Category Archives: Surveillance

From FCR to Racial Profiling

People from FATA who live in Rawalpindi have been put under surveillance.

He said the whereabouts of all such individuals were being gathered in Rawalpindi and three other districts. Of the total individuals from the tribal areas, 4,300 were living/doing business in the Rawalpindidistrict, 610 in Attock, 245 in Jhelum and 280 in Chakwal.

Police considering issuing them chip-based national identity cards equipped with added security features

“The objective of compiling the data of all such individuals is to keep vigilance on them,” the senior police official said. “Police are also considering containing them to a specific place and issuing them chip-based identity cards.”

KP’s Chief Minister Pervaiz Khattak has warned against the profiling. Meanwhile, on the same day that there was a drone attack in Kurram Agency, the federal cabinet agreed to the recommendations of the FATA reforms committee report, marking a major turning point. The proposed plan, as of now, is to implement a 5-year transitional plan during which time the FCR will be replaced by the Rewaj Act, previously called Nizam-e-Adl. Nobody seems to have a final draft version of this act, although there have already been protests about it because people  suspect that the act is another version of custom as cruel governance.

Two days after the approval of the reforms, a number of maliks filed a case with the supreme court of KP, challenging the legality of the reforms.

I suspect these trends will go hand-in-hand: the juridical reforms of FATA will be coupled with a regime of high and low tech surveillance and racial profiling. Even as, in the best case scenario, the juridical otherness of FATA melts, a new regime (closer to that of ruling difference in the US i.e. racial profiling) will stick to the skin.

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Why the Police Like Body Cams

I was locked out of my blog due to a technical issue for the last several days. Much has happened since then, including the Peshawar attack, which has taken up most of my mental space. But, I want to archive some relevant articles here on the body camera issue:

The Cops Hate Body Cameras. So Why Are They OK Being Filmed | The Nation | Dec 19. 2014

This article notes what I’ve said earlier: that body cameras will increase surveillance of communities of color. Then, there are also other issues:

Other New York cop watchers, like Julien Terrell, worry about who will have authority over the recordings, and argue that the recordings should go to an independent body “with teeth” and should not be handled internally within the NYPD. Dennis Flores, who has experience with officers attempting to withhold and tamper with video and recording evidence told The Nation, “The NYPD already uses cameras [referring to TARU and CCTV surveillance cameras], and we don’t have any access to them. There’s no oversight. There’s no way for anyone to force them to release that type of footage. It’s at the police department’s discretion and the city’s law department. So they hold evidence when they know that you’re innocent. I expect the same thing with these body cameras.”

A Fusion investigation found that “the way body cameras are used usually serve police more than citizens charging misconduct. And in the data from two cities provided to Fusion, there was little evidence police body cameras reduced police involved shootings or use-of-force incidents.” Fusion determined the main reason body cameras tend to help police more than civilians: turning the camera on and off is at the officers’ discretion. In Albuquerque and New Orleans, during high profile police shootings, the police officer’s camera was off while they killed an unarmed civilian. And in New Orleans, cameras were off for 60 percent of use-of-force incidents. Although body cameras are advertised as a tool that helps keep police misconduct down, the reality is a little more complicated. The investigation shows that body cameras are not likely to lower use of force by police officers but more likely to absolve police officers of wrongdoing.

Investigation of 5 Cities Finds Body Cameras Usually Help Police| Fusion |

The cameras are marketed to police departments as a way to reduce citizen complaints and litigation against officers. Steve Ward, CEO of body camera manufacturer Vievu, told Fusion, “If police officers wear body cameras, 50 percent of their complaints will go away overnight.” He said the cameras “overwhelmingly” help the officers.

6 Ideas for a Cop Free World | Rolling Stone | Dec 16.2014

But police are not a permanent fixture in society. While law enforcers have existed in one form or another for centuries, the modern police have their roots in the relatively recent rise of modern property relations 200 years ago, and the “disorderly conduct” of the urban poor. Like every structure we’ve known all our lives, it seems that the policing paradigm is inescapable and everlasting, and the only thing keeping us from the precipice of a dystopic Wild West scenario. It’s not. Rather than be scared of our impending Road Warrior future, check out just a few of the practicable, real-world alternatives to the modern system known as policing:…

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Body Cameras & the White Gaze

