Obvious

People in Cambridge can now alert the CCTV centre via SMS. As the article notes, "there are something in the region of 170,000 pairs of eyes living, working and playing in these areas - who can see a lot more than the police or CCTV cameras ever can." More details are at the Cambridge site.

The "bigger" issue of why those 170,000 people should just hand over all responsibility for their town to the Police aside, there's one really obvious flaw in this idea.

How do you know that the person sending the text is telling the truth?

CCTV is not all-seeing. Cameras must either rotate, or you must have a number of them in one area (or, indeed, in all areas) to cover a wide space. Assuming the camera isn't hidden, one can be pretty aware whether or not they're being watched by simply looking at the camera.

So publically-directed CCTV means that the public (who are also suspects/criminals, remember) can quite easily influence the direction a particular CCTV camera is pointing in by sending a text. The chances of this working are, according to the site, directly proportional to the seriousness of the offence being reported:

"Please note that an incident involving for example an assault will take a higher priority than a shoplifter."

Thus, in an area covered by only 1 camera, misdirect the camera elsewhere while you carry out whatever crime you want. The level-of-seriousness approach dictates that even if someone does see you and alerts the CCTV room, there's a good chance your faked "incident" will take higher priority over the crime that you're committing.

Does no-one think these things through?

Friday, May 26, 2006

Knives and Happiness

As a man gets stabbed to death by a 16 year old over a cigarette, and another teenager gets stabbed outside school, attention must turn to the idea of knife amnesties and just how effective such police-biased measures can have. As pointed out previously, the doublethink existing - nay culturally embedded almost - seems to have reached new heights that should remain only within the minds and scripts of satirical commentators. The contrast between the truth of the situation and the proposals put forward is beyond parody. For example, in the first article, Detective Fox comments quite rightly:

"It is terrible to think that Simon was killed over a disagreement over something as seemingly trivial as a cigarette."

Indeed. Doesn't it make you wonder why anyone would turn to violence of any kind over such a disagreement? what's going on in the boy's head, exactly? Ah but wait, our good Detective goes on to proudly conclude:

"I hope today's court result will show people how dangerous knives can be."

Yes! It was the knife all along! Violence is fine - a swift punch to the head, a brick to the knees, so long as you don't have a sharp, shiny, stabby thing to do it with.

Granted, perhaps it's not the police force's place to indulge in commentary over the social and mental wellbeing of today's youth - after all, maybe they're just here to clean up the mess that gets made after everything else is said and done. But it's this very border - the line between the kind of social interaction we lay out for ourselves (even if we do it unintentionally) and how we react to the consequences - that needs to be looked at. Thoroughly.

The police can be said to exist on one side of this line, I think. The line is fuzzy, admittedly, as "innocent" gradually merges with "suspect" (as we have now) and finally into "guilty of something", Dredd style. But should the police's remit extend to cultural enforcement? No.

The problem is that nobody knows quite where they stand any more. The government, bless their little green socks, has backed right away from any interventionism. Or, not backed away, but rather left to the devices of the market. To back away, one must first be next to it. But culture has always been , and always will be, about independence and localisation. Culture is a personal trait. Thus, it would be fair to say that the government has stood back and encouraged the onset of "mass culture" and the consequences that go with it.

The influence of mass production and the associated atomisation of the individual has left its mark. The so-called "law abiding" public have the resources (and, often, the imposed necessity) to exist in solitary suspension, but they're not sure that's really what they want and so end up overcompensating, in various manners. Meanwhile, politicians observe this floudering and proudly pronounce that happiness is back on the agenda with a vengeance.

But as Frank Furedi points out in a good article, an interventionist view, the imposition of happiness by a therapeutic state, only kills the thing you're looking for. Happiness is not an end, but a by-product, and going after it with national policies is a sure recipe for disaster. As Furedi puts it, "Mass-produced happiness is a contradiction in terms".

I've (finally) been reading Baudrillard's Precession of Simulacra today, which handily contrasts the world we've constructed around us (including Disneyland as an epitome, but only as a distraction from other constructions such as "health food") with both the world we deal with "in reality" and the world we've left behind. I recommend reading the link above. (Plug: further (rough) thoughts here.)

In some ways, when people refer to the "law abiding" section of the population, what they really mean is those that have been distracted sufficiently by this new world that's been mass-constructed, a cage of shiny things that prevents us from realising what the consequences are outside of this world.

An abundance of knives and a lack of happiness are merely indicators, then, of this world we've chosen to ignore, or to leave behind. But either way, it exists and it sits in public spaces. For the "law abiding" amongst us, we're supposedly safe so long as we sit inside private areas. It's time that policies were directed at re-uniting these two worlds, instead of just being squarely aimed at a world that we wish and hope exists, the world that we want to live in instead of the world we do live in.

Or alternatively, we can ban knives and enforce happiness and hope that the old world will just go away.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Any sufficiently advanced technology...

Article on the Register about biometrics and ID cards to clamp down on immigrants...

"The Government has also previously been at pains to deny claims that the ID scheme will operate as a tracking network, so Blair's use of "track" as a synonym for 'log' or 'identify' is unfortunate."

As the Reg points out, the details of the technology are left for another time... but isn't that always the way? After all this time, no-one's really sure whether biometrics will work as planned on the whole - some trials were done, and now the discussions has quietly dropped out of the limelight. Does that mean that they're being rethunk? Or just turned into technical specification documents, ready for production? One of these days, I'll do some research into such things...

