What is the DAC?
For those who don’t know, the Domain Awareness Center in Oakland is a surveillance processing centre undertaken by the City and the Port of Oakland with funding from the Federal government through some sort of Homeland Security scheme or other. As the receipts indicate, the DAC was to be an office with some reasonably high-end computers running data analysis on intelligence. Here, intelligence refers to the actual material product of surveillance; we will shortly have to distinguish between data and meta-data, but for now it’s enough to know that the DAC would not be carrying out acts of surveillance as such to produce new pieces of intelligence, but rather it would be dealing with articles already produced by other surveilling arms (police, port authority, homeland security, etc).
Whose interests does the DAC serve?
The American people, obviously, in that it fights terrorism. Well, you know. The funding for DAC comes from the great sea of anti-terrorism funding, made into a fiscal priority by the Bush administration, and persued with renewed zeal under Obama. A gigantic government bureaucracy devoted to finding and destroying terrorism. This brainless beast is so driven that, failing to find any terrorists, it will start creating terrorism itself in order to have something to find. Over a decade after 9/11 we have of course learned that counter-terrorism means an attack on all of us. In this instance, the main targets of surveillance are obviously minority communities, dockworkers, and various types of political agitator. Why? Because the great autistic beast is fixated on finding threats to national security, the nation being understood as a collection of money and infrastructure (Capital, get it? get it?). This is the language in which the political class encodes its subserviance to the law of accumulation.
It should be note the distinction between individual capitalist firms and the needs of capital as such. Naturally, we expect firms like SAIC generously finance hawkish politicians, as their corporate profile indicates a proclivity for military contracts. But does this indicate that firms like SAIC are the main drivers behind the paranoid practices of the war on terror? If so, then why not extend this logic to other firms? Hewlett-Packard is a driver behind a sinister corporate plan to build high-tech surveillance centres and a computer lab in every elementary and high school in the country. The Marriot hotel wants drinks at the bar convered under expenses for workers on government contracts. Et cetera. These firms, as individual capitalist firms, must commit themselves to the goal of making money above any ideological commitments the individuals that compose them might have (which is not to say that these commitments are entirely irrelevant; racial profiling could not function without them, for instance, but they are not the main drivers of billions of dollars from one market to the next). The state emerges as a distinct actor with claims to represent the general aims of all the stakeholders (stakes in society are publicly traded); it’s precisely through this act of abstraction and generalisation that something distinct emerges, because interests can’t be simply mathematically averaged.
It’s interesting to ponder how this distinct agency, U.S. Homeland security, comes to accord with the local institutional actors: the City of Oakland and the Port of Oakland. I’m unfamiliar with port governance, so let’s stick with the City. The mayor has signed off on this multi-million dollar surveillance operation. How is she relating to the ideal of fighting terrorism? She could be a believer in it, in which case Oakland is in for some crazy times. She could be a cynic: big bucks means she can lower crime statistics two percentage points before the next election. Or she could be a coward: she knows full well that anti-terrorism is a sinister con, doesn’t believe in it, and would like to have done with it and spent the money on women’s shelters instead, but she doesn’t want to go into the next election looking soft on terrorism. I mean, come on: the federal government sends you a check for a few million dollars to fight terrorism: how would you explain not cashing it? Here we see how effective interests are defined not by individual inclination, but by structural relationships, and the need to maintain or modify them.
Okay, so what does it actually do?
While I can’t say with definite certainty what Oakland wants with a big computer lab, I would offer what I think to be reasonable hypotheses. First, this centre is for cataloguing and analysing data. CIR (op cit) reports it would “link surveillance cameras, license-plate readers, gunshot detectors, Twitter feeds, alarm notifications and other data into a unified ‘situational awareness’ tool.” The aforementioned (already existing) tools gather huge amounts of information. None of this data, we know, is ever of much use preventing crime. Rather, it’s about prosecuting it: you could use gunshot detector data in a murder trial, license-plate readers to issue speeding tickets, etc. Framing this as a privacy debate misses the point: we have already lost the “battle” to keep the police from legally recording incidence of gunshots, or to patrol public roads. If someone ran a red light, would the 4th amendment be relevant in their defence? (n.b. for those like me who had to look it up, the 4th amendment is the one that says the government can’t search you unless they got a damn good reason, or a pretty good reason, or something).
Just in case my point is mistaken or elicits legalistic responses, let’s take an example of surveillance where the law is actually being violated: the recent scandals surrounding the NSA. People have framed this as a privacy invasion centred on the image of an NSA pervert masturbating to the content of their e-mails, or what have you. The NSA nerds came forward in defense to say that they weren’t reading people’s e-mails. I mean, they could if they wanted to, but that wasn’t what they were doing. Again, though here we might say the 4th amendment is clearly being violated, we lost the battle on the government’s ABILITY to read our correspondence a long time ago. Calling the 4th amendment is only useful once you’re already on trial to discount evidence; you can’t pre-emptively accuse the government of surveillance when you send a letter through the post, even though you know that they COULD and WOULD read it if they wanted to badly enough. Listen to the NSA nerds: they’re interested in the metadata, as I would argue DAC is.
