Interview: Neoconopticon report

28 Septiembre 2009

The lack of debate on EU's emerging policies on security is not just about "sleepwalking into a surveillance society”, it is also turning a blind eye to the start of a new kind of arms race, one in which all the weapons are pointing inwards.

On the occasion of the current Swedish EU Council Presidency, on 29-30 September 2009, the [extern] Fourth European Security Research Conference takes place in Stockholm. This "major component in the evolution of civil European security research" is organized by the European Commission and the Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems within the "European Security Research Programme" (ESRP) of 7th Framework Programme for Research and Development (FP7).

Timely for this event that tries to bring together "stake-holders" and "policy and business decision-makers", a quite critical report elucidates the incorporations of European security politics and industry. NeoConOpticon - The EU Security-Industrial Complex, written by Ben Hayes and published by the Transnational Institute (TNI), in association with Statewatch, gives a comprehensive overview about new applications and gadgets that are alleged to produce "security" for European citizens. But most notably, the report identifies the actors on the "supply side" and "demand side" of a "security", that has become a highly profitable and sellable product.

Q: In "NeoConOpticon" you write out a theory of the European Union becoming a "security-industrial complex", that you were describing already in one of your last studies "Armed Big Brother". Security politics is decided behind closed doors, influenced by think tanks, lobbies and of course security and defense corporations. Regarding the EU research programmes, informal groups are established to set up other little tangible informal structures deciding their own billion budgets. Who are the actors?

Ben Hayes: The European Commission has a dedicated Directorate General for Research which is responsible for most EU research programmes. However, where "security research" is concerned, responsibility has been handed to DG Enterprise and Industry, a move that is all about the EU's desire to enhance "industrial competitiveness" in the Homeland Security sector and competition with the USA in what is an extremely lucrative business. The Commission has also established successive ad hoc "advisory bodies" (the Group of Personalities, the European Security Research Advisory Board and the European Security Research and Innovation Forum) to draw-up the overall objectives and strategic R&D priorities for the EU.

These informal bodies, which have been established outside the normal EU decision-making structure, have been dominated by private interests. A small group of prominent multinationals from the defence sector has been particularly well represented – Thales, EADS, Finmeccanica and Sagem Défénsé Sécurité are among the corporations that feature prominently in the report. Israeli agencies and corporations have also been brought in to advise the EU on security research.

Q: Can you dare to give an overview of the technical and social means of surveillance and control that we could expect to be implemented in the next years?

Ben Hayes: The EU has already adopted a host of surveillance-enabling legislation, more in fact than the USA. These measures include laws mandatory telecommunications surveillance; the incorporation of fingerprints into EU passports, visas and residence permits and the establishment of biometric ID systems; the analysis and exchange of passenger record data; and the surveillance of financial transactions. Under the European security research programme the EU has awarded R&D contracts covering things like satellite surveillance and tracking systems, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs' or drones) for police and border surveillance; automated targeting and profiling systems, data mining tools and so-called smart CCTV linked to behavioural analysis systems. The entire programme is in fact predicated on equipping Europe's police forces, security services, border guards, crisis management agencies and para-military units with the latest surveillance technologies.

Q: With the "Amsterdam Treaty" of 1997 the European Union agreed to install an "Area of Freedom, Security and Justice". Becoming a state with it's own powers, the European Union established several treaties, guidelines, action plans and directives strengthening 'security' that should perform more 'freedom' for its citizens. Who are the "threats"?

Ben Hayes: Traditionally the EU has focussed on (and some might say exaggerated) the "threat" from organised crime, illegal migration, terrorism and so-called "rogue states". What we've seen in the last few years – at both national and European level – is a rapid extension of the concept of "security", and with it a host of new "threats". The security strategies of the UK, France, Germany and the EU now cover everything from protests and demonstrations to health pandemics and climate change. Concomitant to the creation of new threats is, of course, the demand for new powers and resources for security agencies to intervene proactively in the name of minimising risk.

Q: Franco Frattini, former EU Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs (now Minister of Exterior under Berlusconi) declares "security" as a "common good", for which "responsibility and implementation should be shared by public and private bodies". What does he mean?

Ben Hayes: The principle that security is now a "common good" shared between the public and private sector is dangerous not because private security is necessarily a bad thing, but because the profit-driven, high-tech vision of security of the private sector is – when examined as whole – demonstrably at odds with the democratic traditions and social justice aspirations of the "free world". There is also a danger that this corporate-driven agenda takes precedence over traditional social and economic policies designed to address the "root causes" of complex social phenomenon such as migration, terrorism and underdevelopment.

Q: Internal and external security politics are becoming the same, civil and military research are merging. European police forces are operating under military command in "third states", while the military helps to control summit protests or sports events. A paper issued by NATO strategists in 2007 sees a western "western way of life" in danger, concluding to "keep risks at a distance, while at the same time protecting their homelands". Where does this doctrine comes from?

Ben Hayes: In this case I think it's about an outdated military alliance looking for new security and defence roles to justify its continued existence. But these kind of "Homeland Security" and "Homeland Defence" strategies are also firmly embedded in the "neo-con" ideology that has taken hold of western policy-making circles over the past ten years. This is an ideology that says the west must take on a global policing role, and must intervene in "failed states" to both pre-empt "threats" to security and further the spread of the free market and western-style democracy.

