Sousveillance redux

Image: Burkina Estudio design

How do we – citizens, journalists, researchers - winkle secrets from the state (corporation / criminal network / NGO / armed group)?

In at least two ways, ordinarily:

  • Make friends: find informants who, by design or chance, have access or experience of your object of desire, be it a business deal, an aircraft landing strip or a committee meeting

  • Hack the gaze of the state: piggy-back on governments’ own information-gathering systems through official records, registries, freedom of information laws and court cases

Over the past couple of years, though, I’ve found myself excited and impressed by the increasing possibilities of a third way: more democratic, more collegiate, and less indebted to the agendas of individuals or to the power of the state.

  • Organise your own surveillance programme: networks of private citizens getting together and organizing observation and data-collection to gaze back at the state, the corporation, the organisation.

A pioneering example of this has been watching nuclear weapons. Verifying the condition and location of strategic weapons is a critical component of counter-proliferation regimes, helping to prevent the degeneration of trust that can fuel arms races and worse. Despite nuclear powers’ big words about the value of verification, nuclear weapons treaties (unlike those covering chemical weapons) tend to have comparatively weak verification regimes. And so since the late 1970s, frustrated by the opacity of their governments’ nuclear arsenals, networks of activists and enthusiasts – these days often little old ladies (and gentlemen) living in anodyne places like Colchester and Wichita - have got together on both sides of the Atlantic to undertake continuous “citizen verification” of the UK and US’ nuclear weapons - simply by observing, photographing and recording the movement of trucks and trains carrying nuclear warheads and their accessories around national road and rail networks. Sharing information about a nuclear convoy in real-time through phone trees and email lists, different observers in the network can alert each other, tracking nuke movements right across the country.

The nukewatchers’ efforts are part protest, part verification. But they’re more than symbolic. While they can’t come up with definitive weapons inventories - it's not wonk-grade intelligence - the nukewatchers have been able to provide approximations of deployed warhead numbers; logs of warhead servicing; when and where they’re redeployed; and spikes in transport activity that often indicate the timings of upgrades or decommissioning.

And they were doing it in the 1970s: contrary to a lot of interwebguff, Web 2.0 didn’t invent this kind of socially-networked observation. But declining technology costs and online organising have, I think, made life far easier for these kinds of initiatives. Hobbyist plane spotters, famously, provided the data that exposed the unlawful rendition programme. They had two things in their favour: internet fora to share flight logs and photos, piecing together transnational flight plans that aren’t publicly available at all, or even available in one piece to a single national authority. And rapidly declining technology costs: the plane nerds are no longer just stood at airport fences with pencils and binoculars, but with digital SLR cameras making high-quality photos uploaded instantly onto photo-share sites; cheap UHF radio scanners to listen to the chatter between pilots and control towers; and, since 2004/5, laptop-ready aircraft transponder receivers (I bought one myself down the Edgware Road - for 350 quid I can receive the transponder codes, call signs, altitudes and flight bearings of aircraft 100 miles away. And if there are hundreds of us across the world with transponder receivers, we can get together online, feed in our data, and track aircraft globally, in real time, for free).

We can do the same
with ships, using their AIS transponder system, although the networks are less well-developed than those of the plane spotters. I’ve used these data feeds to help identify mid-conflict weapons deliveries to Sudan and the Middle East; and to track the movements of ICC indictees and under-fire newspaper executives.

And similar stories can be told about the amateur astronomers who map the proliferation of secret spy satellites.** Or the amateur ‘bucket brigades’ compiling simple air and water pollution data, from Thailand to Poland, to challenge industrial polluters. In a looser, more unstructured way, the collation and circulation of cameraphone pictures and videoclips taken by demonstrators in news-neglected places like Guinea during the ‘28 septembre’ massacre, and more recently in Yemen and Syria, have in the absence of TV cameras served as insurance against regimes’ attempts to lie about oppression and killings.

The nukewatchers are salutary pioneers precisely because one might imagine that nuclear weapons were one of the hardest targets for radical curtain-twitchers. You’d think that citizen surveillance would have to go after softer targets: council service provision, for instance. But what the nukewatchers realised, early on, is that even the most sensitive of state and corporate arcana are often conducted in full view - often, in fact, right outside their wisteria-covered front doors on the A357 to Basingstoke - if you just know where to look. As the NYT pointed out about the satellite watchers, they realised that just by looking in the right place, carefully compiling data, and sharing it in networks, they could “uncover some of the deepest of the government’s expensive secrets and share them on the Internet”. How glorious is that?

Steve Mann and other privacy activist-artists coined the term ‘sousveillance’ in the early 2000s to describe citizen efforts to gaze back, from below, at the gaze of the state. Mann and his collaborators use devices and routines – body-worn cameras, computer programmes that automatically activate recorders and sensors when citizens interact with bureaucrats and officials – to subvert surveillance, to turn the power of information collection back at the watchers. I think citizen information-collection networks are doing something similar. But Mann’s model of sousveillance is individual, not collective: designed to alter the dynamic of individual encounters with official surveillance, and to protect the user (the state is always penetrating and male etc. - there’s a great picture of a highly conspicuous bra-cam in one of Mann's fake souveillance company brochures). Successful architects of official surveillance recognise that if you’re interested in gathering information, rather than just intimidating or altering the behaviour of the surveilled, only networked surveillance, producing pooled and organised data, is really effective. For every decent lawful intercept system, you need an Echelon database. The same goes for the networked, organised sousveillance I’m talking about here.