So what’s meta-data and how is it used? Meta-data is literally data about data. Let’s imagine a case study: a controversial summit to be held in the city of Oakland, blocks away from a poor neighbourhood, well-publicised and demonised in the popular press, etc. The planners know in advance, obviously, that there will be resistance to the summit. In the planning phase, meta-data might include number of times prominent activist accounts are retweeted, the circulation of an online petition. This would help them estimate numbers and identify key organisers. What is the government then in a position to do? If they discover the protest will be large enough to cause a threat, banning it could be pointless, even counter-productive. In order to retain legitimacy, the government cannot seize and permanently detain activists wholesale. It is safest to illegally arrest people who are some way marginal, and only in circumstances which can be defined as extreme. So, leading up to a protest, the police could perhaps arrest the 2-3 people who mentioned bringing petrol tanks to the protest in their e-mails (one of whom turns out to be an FBI mole) but they couldn’t simply jail everyone handing out leaflets.
During a protest the analysis of meta-data is mostly about tactical awareness. Imagine your are the cop in charge of policing a protest: you are standing behind your line at an intersection. Ahead of you the crowd seems to be thinning. You hear a loud pop from two streets over. What do you do? It’s a fun and absurd hypothetical question. The point is that using just one’s senses, even discussing things with other cops, leads to brief, impressionistic fragments of information. A computer could track the movement of crowds and key individiduals throughtout the city, helping the commander make more informed tactical decisions, but we will see in a minute why this asset is limited.
Perhaps the best use of this analysis is after a major confrontation. While you can rarely round up every activist in the city BEFORE a demonstration, mass arrests AT demonstrations are generally permissable (though you may expect a mild scolding from centre-left newspapers). Let’s say you have 100 people in your cells on the evening after the protest (which were designed to hold 60). You barely have the staff to identify them all, let alone file charges. Regardless of the technology, the job is sorting through everyone you arrested and seeing who you might actually be able to pin something on, and tossing the rest out. A decent computer running facial recognition software could chug through a few hours of protest footage from twelve different sources, and identify the movement of protestors during the event faster than humans sitting with vcrs, coffee, and donuts. The transition from mass arrest to “the Oakland [integer... 4, 7, 14, whatever]” would happen faster. The integer eventually convicted might be slightly larger.
The nature and purpose of surveillance
We can see that at every stage the analysis of metadata WOULD mean a slightly higher rate of cops arresting people and getting convictions out of it, but the gains are measured in a few thousand dollars of prevented property damage, perhaps a few hundred thousand on criminal prosecutions, and a handful of actual convictions. We can see at every stage surveillance is not watching everyone all the time and thus getting all of them, but about watching a few people every time and making sure they get got. Foucault teaches us that the most important effect of surveillance is its perceived, not its actual, inevitability. The most important effect surveillance has is not in the punishments it metes out, but in the changed behaviour in the surveilled. The privacy argument is unattractive not because I consider its moral objections totally invalid (spending millions of dollars to arrest more marginalised people is pretty repugnant), or its legal arguments completely useless (hey, if some evidence gets thrown out of court, I’m in favour of it). My problem with it comes from the practice it represents. Privacy is the mindset of an enclave, and here I would like to provide an argument for what an enclave is and why the state would encourage it.
An enclave is a social group which sets itself aside (and is set aside) from society. (As in to cleave away? False etymology prof right here; it’s probably Latin. Wait, cleave is probably Latin. Couldn’t be. Must be Old English. Surely? Hmm.) Muslims in America form an enclave; historically, Jews; the queer scene; the enviro scene; the anarcho-punk scene. The presence of enclaves in society can be immensely productive; society needs perspectives somehow originating outside itself, and enclaves are the closest thing. Enclaves can be sources of revolutionary ideas in politics, art, philosophy and science. But there are two risks to enclaves: assimilation or exile. If the words of an enclave suddenly become agreeable to many, then slowly the enclave becomes absorbed into that society and indistinguishable from it. In the end it is just a word; the medieval monks who set themselves apart from humanity to contemplate holiness were lavished with so much wealth and adoration by medieval Europe that their worldliness soon became a mirror of precisely the kind of cynical selfishness they were supposedly purposed to prevent. Alternatively, an enclave can become so devoted to its purpose that it drifts farther and farther away from the wider shared social reality. While this state of isolation might produce some dizzying insights and revalations, this disconnection leaves the enclave without any social power. Prophets that return from 40 days in the desert pledging to bring the Kingdom of God get crucified, you dig?
Privacy is the cry of a resistant enclave under invasion. Well-known reactionary Randall Munroe* may see it as a deep insight, but it’s fairly commensensical that acts which one takes in the public sphere are public actions, and that the internet was designed precisely as one great public sphere, as is the downtown of any city. Those who are attempting to assimilate do not need to cry privacy, for they purposefully live their lives in accordance with the law in the public eye. Here we see the exact opposite approach: a black man beaten in public (i.e. rebuked for trying to peacefully assimilate into public space) will call for transparancy, not pricacy, in the matter. At that stage, the enclaves of intelligence-gathering and other such skullduggery will cry for privacy in the name national security.