In a sense the problem is even worse: to the extent that there is a racist organization and disposition of the visible, it will work to circumscribe what qualifies as visual evidence, such that it is in some cases impossible to establish the ‘truth’ of racist brutality through recourse to visual evidence. (Butler 1993: 17).
Even before the latest episode of Serial was aired in which white reporter Sarah Koenig just can’t quite believe Adnan’s mother, Jay Caspian Kang had written about white reporter privilege:
“I am still disturbed by the thought of Koenig stomping around communities that she clearly does not understand, digging up small, generally inconsequential details about the people inside of them, and subjecting it all to that inimitable “This American Life” process of tirelessly, and sometimes gleefully, expressing her neuroses over what she has found.”
On techno-fetish and questions of racism and who can be believed in the context of the “war on terror,” see my pieces, here and here.
“We revolt simply because for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” -Frantz Fanon

The discussion about body cameras is taking off. Some liberals have responded to the criticism of techno-fetishism (see my prior post) by claiming that without the camera in Eric Garner’s case, we would be reduced to “unreliable” witness testimony and confusion — as in the Michael Brown case. Let’s unpack this a little.

The video footage made ZERO difference to getting legal justice for Eric Garner’s family. So, for Garner’s family, the footage meant nothing. For African-American communities too, the ruthlessness, racism and rank injustice of the police is not news. For segments of the Muslim community that have been subject to heavy surveillance, this is not news. In fact, I imagine this is not news to significant segments of communities of color who have had first-hand experiences with the police. So, really, when you talk about how “at least” this time Garner’s murder was videotaped so it can be proven, what you really mean is that it can be proven to the white subject, to those people for whom the racism of the police is largely a theoretical matter. That is the implicit subject towards whom you are oriented. And this subject, you say, can now judge for himself; he doesn’t need to rely on the “unreliable testimony” of witnesses. But, if you are a liberal, you know well enough that “unreliable testimony” here is code for testimony given by Black people. After all, the only testimony that actually mattered in both cases was that of the white cop. So, what you are really saying is let’s continue to invest in the racism that got Garner and Brown killed in the first place by continuing to legitimize the white gaze as the site of truth production.

I know this in the context of drone attacks. I have written about it a little here. It’s never enough for Iraqis or Afghans or Pakistanis to say that they are being killed, that their brother or sister or mother or father were killed by American bombs or American empire; it must always be supplemented by the voice/testimony/witnessing of the western journalist, or the voices of officials within the US government or western humanitarians. Those are the sites of production. It’s never the stories centered on people who have survived or families of the dead that make the front page; the big stories are the ones where officials, or some form of westerner leaks internal information. It’s as if we can see the boy with a glass eye and the prosthetic legs, but we refuse to believe his story until someone humanitarian lawyer or some official says, yes, we sometimes bomb young boys too. Journalists — white and otherwise — who are reasonably intelligent know this and discuss it. As one friend/reporter said to me last night expressing the dismal situation of magazine journalism in which the main character must always be white or western. “You have to ask yourself, if this story were a movie what role is Matt Damon going to play?” And that role, better be at the center of your story. Many of us have had stories killed for failing to abide by that rule. This is not a problem solely in the conservative media. This is a problem of the liberal media. This is even a problem of the most visible media on the liberal to left political spectrum.

So – I, for one, am absolutely sick of this shit.

It is not the duty of periled communities to make you the white/westerner believe. It’s not the duty of these communities to continue to be subjected to the white gaze so you can make your crap judgments at your own leisure. Wake the fuck up and confront your own racism. If you approach every testimony by people of color with suspicion, even as the pattern of racism is written in blood, you’re a racist. And, if you are juxtaposing the “clarity” of the Garner case due to the video as against the “confusion” of the Brown case due to the “unreliable testimony,” you’re a racist. Both of these cases are equally clear and are part of a pattern of racism. To sever the Garner case from Brown’s shooting or Travyon Martin’s or hundreds of other cases is to operate on racist assumptions that only things which can be witnessed by you — the white subject — are clear. You are making a highly racially charged argument that relies implicitly on a series of racist propositions in order to make it make sense.

Finally, you might want to ask yourself why it is that you are so hung up on body cameras, why it is that attempts to point out that body cameras won’t resolve structural racism, lead you to debate the issue of body cameras rather than think, discuss and organize against racism.

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We Can’t Breathe

After the injustices in Ferguson, a grand jury in New York piled it on by clearing the cop who put Eric Garner in a chokehold and killed him. Garner said “I can’t breathe!”  11 times. If the liberals of Northeast felt quietly smug about the situation in Ferguson, the failure to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the cop in question, should make it clear that when it comes to being Black in America, there is no safe space.

