December 3, 2006

Do androids dream of electric surveillance?

Filed under: Surveillance — ubikcan @ 3:33 pm

I had a dream in which I lived in a country that compiled secret databases on its citizens. Kafka-like, the citizens weren’t told about these databases, nor if they ever did learn about them would they be allowed to correct, update, or challenge the databases. Although the law of the land allowed citizens to access their records, a special exemption was passed. I dreamt: [update: link dead, try this]

The scores are assigned to people entering and leaving the United States after computers assess their travel records, including where they are from, how they paid for tickets, their motor vehicle records, past one-way travel, seating preference and what kind of meal they ordered.

These databases contained risk assessments on everybody, especially travelers. The government placed a score next to your name; this was your risk of being a terrorist or a criminal. The score will be kept for 40 years.

I also dreamed that a large, secretive government agency kept records of all the phone numbers called by tens of millions of citizens of the country. I dreamt:

The NSA’s domestic program, as described by sources, is far more expansive than what the White House has acknowledged. Last year, Bush said he had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop — without warrants — on international calls and international e-mails of people suspected of having links to terrorists when one party to the communication is in the USA. Warrants have also not been used in the NSA’s efforts to create a national call database.

In defending the previously disclosed program, Bush insisted that the NSA was focused exclusively on international calls. “In other words,” Bush explained, “one end of the communication must be outside the United States.”

As a result, domestic call records — those of calls that originate and terminate within U.S. borders — were believed to be private.

Sources, however, say that is not the case. With access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans. Customers’ names, street addresses and other personal information are not being handed over as part of NSA’s domestic program, the sources said. But the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information.

Then in my dream, I heard the person in charge of the program say in a Senate Judiciary Hearing: “you shouldn’t worry” but refuse to provide any details or confirmation that these calls were being monitored without warrants.

Then I dreamed–but perhaps it was only the effect of my dinner, or a piece of dyspeptic cheese, for like Scrooge I can say to my nighttime ghosts:

You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you!

Yet in my dream a historian with initials MF wrote that a profound switch had been made in the history of the law over the last 150 years or so. If it was previously sufficient to punish people by learning about the crime and for example fitting the punishment to the crime, now this was no longer necessary. The law now required knowledge of the perpetrator, the criminal or accused: who was he? what was he like? why did he do it?

The penal machine can no longer function simply with a law, a violation and a responsible party. It needs something else…the magistrates and the jurors, the lawyers too, and the department of public prosecutor, cannot really play their role unless they are provided with another type of discourse, the one given by the accused about himself, or the one which he makes possible for others, through his confessions, memories, intimate disclosures, etc.


Legal justice today has at least as much to do with criminals as with crimes. Or more precisely, while, for a long time, the criminal had been no more than the person to whom a crime could be attributed and who could therefore be punished, today, the crime tends to be no more than the event which signals the existence of a dangerous element–that is, more or less dangerous–in the social body.

in this way, the theme of the dangerous man is inscribed in the institutions of…justice. Increasingly in the nineteenth and twentieth century, penal practice and then penal theory will tend to make of the dangerous individual the principle target of punitive intervention.

This “dangerous individual”–we have to know him then (I dreamt) through his “confessions, memories, intimate disclosures” such as phone calls and movie rentals. And this takes surveillance, and risk! I dreamt that if we could see everything through the lens of risk, we could even identify and target people who belonged to certain sets of risky behaviors (such as taking one-way flights or missing connections) or really a set of normal behaviors and a set of abnormal behaviors that we could target and surveill, even if they weren’t as such, illegal, but were by definition, risky.

But then I woke up and just like Alice I know it was all a dream…wasn’t it?

Neither the “criminality” of an individual, nor the index of his dangerousness, nor his potential or future behavior, nor the protection of society at large from these possible perils, none of these are, nor can they be, juridical notions in the classical sense of the term. They can be made to function in a rational way only within a technical knowledge-system, a knowledge-system capable of characterizing a criminal individual in himself and in a sense beneath his acts; a knowledge-system able to measure the index of danger present in an individual; a knowledge-system which might establish the protection necessary in the face of such a danger. Hence the idea that crime ought to be the responsibility not of judges but of experts in psychiatry, criminology, psychology, etc.




  1. Just read an interview with an author who makes some similar commentary about the notion of risk and the criminal justice system, in the context of sexual predator laws. Slippery slope…


    Comment by brad — December 3, 2006 @ 11:22 pm

  2. […] forget the risk rating system as […]

    Pingback by Are you on the no-fly list? Click here « ubikcan — March 17, 2007 @ 6:17 pm

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