Q: The title of your new study "NeoConOpticon" insinuates onto the prison designs of "Panopticon", that Foucault described as a "whole new type of society". Foucault analysed this new architecture against delinquent behaviour emerging in the 18th century as a pattern representing the society shifting towards surveillance and control. This permanent observation affects the "entire social body". Your Statewatch colleague Tony Bunyan asserted that the European Union is shifting towards a "database society". So, what transformation of society you conclude?

Ben Hayes: What I try to do with the title of the report is to make people think about two things. The first, as you say, is to make people think about the way in which Europe is becoming a "surveillance society", and the way in which surveillance changes the relationship between individuals and the state. Foucault was more interested in the way the mere existence of surveillance conditions people to act in a certain way – in the home, the workplace, in public spaces and so on. It's important to recognise that not all surveillance is about coercion or state power, rather, surveillance is rapidly becoming the dominant organising factor in contemporary western society.

Having said all that, we came up with the NeoConOpticon to try to emphasise the fact that the "surveillance society" did not fall out of the sky and is also being enthusiastically promoted by multinational corporations who see vast profits and politicians seeking the kind of powers we've described. The right to limitless profit-making is at the heart of neo-con ideology, and it is now exerting enormous pressure on the security policies of the EU.

Q: According to police as well as security and defence corporations, information is the key to providing more "security". 'Knowledge', 'anticipation', 'tracking', 'integrated security', 'operational and decision superiority' are terms that we know from military vocabulary. The security industry provides software that should "foresee" crimes and deviant behaviour, such as "lurking", but also pinpoints slowly moving refugee vessels in the Mediterranean. What model of policing hides here?

Ben Hayes: I use the concept of "Full Spectrum Dominance" to describe this obsession with high-tech security and surveillance technologies. The term was introduced in the USA to describe the military power of US forces and their ability to achieve Full Spectrum Dominance over all elements of the "battlespace"– land, air, sea, space and even cyberspace. The way in which the EU is now seeking to utilise surveillance from land, air, sea and space, together with wholesale surveillance of our communications and internet usage suggests to me a policy of domestic Full Spectrum Dominance over civilian populations.

Q: Speaking about resistance regarding this "comprehensive approach" of the "security-industrial complex", there is little on the European level. How can one act in the face of satellites tracking crowd behaviour at demonstrations, software scanning for "risks" in our data records, or flying cameras operating in "problem neighbourhoods"? Shouldn't we force a general critique of the "all-encompassing security concept" that could not be assimilated by the hegemonic discourse of pretending to find a "balance" of freedom and security?

Ben Hayes: The main problem as I see it is that so few people are aware of what the EU is actually doing under the rhetoric of creating an "Area of Freedom, Security and Justice", that there is no serious debate about the merits or dangers of its policies. The EU decision-making structure is dominated by "securocrats" (officials tasked with increasing security) and the media barely reports what it does, not least because it's become so complicated and convoluted. Unless this changes, blind faith in the EU will keep it on its current course. In the report we call for a full audit of the development and implementation of the European security research programme and a redefinition of its priorities to put human rights and social justice ahead of the demands of law enforcement and security agencies. We also call for a freeze on EU surveillance enabling legislation and a programme of measures to bring law enforcement technology and related new police powers under democratic and judicial control.

Q: Maybe we need an own, alternative security research programme. Can we turn the tide? Does information technology with all these new gadgets and applications help us in our struggles for liberties? Should we spend more efforts in building flying cameras or satellie-based tracking of police?

Ben Hayes: I'm not sure about that! There is this idea around that counter-surveillance, or sous-surveillance will somehow counter-balance a host of new government surveillance powers. Surveillance technology may make citizens more accountable to the state, but – the argument goes – it could also make the state more accountable to the citizen. This is all very well in theory, but what I see is policy-makers and state agencies becoming less accountable, not more so. Of course people who care about civil liberties must scrutinise the activities of governments and police forces but this will not be enough on its own. What we need most of all is a radical change in policy that addresses the root causes of insecurity instead of this endless deference to the demands of the security state and transnational corporations.

For interviews on this story, please contact TNI by emailing nina dot brenjo AT tni dot org or ring + 31 20 662 66 08

Sobre los autores

Ben Hayes

Ben Hayes es un investigador del TNI que lleva trabajando para Statewatch, una organización dedicada a las libertades civiles, desde 1996, especializándose en leyes nacionales e internacionales de seguridad y políticas policiales. Ben también trabaja como investigador independiente y asesor para organizaciones como el Centro Europeo de Derechos Constitucionales y Humanos (ECCHR), Cordaid, la Fundación Heinrich Böll, el Parlamento Europeo y la Comisión Europea.

Las investigaciones de Ben se centran en dos grandes temas: (i) el impacto de las políticas de contraterrorismo, vigilancia y control fronterizo en la democracia, los derechos humanos, la sociedad civil y el desarrollo internacional, y (ii) la influencia y las actividades de las industrias de la defensa y la seguridad.

Ben tiene un doctorado del Magee College (Derry/Londonderry), concedido por la Universidad de Ulster en 2008. Actualmente está trabajando en un libro sobre cambio climático y seguridad internacional para el TNI.

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