It may sound like I am calling for resignation and assimilation as the only hope for changing the public sphere. I am not. But radicals who hope to intervene in society can’t do so by operating in private. Security culture, the culture of keeping collective decision-making secret, prohibits broader participation in radical practices. The production of a new language and new social practices (hand signs etc) is to be expected within a movement’s enclaves. But it’s self-evident here that the most useful practices are those which can be made intelligible. The most obscure gestures are the most powerless. And this is the danger of the tendency towards separation.
The resistance to the DAC transpiring right now on Twitter is morally righteous, there is no doubt. Let me describe what I understand is happening: they have mobbed a public council meeting. They are demanding that the DAC be discussed. They are heckling the council members. There is a symbolic drama here that I am well versed in: the group voice, organised through a mike check, against the voices of seats of power, which drone into microphones in the same annoyed monotone. The plebian dress of the activists against the suits of the regime. The chants and songs; the agenda and the minutes. It’s like a medieval mystery play, and it’s beautiful in many ways. But you kinda had to be there, you know?
This play of forces, this drama of rebel against tyrant, is too deeply coded in experience to be relevant to those in society who want nothing more than to be fully recognised and incorporated into society, and whose day-to-day struggles are about fighting against those forces which would marginalise them. So what then? Should the activist milieu simply do its best to assimilate into marginalised communities? Given the whiteness of the activist scene, that could be one creepy-looking strain of Maoism. (Kinda like the Mormon missionaries in Melbourne who only try to convert Vietnamese people, you know? Those guys weird me out.) No, I am in favour of some sort of vanguardism here, I suppose, in that I think it is worthwhile to stand apart from society, observe it, and then intervene with the violent gesture which disrupts the normal play of events. But if that gesture only makes sense to me, it’s pointless, or perhaps an art exhibition. The problem is that eveyone KNOWS it is just a gesture. What are the possibilities of this attack on parliamentary procedure transpiring in the Oakland town hall? Will the mayor and city council be seized and brought before a revolutionary tribunal? Will someone burn down town hall? Will the mob storm the arsenal and fling open the doors of the prisons? Well, someone could get arrested and it might just make the evening news. The gesture may resound loudly or it may be barely a whisper. But everyone knows, already, that after it was made that the operations of power will be the same.
I follow Zizek’s suggestion that we need a gesture of tremendous violence, but it needs to be against our link to the system. Here the activist identity, the supposed act of defiance which will always be contained within statistically predicatble, analysable patterns, is a hindrance. The need to play out a drama prevents us from actually asking what we’re changing. Let’s be honest: the person who’s conquered city hall enters it in a suit; that is the uniform in our culture for someone entering the hall in expectation of reaping the fruits of victory. Someone who’s entering in torn jeans, a sweaty DK t-shirt, and a mohawk is there to enact a ritual gesture of defiance for which they may or may not be punished. The battle of the activist has a circularity of making a series of obscene gestures simply for the right to make obscene gestures. How about some real obscenity for a change?
Stop obsessing with the possible nefarious activities of the powerful behind closed doors and look at what they do in broad daylight. If a police spy surveilling a handful of activists is a threat, then why be silent on the mass surveillance of poor youth through schools and community policing? If resistance to surveillance is to be an efficacious gesture, and not merely a libidinally satisfactory one, it should target mass surveillance that seeks to identify, segregate, and brutally punish any kind of dissent or resistance. Who consigns more people to jail, the cop who reads the data printout analysing activist twitter feeds, or the school administrator reviewing testing scores? Here, the violence we inflict on our oppressors need not be merely symbolic. Standardised tests can be boycotted. The legions of white anarchists aching to riot and de-arrest people: where are they when kids are getting patted down and put through metal detectors every day at school? Cops drive around preventing theft while rents go up and food budgets shrink. All of this could be resisted in the kinds of direct confrontation activists claim to crave; disrupting these apparatuses of control would have far more effect than disrupting power’s equally ritualistic unveiling of a new computer lab as the latest white elephant in the fight against “terrorism.” If they can’t build it in Oakland, they’ll outsource it to Palo Alto.
I admit that the structure of this essay is slightly insane. It’s a standard rebuke from the internet: you’re doing X, you out to be doing Y. But surely that is what Occupy claims to be doing for American society? I ask only that the self-proclaimed rebels have the courage to more than enact the spectre of rebellion; and if you didn’t want to get crucified, you shouldn’t have gone out to the desert in the first place.
*Seriously. Randall Munroe would not know an insight about the human condition if it tied him to a rocket and fired him into space at 0.8 times the speed of light while an observer was passing in the opposite direction at 0.4 times the speed of light. Mister Munroe, what would it appear like to an observer orbiting Alpha Centauri?