Part II – Panspectric Surveillance and War

Här kommer del 2 i serien How can activists and engineers work together?.

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – Panspectric surveillance and War

How are we to conceive of contemporary technologies of surveillance? One way of doing so is to do historical investigations and see from what context they have originated. This, I would argue, works well for most technologies, however it takes more than simply looking at technological innovations as they are in their concrete form. We must instead ask for their use, or their performances.

Besides peace and war, the theme for this conference is digital technologies, and besides sharing certain properties in hardware, such as microprocessors, electricity-based operations and abilities to process instructions and algorithms, they usually share many networked, or social effects. The Internet as an assemblage of computers, routers, switches and all kinds of IP-based technologies, such as mobile devices and satellites, shape emergent forms of effectuation. For example file-sharing, voice-transmission, e-mails etc. are all dependent on interconnectivity and convergence. Also, they operate on the potentiality of decentralisation and read-write capacities, and to be able to transfer the non-digital world to be conveyed and computed in a digital realm, they have the power to perform a kind of universal modulation which we see in the digitalisation of images, sound and even in the keys of a keyboard.

These abstract capacities (sometimes I call these a machinic phylum) are on the other hand flexible in their use once inserted in concrete assemblages. We can use a digital camera on our holiday trips and post the images on a blog. But we may also use the same capacities for an IP-based surveillance camera. The present day technologies are thus at the same time what may liberate sounds, texts, images and videos from their material imprisonment and geographical spatiality, while they simultaneously make possible for panspectric surveillance.

The concept of panspectrocism comes from philosopher Manuel DeLanda, who situates the origin of these technologies in war. It is worthwhile to quote from his work War in The Age of Intelligent Machines (1991) in length:

There are many differences between the Panopticon and the Panspectron /…/ Instead of positioning some human bodies around a central sensor, a multiplicity of sensors is deployed around all bodies: its antenna farms, spy satellites and cable-traffic intercepts feed into its computers all the information that can be gathered. This is then processed through a series of “filters” or key-word watch lists. The Panspectron does not merely select certain bodies and certain (visual) data about them. Rather, it compiles information about all at the same time, using computers to select the segments of data relevant to its surveillance tasks.

DeLanda thus argues that the technologies we face in contemporary debates on Internet surveillance, originate in a post-war setting and culminated during the cold war. Signals intelligence took off with a combination of radio interception that transferred analogue signals to digital information and computers which calculated patterns, attached meta-data, and filtered out only the relevant pieces of information in a multiplicity of signals.

The birth of the panspectric technological framework, at least in an abstract sense, thus came from warfare. However, it was developed and refined during times when consumer technologies were not yet digital, and usually not even made for two-way communication (TV, press, radio).

What we see today is a complete change of orders. Signals intelligence performed by governments, such as the NSA, the FRA or the Bundesnachrichtendienst have entered a territory, which is populated by ordinary citizens, rather than tanks, spy-satellites and nuclear weapons.

Contemporary panspectric surveillance depends on the interconnectedness of sensors and computational methods such as data mining, sociograms and databases. Sensors include RFID-chips, digital CCTV-cameras, credit cards, mobile phones, internet surveillance etc., and have the ability to record an ever increasing part of our everyday lives. This is where we get close to the etymology of the words pan-, which means everything, and spectrum which is the entire range of detectable traces. The radical digitalisation of our societal functions and everyday lives, reconfigures and prolongs the range of surveillance. However, to make sense of this enormous abundance of data, we need methods of reducing complexity and finding relevant traces. This is where we need super-computers and advanced software and statistics.

The FRA has bought one of the fastest super-computers in the world, and it is plugged directly into the central fibre-cables of the Swedish Internet Service Providers. They will receive a perfect copy of all traffic-data (which is not the same thing as content-data), and then process it in order to find for example terrorists. The problem is however, that traffic-data (which contains information on with whom, at what time, how frequently etc. that we communicate) can say a great deal about you and your life. If we make social network analyses of the meta-data you give off during a normal day, the surveyor can probably find out who most of your friends are and where you are most likely to be located. With more and more data, the surveyor is able to tell your religion, sexuality, political affiliation and consumer behaviour. Encryption is completely useless as a protective device against traffic-data analyses since what is interesting is not the content, but the meta-data.

This is a product of the increased amount of sensors that surround us and the military advances in signals intelligence. In short, it is a product of both a machinic era and a new mode of surveillance we refer to as panspectrocism.

Coming posts:

3 Citizen journalism, pirate parties and activists

4 How an engineer can be an activist, and and activist can be technical?

5 The Internet(s) – a democratic space or a panspectric surveillance minefield?

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