Still, the extent to which Blair places his faith in technology ("Jesus would have had an ID card") is paramount to alluding to the use of magic as the solution to all those hard-hitting socio-political problems that just keep popping up... Reports of cries of "Immigrantis Expellionus!" coming from Whitehall's inner chambers are currently unverified.

Hmm, calls for wisdom and some details in the policy process? The sky must be falling somewhere...

Monday, May 22, 2006

CCTV: The Movie

This looks interesting - Andrea Arnold has directed a film depicting Glasgow's CCV network, and is calling for more debate on what implications CCTV has for society. As she puts it:

"You can see why it is there but we should consider what it means for our future."

Right on. Wonder how easy it is to get hold of stuff like this if it doesn't appear in the local arthouse...

Friday, May 19, 2006

More technicalities

A couple of stories attracting my eye today...

Firstly, (via Slashdot), ZDNet reports that the UK government want people's encryption keys under the latest installment of the RIP Act (that is, Part III). That encryption is effectively free and easy seems to continually get conveniently "forgotten about" in the ongoing quest for more snooping powers, but it's clear that it lurks in the background, ready to roll out once the frog's gotten used to its new temperature.

Spyblog has a call to write to Liam Byrne over the matter, and I suggest a written or printed letter may be more effective than "deletable" e-mail...

Meanwhile, the Guardian leads with a look at integrating local police data into "frontline council staff" - the obvious issues over data confidentiality are raised, but that doesn't seem to stop most Labour plans these days.

None of these measures actually address any roots of the problem. These are still all technical "fixes" that do nothing but attempt to cover up the genuinely shafted state we're in. There's no political pressure to address these roots, so long as it means taking on some responsibility (at all levels, from government to business to the general public).

Maybe it's time that the deep and - yes, gosh - philosophical debates underlying these paltry solutions was piggy-backed onto the "simple" statist vs anti-statist arguments currently being fought (and lost) by those trying to hold the government to account. Maybe we need to get wisdom back onto the agenda.

Addendum: Same goes for all those calls for knife-screening in schools. Why do people put all their faith in machinery when they even acknowledge that "we have a weapons culture in this country" (emphasis added)?

Friday, May 12, 2006

The "cover-up" that is 7/7

Good to see normal political service has been resumed following the urgent cabinet reshuffle - it was getting a bit boring with Clarke managing to avoid any kind of limelight whatsoever (until recently).

The replacement arse home secretary, John Reid, now seems to be in full "bloody foreigners" swing, relying greatly on "circumstantial evidence" to bring Al-Quaeda into the 7/7 picture.

There are, of course, some problems with the apparent independence of the 7/7 attacks - not problems frmo an investigative nature, but of a political consequence nature.

Firstly, if bombers are independent then all of a sudden that makes tracking them very difficult indeed. If people are spurred on by media broadcasts rather than, say, personal communication with terrorist agencies, training camps, etc, then tracing connections through network profiles (wiretaps, e-mail snooping, location-monitoring, etc) suddenly becomes next-to-useless.

But secondly, it swings the finger of blame around again. All of a sudden, "extremist terrorists" can no longer be blamed. The "home-grown" effect - British terrorists on British soil against British civilians - is twofold. One, the politicians will spin it as a "culture" of violence "infecting" our otherwise lovely society. But two (more importantly) there's that direct link between what the politicians are actually doing, and how people are reacting. In many ways, then, there's not much of a philosophical divide between all them people willing to march through London in disappointment at the ruling elite's plans, and all them people willing to blow themselves up. Reaction.

Hence why the ISC report focused on resources, not reasons - intelligence, rather than Iraq. The government have been found "clean" yet again, and all of this nastiness would have happened if we had or had not invaded foreign countries, despite what the terrorists say.

The upshot of this is, of course, tighter rein. More control over possible suspects (a definition which spreads even wider, now that it can't be predicted through social links), more ability to sort the guilty from the possibly guilty, and more propaganda to portray people with a bone to pick as an evil menace.

Perhaps the old British tradition of sitting down and having a nice cup of tea and a chat should be re-considered?

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Boarding passes: tickets to everything

Interesting Guardian Article featuring Adam Laurie, on identity leakage via a discarded boarding pass. Well worth reading, as it highlights a number of important aspects and consequences of the ubiquity of data-collection and data-sharing.

"The problem here is that a commercial organisation is being given the task of collecting data on behalf of a foreign government, for which it gets no financial reward, and which offers no business benefit in return," says Laurie. "Naturally, in such a case, they will seek to minimise their costs, which they do by handing the problem off to the passengers themselves. This has the neat side-effect of also handing off liability for data errors.

This raises 2 points - firstly, that as noted, privacy offers little direct return on investment - thus, companies easily become blasé about privacy for the same reason that many companies are blasé: about network security - there's no direct benefit to spending the cash. Privacy and security both inherently only cost when the status quo is disrupted and something goes very very wrong - but usually by then, it's too late.

Secondly, handing data entry off to consumers entails a further aspect - that of convenience. As with many IT systems, convenience is often offered in place of security, rather than in addition to it (although that's not to say the two are inherently mutually exclusive). As the data being used to construct profiles of individuals moves further along the chain and certain attributes are filtered out, so there is less requirement to maintain stringency and accuracy in both integrity of the data, and access to it.

The Guardian rightly draws parallels with the ID Scheme. Think carefully about where data will end up, even with safeguards at each individual level.