Monthly Archives: September 2008

Terror x Fear = Business Opportunity

The 2001 Super Bowl in Tampa, FLA is an important moment in the history of surveillance. Using a software program called FaceIt™ (developed by the Visionics Corporation), local police strategically placed video surveillance cameras in key locations to scan the faces of thousands of ticket holders entering the stadium. No arrests were made but the program identified 19 wanted suspects by matching biometric readings of spectators’ facial images with previously stored images of convicted felons. Following the ‘success’ of this experiment, the Tampa police installed a 36-camera system equipped with FaceIt™ software in the city’s nightlife district. The publicity generated by this public-private partnership was a boon to Visionics and the biometrics industry more widely. Government departments and agencies around the world started to invest millions of taxpayer dollars into the development of biometric surveillance for counter-terrorism and intelligence purposes.

According to a report in today’s Economic Times (the business publication of the India Times – think the equivalent to the Financial Post), the surveillance economy in India is booming. “After the recent serial bombings across the country, security has taken centre stage,” the report argues. “And helping corporates and government agencies alike for increasing the security systems at their installations, are emerging Indian companies operating in the security equipment space. The market for products like surveillance systems, CCTVs, interception devices, explosive detectors, door frame metal detectors and access control systems has seen a surge in demand.”


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FLICKr and Counter-Surveillance: Resistance or Reification?

Cory Doctorow posts on Boing Boing that two civil society organizations – The Open Rights Group and No2ID – are calling for British citizens to snap pictures of moments or things in their daily lives which capture the expanding nature of the surveillance society. The pics are to then be uploaded to a Flickr site.

Here’s an excerpt from The Open Rights Group’s website:

On 11 October, No2ID and the Open Rights Group will make a live collage of the images you’ve taken in a prominent location in London (to be confirmed), to celebrate Freedom Not Fear Day 2008.

Freedom not Fear is an international day of action for democracy, free speech, human rights and civil liberties, and events to celebrate these central tenets of a just society will be taking place all over the world.

Here’s how you can help:

  1. Spot something that embodies the UK’s wholesale transformation into the surveillance society/database state. Subjects might include your local CCTV camera(s), or fingerprinting equipment in your child’s school library
  2. Snap it
  3. Upload it to Flickr and tag it “FNFBigPicture” – please use an Attribution Creative Commons license* (this will allow them to have the pictures reproduced in news coverage)
  4. That’s it!

The rationale behind the project is to raise awareness about surveillance creep in our daily lives and presumably to call for more active forms of resistance. Yet it may also serve as a powerful tool of reification, the notion that in looking at objects we forget about the human relations that necessitated their emergence. Reification is problematic because when we objectify relations among subjects, we render the latter passive and determined, while investing the object(s) with mysterious formational powers. The danger of reification will likely be addressed for those who attend the event if we rightly assume that the groups behind it will talk about more than just the photographs but use them as a launching site for wider critical discussion. Yet for the millions more who are likely to experience this project only via Flickr it may have rather unintended consequences.  

Surveillance involves a complex configuration of political, economic, cultural and social practices with human relations behind them. The introduction of more CCTV cameras in public areas, wiretapping by the state, data mining by ISPs to detect suspicious behaviour or consumer preferences, data mining by pharmacists to protect us from adverse drug affects, or my use of Google alerts to help monitor the 24/7 news environment: all of these technologies and practices stem from the actions and decisions of human beings; without unpacking the dynamics in these social relations we risk intensifying the forms of alienation that have been generated by the ever-presence of surveillance in our lives.

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Purple Pills and Puffery

This post is about promotionalism and the pharmaceutical industry. Some of the ideas come from a paper I wrote a couple of years ago (This Ad May be Bad for Your Health) published as a chapter in my book Communication in Question. I was compelled to revisit some of the ideas that informed the paper after listening this afternoon to the latest podcast from White Coat, Black Art – Dr. Brian Goldman’s always stimulating and informative program on CBC Radio 1. You can stream the podcast at the CBC site here.

