Discussion Notes by Heba Islam
New York Times Bureau Chief for Mexico Azam Ahmed and Johns Hopkins Sociology Instructor Dr. Stuart Schrader, in a discussion moderated by Professor Emerita of Anthropology Dr. Deborah Poole, kicked off this virtual Sawyer Seminar event. The conversation continued the seminar’s inquiry into the uses and abuses of big data by examining the use of spyware and predictive policing by governments in the harassment and oppression of their populations. Some questions that were brought to the table were: How do new technologies and data sources overlay historic data and modes of governance? How are they mobilized to reconstitute people? How do they draw upon the participation of people towards their own pacification? And how do we imagine and enact resistance that goes beyond the given rubrics of bias and the violation of privacy?
Our main readings for the event were articles written by Azam Ahmed for the New York Times on spyware named ‘Pegasus’ used by the Mexican government to monitor mobile phone communications of journalists, academics, activists and political opposition figures. In addition, we also read a white paper compiled by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a grassroots organization working towards abolition and the dismantling of predictive policing, and a chapter by Schrader on the role of populations’ participation in their own pacification. Ahmed outlined his reportage on the Pegasus software used by the Mexican government, purchased from an Israeli software maker, the NSO group. In his introductory comments, Schrader considered the term ‘pacification’, remarking that it remains future-oriented, and never-finished. There is always a risk that the population requiring ‘pacification’ will slip out of control, and so one must always know who the participants are, and one must know a lot about them, thus requiring surveillance. Schrader added that pacification also brings into the fold counter-insurgency theory, which asks how one gets people to be loyal. These concerns within the pacification paradigm thus do away with the binary between consent and coercion, requiring the participation of the surveilled population. Poole pointed out that Pegasus becomes a means of developing proof if people are ‘loyal’ or ‘disloyal’ – the means to provide this proof is now something we carry in our pockets. Although this software is meant to be used for criminals and terrorists, the landscape becomes more complicated when in the eyes of the Mexican state, everyone is possibly a ‘narco’, leaving open the question of who can be legitimately or illegitimately targeted by the software, since everyone is a ‘suspect’. Ahmed pointed out that in prosecuting, targeting and spying on journalists and human rights activists, the spyware follows longer state practices of suppression and going after “free thinkers”.
The conversation was then opened up to other attendees, with Veena Das pointing out that pacification is accompanied by extreme violence, including torture, rape and hunger. She questioned what anthropologists were missing out in scholarly discourse, because the documentation of this sort of violence by state agencies and law enforcement is available, but becomes invisible when one assumes that information only becomes accessible through big data, or through legal judgments. Jeremy Greene then asked whether there is something “new” here in the advent of new technologies for spying populations, adding how we might consider the distinction between the role of technologies of policing and violence, and the role of use of technologies. Schrader responded that the technologies now available provide greater access than ever before, but at the same time, this is a story about capitalism, as private companies start to lead surveillance regimes, and hence not a completely new story. Heba Islam asked whether the monitoring of mobile phones carried out by the Mexican government is completely devoid of legal cover, since there has been an increasing trends in states around the world to accompany surveillance with an expanding legal regime that justifies it. Nayanika Mookherjee added that this is similar to the case in Bangladesh, where people who are usually critical of the state have remained quiet, as laws around increasing surveillance justify spying and create a sense of moral authority. Ahmed gave an example of how pre-existing laws are also used to crack down on opposition figures after they have been spied on, such as the case with Mexican farmers who were accused of money laundering by a Financial Intelligence Unit in order to quell a water dispute. Many of the cases around what is said online, he added, is dealt with “offline”, through coercion. Das also drew attention to different kind of technologies used in policing and surveillance, such as in India where hundreds might be arrested as a time and then interrogated, rather than specifically targeting particular individuals through spyware or other forms of targeted surveillance. This often results in people far removed from criminal activity getting tortured, arrested and disappeared. There remains no clear distinction between the ‘criminal group’ and the general population, such as, as Schrader pointed out, gang databases formed from combing Facebook friends lists.
The discussion also centered around the blurring of boundaries between foreign and domestic, and as some territories are used as ‘labs’ for spyware projects, to then be used elsewhere. Alessandro Angelini brought up the example of the spy plane hovering over Baltimore, which was initially for Fallujah in Iraq, but the hardware was then brought back to the US. Schrader pointed out that the use of spy technologies goes back and forth territorially, leaving open the question of labs and boundaries that are not necessarily binaries, and what the dispersion of surveillance looks like territorially and spatially. The conversation ended with the reminder that we must not fall into the trap of perceptions of ubiquity and endless power and reach that such spyware use by states seems to create. Technologies of spyware and surveillance shape ideas of suspicion, network and contagion but at the same time, we must be cautious about believing that everything has changed, even though some things are obviously changing. Spyware and policing, in short, do not collapse the distinction between extraordinary violence and everyday life – absolute violence is not necessarily comparable to helicopters hovering over our head, even though these operate in overlapping regimes.