Life, Meta

In security

Since my story “Surfaces” appeared on BoingBoing, I’ve been thinking even more about the role the security industry has played (and continues to play) in my life. One of the more discomfiting aspects of writing “Surfaces” was understanding that I could only choose between depicting an invisible and ubiquitous model of border security, or a highly visible and personally invasive model. I knew there was little to no middle ground. I knew this because I had just spent months researching the funding history of the USCBPA and the DHS. I had some experience working on projects funded by government grants. I had taken courses in systems theory and organizational change. With my fellow designers in the Bordertown studio, I had examined the history of border policing in cities around the globe.

But most of all, I had a dad who has worked with security technology for over twenty years.

My dad is a sales rep for the security divisions of companies like Sony and Panasonic. This means he sells the latest in cameras, hard drives, smart cards, and other devices that can be installed as security systems in buildings or at intersections. My dad designed the security system at my high school. He designed the system at the Gates Foundation headquarters. He can point out where all the Internet traffic enters Seattle. (It’s near Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley.) He taught me where to look for cameras, how they work, and what they can really see. In high school, I used this knowledge to get a friend out of a shoplifting charge.

“Play the tape,” I kept saying to the mall security guards. “There was a sign saying we were on camera. So there should be a tape, and you should be able to watch it. And if you can’t find it, you should let her go.”

That camera? Probably a dummy housing. They let us go. Fast forward about ten years, and I said the same thing about Peter’s arrest. Play the tape. Let him go.

I don’t just see surveillance technology as a fact of life, I see it as an industry. It has high periods and low periods. It has lacklustre developments and innovative developments. There are mergers, acquisitions, conferences, trade shows. It is just as vulnerable as any other business. That is what you learn when you grow up with demo models of black dome housings in your garage.

I’m not trying to apologize for Big Brother. I’m just saying that I spent my family dinner conversations learning about Big Brother’s problems. Cameras break. Guards misuse them. There’s buggy software and forgotten firmware upgrades. Birds build nests on the housings. Lasers stop attenuating properly because of harmonic pressure in freeways. And yes, there are dummy housings.

I’ve written about these types of problems in my fiction. In my story “?oyfriend,” a high school student’s phone watches her every move and programs her car to drive itself around sites of recent carjackings. In “Ishin,” two independent contractors test a new surveillance botfly in Jalalabad, intending to embed it within a much larger system akin to DARPA’s Total Information Awareness program, or the work of Palantir Government. Both stories involve vast, almost invisible surveillance systems of the depth and complexity that would boggle even the men who predicted them, Orwell and Foucault.

The larger the system, the more opportunities there are for mistakes and misuse. (I’m looking at you, London.) Security systems, like automobiles, need intelligent users committed to ethical use. In “Surfaces,” I tried to add more ethical elements to the total surveillance system. For example, Brandy’s communications with her supervisor are recorded and archived, so they’re available later as evidence if necessary. Brandy even notes that this is a tool to combat sexual harassment, a problem which persists among armed forces. But it’s still surveillance.

Surveillance is a tool like any other. Like other tools, it sometimes replaces the human presence. I wish that a better system of surveillance had been there, the night Peter was arrested. I wish the Port Huron crossing were in my dad’s sales territory. I wish a failsafe had held Andrew Beaudry in check. I wish there were reliable machines to take over for unreliable narrators. Until then, I’m going to keep imagining them.

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2 thoughts on “In security

  1. I found that somewhere on the blog: “I wrote one master’s thesis on Japanese animation and cyborg theory and fan cultures.” — is it available anywhere? I would love to read this one!

    1. To answer your question — the whole thesis isn’t available here, but you can read a chapter of it here. I also write about anime for Tor.com, and I have an article up today!

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