The section of the program that most intrigued me was Goldman’s Q&A with the vice-president of creative development at the Brand Institute, which bills itself as “the world’s premier healthcare, consumer and business to business (B2B) brand identity consultancy.” Among other services, the firm develops catchy names for drugs and the conditions they are designed to alleviate thereby helping pharmaceutical companies build brand equity and value. According to the executive interviewed, a number of important considerations go into the process of naming a new drug: the name should highlight the product’s unique selling features, it should include embedded concepts that can evoke emotion, it should be memorable and easily pronounced in multiple languages, and it should have a “pleasing tonality”. A case in point is the drug Lunesta, the popular prescription sleep aid – it connotes lunar images and has a soothing tonality that also affirms the product’s “inherent therapeutic properties.”  Roland Barthes must be spinning in his grave.

While you’re waiting for the podcast to download, here’s some promo from the Brand Institute’s website, broadcast as a news story a year or so ago on Fox Business and hosted on the agency’s YouTube page:

Of course, this story is about more than semiotics. Drug advertising is big business. The global pharmaceutical industry is the world’s most profitable stock market sector, with annual revenues exceeding $600 billion. Pharmaceutical sales in North America topped a staggering $265 billion in 2005, and in the United States, where 90% of the continental market is located, big pharma spent close to $5 billion that year on advertising alone. Millions of dollars can be made providing valuable treatment for genuinely sick people, but billions more can be made by convincing healthy people that there may be something wrong with them. Manufacture a risk, cultivate anxiety and deliver an easy treatment. It’s ontological security and a cool buzz in a bottle. 

For communication scholars, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned, which I outline in the aforementioned book chapter. Most importantly, advertising is about more than just the promotion of goods or services that are designed to inform and educate consumers and pad the corporation’s revenues. It is a cultural technology that incorporates images, persons, and commodities into what is often a seamless discourse that blurs the distinction between products and people. The rhetoric of drug advertising encourages individuals to focus increasingly on their minds and bodies as sites of real or potential disease that demand constant attention and administration. Some argue that this serves as an effective tool of governance and as a potential technology for social control. It surely this demands more vigilance on the part of consumers to resist the promotional efforts of drug companies and advertisers, but it also requires more robust state regulation to protect citizens.

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Filed under Everyday Life, Health Promotion, Lifestyle Risks, Politics, Popular Culture

Opt in/Opt out? Consumers Benefit from Surveillance Backlash

In January 2006, the Bush administration came under intense criticism for authorizing the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct electronic (soft) surveillance on citizens’ telephone and Internet correspondence without court approval. The NSA’s ability to monitor the daily communications of U.S. citizens was made possible by the willing participation of some of the largest telecommunications firms in the country (Verizon, BellSouth, MCI, Sprint, AT&T) to use data mining techniques to comb through telephone and Internet records in search of “suspicious behaviour.” Data mining, also known as “knowledge discovery in databases” (KDD), entails the extraction of implicit, previously unknown information from vast amounts of data. In this case, once patterns of communication are identified the telecommunications firms would provide the names of potential suspects to the authorities, setting off intensified cycles of more traditional forms of police (hard) surveillance.

Although I’m sometimes shocked by the level of ambivalence that friends, family and students exhibit toward protecting their privacy when using cell phones, Internet search engines and other new communication technologies, not all have let the issue fade. News today in the Washington Post that AT&T and Verizon, two of the biggest ISPs in the U.S., have responded to consumer concerns by agreeing to refrain from tracking customer Web behaviour unless they receive explicit permission to do so. This is a voluntary, not a legislated measure, no doubt designed to forestall government regulation and to challenge other big ISPs to do the same.

According to the Post report: “The announcement, made at a Senate committee hearing, represents a challenge to the rest of the Web world, where advertising is commonly delivered by companies that record a consumer’s visits across multiple Web sites. The practice, known as “behavioral targeting,” is largely invisible to customers and generally done without their consent.”