The sad, frustrating and perhaps devastating thing about the killing of Eric Garner is that it was all caught on video. It exposes why the campaign to put cameras on cops is not going to work. Its proponents misunderstand the issue as one of insufficient visual surveillance of the police. The actual issue is racism so deeply ingrained that it transforms the bodies of Black men and boys into “monsters” or, in the international register, the bodies of Muslim men and boys into terrorists. The Left needs to get over its techno-fetish. Visual surveillance by putting cameras-on-cops (or drone surveillance for human rights abuses or whatever) is neither here nor there when racism and empire have outposts in our heads.

Videos and images do not speak for themselves. After all, there was also a video of the beating of Rodney King. In an interesting deconstruction of what happened at that trial, Judith Butler has written about the contesting reads of the video: one that saw a man being beaten and one, the jury, who saw a man who was threatening the police:

From these two interpretations, emerges, then, a contest within a visual field, a crisis in the certainty of what is visible, one that is produced through the saturation and schematization of that field with the inverted projections of white paranoia. The visual representation of the black male body being beaten on the street by the policemen and their batons was taken up by the racist interpretive framework to construe King as the agent  of violence…(1993:16).


In a sense the problem is even worse: to the extent that there is a racist organization and disposition of the visible, it will work to circumscribe what qualifies as visual evidence, such that it is in some cases impossible to establish the ‘truth’ of racist brutality through recourse to visual evidence. (1993: 17).

That, in sum, is the difficulty of the problem: Racism conditions what we see.

Body cameras and increased surveillance of already surveilled communities. Streets, stoops and public space, particularly in poorer communities, is where a lot of life is lived. Whereas rich people can buy private space, construct gated communities and generally privatize their activities away from the surveillance of the state, activities from the mundane to the harmless but illegal, are often conducted publicly within poorer communities. Thus, structural economic inequality plays out in how space is lived, segmented and surveilled. Body cameras may surveil the police, but they will also increase the reams of surveillance data about these already heavily policed/surveilled communities — which is likely to render them subject to yet more policing. See how that cycle works?

The problem is structural racism and the maintenance of white supremacy, domestically and internationally. The problem is we can’t breathe.

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Surveillance, Late Liberalism & Race(ism)

If, as scholars have suggested, surveillance is no longer about speech (content) but about circulation (form), then the question “Can the subaltern speak?” is superseded by: how does the subaltern circulate? Discussing the new social networking app “Yo”, Robin James, draws on Jodi Dean’s notion of communicative capitalism to discuss how an emerging politics may be about circulation:

Speech, understood as the transmission of meaning, that might be relatively obsolete these days. But circulation might have its own politics, its own political possibilities. In fact, I would argue that most contemporary concerns about, say, data surveillance, these are actually contests over the politics of circulation, not the politics of speech. (Or, maybe more accurately, they’re primarily about circulation, secondarily about speech.)

(To be fair to Spivak, if I recall correctly, the essay was somewhat about the strategic circulation of the “subaltern” and not about recovering an authentic “subaltern” voice or speech.)

“Big data” has been critical to this project. In late liberalism, the goal of surveillance, as some scholars (Robin James, Jasbir Puar, among others) are pointing out, is calibration: to establish patterns of normalcy and weed out outliers. So, the US government’s claim that it’s not “listening” to us is somewhat correct. The point isn’t to listen to speech so much as it is to establish big data sets for the project of calibration. And, as with NSA surveillance, so with the drone wars: The former NSA director has stated “we kill based on metadata.” Thus, this calibration idea also underlies the imperial global policing regime, which is about constant and never-ending policing to continue calibration. Although we refer to drone attacks as “war” loosely, I think this project is conceptually different from “war.”

Going back to Spivak’s essay, the Subaltern Studies School was dealing with the silence of the archives — the figures written out of history. Now, we are dealing in a sense, with a different problem: an enormous archive. We’ve gone from questions about repression/silence/exclusion to questions about appropriation/manipulation/circulation.

This is, I think, partly a result of the success of humanitarian regimes to some extent, that is, the insistence that we are all human means that the ostensible logic of categories of killing must become ever more fine-grained and therefore, we must all get “heard”/surveilled. So, for instance, while the old orientalist trope about “wild tribesmen” is still around, the strongest argument on the (neo)liberal side is not that the tribesmen are all savage, but rather that the imperial state is conducting a “surgical” campaign to weed out the “militants” –i.e. calibration and policing which unlike war, are never-ending and pre-emptive projects.

