Reflections: Day Zero of ‘Life in a Digital Fishbowl’

200902022154.jpgI’m fortunate enough to be attending the 10th Annual Privacy and Security Conference, Life in a Digital Fishbowl, this year. Monday held ‘preconferences’, and I want to quickly summarize and reflect on the one that dealt with the 2010 Olympic games.

Two sessions were organized, with the first broadly focusing on infrastructure and privacy issues, and the second addressing the need to protect critical infrastructure and consider the ‘legacies’ of mega-events. In the first session, really began with a clear statement that terror threats have reoriented ‘domestic’ threats into the domain of national security and, as a result, a new mode of considering and engaging with security has emerged. As part of this new orientation, the Integrated Security Unit (ISU) has been created to coordinate security agencies across jurisdictional boundaries, but this creates jurisdictional problems. Who can compel what organization to turn over documents, data, and recorded discourse? What should be done when different agencies have very different conceptions of what must remain confidential? Effectively, how do you navigate the varying loyalties and lines of responsibility that members of the ISU hold?

In talking about the infrastructure that is going to be deployed, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of British Columbia noted several things:

  • He will fight against long-term deployment of Olympic CCTV systems;
  • Only if it is justified and legal can the lower mainland area be surveyed with Olympic CCTV infrastructure, post-games;
  • The infrastructure put in place for the games will be sold off to the highest bidder;
  • It is unclear if the current intention is to secure the perimeter of game areas, or if it is to secure areas of the city.

In discussing infrastructure, Claire de Grasse (Western Manager, Security Professional Services, Bell Canada) notes that Bell and other critical infrastructure providers are working more and more closely with the ISU and other first responders to secure infrastructure. The integration of critical infrastructure providers and public agencies will persist beyond the games, and Bell is anxious to share their information with the authorities in times of crisis, though it needs to be assured that their data will remain confidential. Bell, in effect, wants to be a good citizen in the communities that it ‘lives’ in.

The first session closed with a discussion from Micheal Vonn (Policy Director, BCCLA) who talked about the games as operating within spaces of exception. In these zones, the law is ‘different’, developed to match the ‘abnormal’ conditions imposed by exceptional events. As part of this, the Vancouver police will be performing ‘consensual’ searches in the Vancouver lower-eastside; Vonn conservatively estimates that around 300 people will be randomly subject to searches on each officers’ beat patrol during the games. This invasion of space is amplified by the hidden presence of intelligence officers, as well as the broad labeling of anyone who is critical of the games as a security threat – activists beware!

The second session saw presentations from prominent academics, and was a reflection of the need to protect critical infrastructure and the development of legacies in Olympic cities. Kevin Haggerty first spoke, and drew our attention to the logics of security in the contemporary security milieu. Since 9/11, security operations have been unable to look to the past to consider what must be secured against – now we worry about unknown unknowables, and must think the unthinkable. Dollars now structure logics of what can be secured against; history cannot be trusted. In the process of spending billions of dollars on Olympic security, legacies of pedagogy often follow – individuals ‘learn’ to not be afraid of security apparatuses, and to simply accept them. The legacy painted by Haggerty is not terribly pleasant.

This unpleasantness was continued by Chris Shaw, who outlined the secrecy that permeates government security operations. With this secrecy comes a deep distrust of the democratic principles of openness that are (supposedly) embedded in Canadian institutions – without a deep reorientation of principles of confidentiality in government, such principles are in danger of being (recognized as?) extinguished.

The session ended on a positive note, however. Harry Hiller pointed out that other Olympic cities have embraced and welcomed the Olympics – he spoke of the pleasure that was felt in Calgary and Torino. The Olympics have the potential to bring the public spaces alive, and in so doing can facilitate stronger community bonds than exist pre-Olympics.

For myself, I am worried that there is a massive degree of attention spent on the obvious modes of security, such as CCTV, and less on the massive collection and processing of personal data. The Olympics operate as a time for members of society to come together an announce their causes to the world; given the broad understandings of ‘threats’ by law enforcement, this means that a massive number of Canadians may be situated in databases for unknown future purposes and labeled as dangerous somehow. To my knowledge, there isn’t a planned ‘deletion date’ for data records. This, I worry, can become the legacy of the games that is unseen, and thus challenging to investigate as academics; if we don’t even know what data is being recorded, or who is storing it, then even FOIs are limited in their capacity to render transparent the legacy of data shadows the accompany social action at the Olympics.