Under the new regime of practice, the default won’t be that consumers automatically “opt in” to participate in online tracking, but that they must configure their web browser if they want their Internet practices monitored. This is good news to consumers and privacy advocates, although some say it has the potential to radically affect industry-wide online advertising practices. Critics like the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an association representing the economic interests of ISPs (Google is a member) suggest that forcing users to “opt in” could undermine the Internet economy because advertising revenues underwrite so much of the content that appears online.

For the backstory on the involvement of senior figures in the Bush administration in the surveillance of American citizens, see this story from The Atlantic Monthly and this one from the LA Times.

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Thank You for Smoking

In what must be a sign that public health advocates are making big gains in the legal and PR battles against Big Tobacco, news today that the biggest cancer purveyor in the U.S., Philip Morris, has taken the City of San Francisco to court over a new bylaw banning sales of cigarettes in pharmacies.

The company argues the ban is unconstitutional because it suppresses its rights to communicate with its consumers – cigarettes are not illegal and drugstores are licensed retail sites. The response from the city falls in line with a public health argument to protect and prevent all citizens from disease and to promote healthy environments. In short, we shouldn’t have to encounter promotional materials for products we know to be harmful in an environment that is supposed to promote health and well-being.

Of course, these issues are never so cut and dried. With pharmacies turning into grocery stores, grocery stores into clothing stores, and clothing stores into coffee bars, the lines that once separated clearly appropriate from inappropriate retail sites for products like cigarettes and alcohol are becoming increasingly blurred. Walgreen’s, for example, has intervened claiming it would lose millions of dollars, equal to 9 percent of a store’s non-pharmacy sales, if the ban takes effect. It argues the ban unfairly targets drugstores because grocery stores like Safeway, which profess to market a “healthy lifestyle” but also sell pharmaceutical and tobacco products, are exempt.

It’s surely a sign that the ban is a threat to the tobacco industry’s bottom line. Under normal circumstances, companies in the business of sin, sickness and ethically problematic activities would never go to court and risk intensifying public discussion and heightening awareness about the negative public health implications of their product – remember the case of Nike v. Kasky. Indeed, Mitch Katz, the City’s director of Public Health, calls it “a badge of honor … to be sued by Philip Morris.” I would be surprised if Philip Morris loses this one – but the legal struggle is likely secondary in importance to the public relations battle for the public health sector. 

This case will be interesting to follow, because of the possible precedent it may set (only hours after news of the San Francisco case emerged, the Boston Globe reported that Beantown may be next) and certainly because it’s very likely to generate a contentious debate about the effects of first- and second-hand cigarette smoking. Light up folks – this one will go on for some time.

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Corporate Responsibility or Gratuitous Greenwashing?

Let the countdown begin: it’s 3 days to the grand opening of the new California Academy of Sciences museum, a state of the art spectacle of architecture and sustainability. It’s truly an impressive achievement. Visit the website and you’ll see for yourself: a 2.5 acre “living roof” that’s home to 1.7 million native plants; insulation made from recycled denim; and a solar canopy containing 60,000 voltaic photo cells. These are just a few highlights. The main exhibit, “Altered State: Climate Change in California,” takes up the majority of the museum’s main floor and includes numerous interactive displays, such as the bones of both an endangered blue whale and a T-Rex. 


As reported by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, journalists who were given a sneak peak of the tour were informed by Carol Tang, director of visitor interpretive programs, that the economy and entire way of life in California “will all be affected by climate change,” adding, “the T. rex reminds us that mass extinctions have happened and we’re in a mass extinction right now.”

But alas, not is all well in the world of popular science education. In the build-up to the event, the Academy has been trumpeting the architectural and scientific achievements of the new building and feature exhibits. For environmentalists, however, it’s a program underwritten by a patron with questionable intentions.  It seems that “when visitors show up for the opening weekend’s festivities, they’ll be told they have Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to thank for the museum’s opening, which includes free admission on the first day.” According to the media release posted on the utility’s website, “[e]mpowering Californians with the tools and information to reduce their impact on climate change is critical to protecting California’s natural heritage. We’re honored by the opportunity to support the California Academy of Sciences as they take on the important mission of inspiring future leaders to create a more sustainable California.” Sounds like an act of nobility and corporate virtue. The news item advises that PG&E invested $1.5 million for the rights to co-sponsor, benefiting in return with post plenty of corporate signage, prominent mention in academy press releases, subtle plugs to journalists by museum staffers, and a spot on the five-person panel of academy leaders that addressed the assembled scribes at the pre-opening media tour.