This is partly what explains the sudden upsurge of interest in surveillance among white, upper-middle class Americans, those classes and groups of people who have historically been considered (and considered themselves) beyond the scope of activities and actions the government usually reserves for the marginalized. Thus, it was not the surveillance of Muslims, or the AP breakthrough reports on that topic, that spurred interest. It was Edward Snowden’s revelations of the systemic, widespread and mass nature of the surveillance that turned it into an issue. The NSA is surveilling everyone where everyone is code for white, middle-class America. In response, organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have made arguments that effectively seek to put into motion the old, race-based ideologies to argue against surveillance. Consider this article on their website titled “Tea Party, Taxes and Why the Original Patriots Would’ve Revolted Against the Surveillance State” about how the “founding fathers” would not have stood for this. The EFF mobilizes a whitewashed version of American history to argue that to ‘true’ American patriotism is being like the founding fathers — who would have opposed surveillance, a story that implicitly marks American origins and its founders as pure, beacons of the right and true and ethical. That leads one to wonder where the rest of us – who are subjects of racial profiling – might find solidarity, since EFF’s rhetoric is not meant for us.

For, if racism seems to disappear overtly, it has nonetheless become a standing procedure of governance, as Sherene Razack has argued. In her book, Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics, she writes that when racism “is systematized and attached to a project of accumulation, it loses its standing as a prejudice and becomes instead an organizing principle.” (9)

Those are my notes for now.

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Postscript ||: Our Government has No Right to Hide Its Actions

This is a guest post by Jesse Stavis, another one of the students at the NSA session. The first postscript by me (Madiha) available below.

My name is Jesse Stavis.  I’m a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I was the male student in the recording.  Madiha has graciously invited me to share some final thoughts on our confrontation with the NSA.  I’ll try to keep this brief:

1. I have never been involved in anything that’s come anywhere close to receiving the exposure that this incident has.  I will admit that it was exciting to see this story go quasi-viral.  The fact that comments that were made in a room with perhaps twenty audience members eventually reached hundreds of thousands of people speaks to the power that the internet has as a tool for political and social advocacy.  This should remind us of why it’s so important to protect the openness of the internet and the privacy of our communications on it.

2. A few days after this story broke, my feelings of excitement and pride in what we had accomplished gave way to a lingering feeling of depression.  To put it bluntly, this should not have been a big story.  The big story should have been about congressional representatives asking tough questions of the people at the top levels of the NSA.  We should have been reading about Lt. Gen. Clapper being investigated for perjury.  The fact that a few graduate students peppering recruiters with tough questions received so much attention speaks to the utterly dysfunctional condition of our political system as a whole and of the Democratic Party in particular.

3. While most people have been supportive of what we did, a number of commenters have suggested that we were wrong to confront low-level employees who were just doing their job.  I want to make one thing clear: These were not low-level employees.  They were what I would describe as upper mid-level managers.  They told us that they had a combined fifty-five years of experience at the NSA. Without the support and consent of people like this, the surveillance machine could not exist.  I don’t think that they are stupid people or evil people.  I do think that they are people who have abdicated their moral agency and thus allowed for something very scary and very evil to come into existence.  It’s our responsibility as educated citizens to remind these people that they do have the power to effect real change.

4. A number of people have written that they wished that there were a video recording of this event.  I’m not so sure that they would have liked what they would have seen.  They would have seen three people aggressively challenging the recruiters while fifteen or twenty other people who were actually considering working at the NSA sat stone-faced and bored, waiting for this unfortunate interruption to end.  They would have seen the high school teacher sitting next to me muttering through a clenched jaw about how indescribably rude we were being.  They would have seen just how much more we have to accomplish when it comes to convincing our fellow citizens that our government has no right to hide its actions from its citizens.

5. Finally, at the risk of stating the obvious, I want to make it clear that I take very little credit for anything that was accomplished at that meeting.  Without someone as brave, informed, and articulate as Madiha Tahir, this wouldn’t have been a story at all.  I am deeply, deeply impressed by her, and I hope that you are too.

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Nothing was stirring, not even a mouse.

Because the Lahore High Court’s head exploded and it has now blocked Facebook, Youtube, Wikipedia, Internet services (except for email) on Blackberrys, and as of a few minutes ago, Gmail and GOOGLE.

Twitter might be next or WordPress or Blogspot, because bloggers have this irritating habit of blogging.

I have to run out now and buy some postage stamps. So long and thanks for all the clicks!