These kinds of public-private partnerships in the arts are not new, as the cultural historian Neil Harris argues in his 1990 book Cultural Excursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in Modern America. Harris claims “the search for an enlightened American art patronage is as old as the republic itself,” and shows several instances where art and corporate power intersect. He also has a fascinating chapter on the link between museums and issue advocacy, which would no doubt fit in relation to the global warming education initiative involved here. The point is that big business has long lined up behind the arts and for various reasons — some of them noble and benevolent, and others quite deliberately self-serving. For the activist group Green Guerillas Against Greenwashing, PG&E falls squarely into the latter category. Noting the utility company’s ongoing efforts to block current legislation (The Clean Energy Act) and its legacy of lobbying against high environmental standards for utilities companies, the group finds the organization’s sudden support for public education about global warming a little too hot to handle. For PG&E and proponents of corporate social responsibility, the utility company’s sponsorship of this initiative demonstrates not an attempt to deceive or manipulate, but to link science and climate change education and to show that there are times when industry can mobilize its significant capital advantages to demonstrate environmental leadership.

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Surveillance News – Hamilton Gets More Eyes in the Sky

Is Canada becoming England’s mini-me? A colleague in the surveillance studies community published a paper a few years ago speculating on whether Canada was sliding towards a Big Brother surveillance society in the guise of its colonial Motherland. Of course, the hundreds of thousands of cameras that dot Britain’s urban landscapes far surpass anything on this side of the pond. Yet, news from Hamilton that that Steeltown has just expanded its public area surveillance network to include 10-12 cameras in four more areas in the downtown core.

According to Deputy Chief of Police Ken Leendertse, the cameras have been installed first and foremost as a crime “deterrence” measure. Dean Collett, a local businessman and the only other source used in the story, states he’s all for upping virtual police presence in the form of more cameras, provided that they are “used to curb major crime and as an investigators’ tool.”

It’s questionable whether the presence of cameras prevents major crime, although as a tool for detection the results are more convincing. Surveillance cameras did not prevent the abduction and violent death of British toddler James Bulger nor the bombings in London’s Underground in 2005 – they did produce compelling imagery and facilitated in the identification of the perpetrators. But detection and deterrence are very different animals.

Particularly important to consider are findings from the most comprehensive analysis of CCTV effectiveness, commissioned by the Home Office in the UK. Among the many highlights: “CCTV is an ineffective tool if the aim is to reduce overall crime rates and make people feel safer. The CCTV systems installed in 14 areas mostly failed to reduce crime (with a single exception), mostly failed to allay public fear of crime (with three exceptions) and the vast majority of specific aims set for the various CCTV schemes were not achieve.” 

The omission of research evidence about efficacy and deterrence in a public policy story about surveillance suggests any number of the following: lazy journalism, the effects of editorial control, effective PR on the part of the police and business community, ineffective PR on the part of privacy advocates and others concerned about spending money on technology to solve social problems, or a combination of the above.

Final thoughts:

1) Things could be much worse for critics of increased public area surveillance in Canada. Hamilton, Ontario could be Columbia, South Carolina – in that corner of the world, there is a proposal before the local sheriff’s office to expand its existing 4 camera program to 400 new cameras. According to a report by the local broadcaster WIS 10 News, the biggest obstacle is money.

2) The debate about surveillance in Sweden, as outlined in this news announcement, from the Nordic Council of Ministers’ website, illustrates differences in the kinds of questions decision-makers are entertaining, and how journalists might actually serve the public interest in helping to create an arena for competing ideas to circulate rather than offering space for the ideas of elites to dominate.


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