Meanwhile the intent to ‘sousvey’ is rather less important than in Mann’s techniques, which are specifically designed to gaze back, to be deployed in ‘surveillance environments’ themselves. The enthusiasts and obsessives involved in networked citizen information-gathering, by contrast, are not always doing it to poke their finger in the state’s all-seeing eye, or even to uncover wrongdoing. Plane spotters and satellite watchers are mostly just interested in planes and satellites, and in mapping and understanding the systems that organise them.

This kind of networked sousveillance is also, I think, fundamentally different to crowd-sourcing, or citizen journalism. They don’t aim to tap into participants’ wisdom or knowledge; nor to turn them into amateur investigators. There are few heroic Erin Brockoviches here. Instead the network as a whole harnesses hundreds of small, repetitive acts of observation, and the empowerment of its participants comes from their collective efforts being so much greater than the sum of its parts. This means that we still need investigators, researchers and journalists to make sense of the fruits of networked sousveillance. The best sousveillance participants are focussed obsessives; investigators have instead to be magpies, picking and assembling from sousveillance networks, informants, and information leaked or prised from the state’s own information gathering. The plane spotters alone, for instance, couldn’t have exposed the infrastructure of unlawful rendition without testimonies from individual detainees to corroborate suspicious flight plans; civil aviation and company records to trace the ownership and provenance of suspicious planes; litigation and freedom of information requests to prove their suppositions about government complicity. But without them really intending it, their humble network of eyes (electronic and real) has furnished a gaze as unblinking and powerful as the most powerful governments. And as collective action, it seems to me that this quiet OCD is often easily as effective as any strike or demonstration.


**Incidentally (although it’s different to the kind of networked souveillance discussed above): if there’s something pleasingly symmetrical about literally gazing back at governments’ eyes in the sky, it’s also becoming economically feasible for non-governmental researchers to acquire 20cm-resolution satellite imagery from commercial satellites - around 200 quid for a 5km-square image, or a bit more if it’s newly commissioned imagery. 20cm isn’t spy-satellite-grade, but it is good enough to allow amateurs, essentially, to spot smuggled tanks, map bombing raids and village burnings, identify new oil exploration, or spot nuclear submarines.

It’s a chocolate mousse with cream on the top

So: the Viktor Bout trial chunters on, as does the tirelessly priapic news coverage.

I’m studiously avoiding the debates about whether the DEA sting operation created a legitimate basis for Bout’s extradition or trial in the US; whether his own testimony was coerced by DEA agents threatening him with Midnight-Express-style abandonment in a Bangkok jail; whether he really is the ‘Merchant of Death’ or just Death’s DHL Courier.*** These arguments are legally important, but they tend to distract from the genuinely interesting stuff: what the trial is telling us about the business of the network of people around Bout and his collaborators, and thus about the wider business or arms trading and its logistics.

One fortunate consequence of the pre-trial jurisdiction/admissibility row, though, has been that a number of interesting transcripts and evidential annexes have already been filed with the court since May, even before the hearings proper have started. Quite a lot of this hasn’t really been reported at all, even though it’s technically in the public domain. The new docs suggest several new connections in the Bout universe.

In no particular order, six things I thought were interesting:

[Caution: this is probably only of interest to the two arms trade geeks who occasionally read this blog.]

  1. Friendship never ends: there’s a surprise guest appearance from Peter Mirchev of the Bulgarian-based arms brokering firm Kas Engineering. When I first got into small arms trading (research, not practice), Kas were already part of arms trading history: named as having provided (perhaps unwittingly) the Kalashnikovs airdropped over Purulia in the 1995 Peter Bleach case; and as having shipped arms on Togolese end-user certificates between 1996 and 1998, some of which the UN’s Angola Sanctions monitoring mechanism claimed ended up with UNITA in Angola in the late 1990s. Back to Bout: the prosecution claims that a series of emails from 2007, found on Bout’s laptop, detail a prospective $38m arms deal (end-user not mentioned) with Kas Engineering via a Hungarian bank; and a second RFQ for BMP-3 fighting vehicle gun barrels. The DEA goes on to claim that Bout told his testifying co-conspirators that he intended to get Igla MANPAD anti-aircraft missiles for the (fake) FARC buyers from Mirchev in Bulgaria. In the transcript from Bout’s final meeting with the fake-FARC reps in Bangkok, at the point where they’re discussing anti-aircraft missiles, Bout says [in English] “Because I spoke with, er, Peter and I will also go for to see him”.

    Of course, even assuming that the prosecution’s evidence is correct, Bout could nonetheless have been blagging about MANPAD availability from Bulgaria. But even the proposition: MANPADs for terrorists? From (EU member state) Bulgaria?? From Kas Engineering??? Really???? The whole thing just feels so…late 1990s. When they were done arms dealing for the day, did Viktor and his Colombians celebrate by going out dancing to Steps and then sitting down to watch the latest Ally McBeal?

    That said, I’ve always been struck by the longevity of arms dealers’ careers. Some of the most active UK arms dealers today were flogging guns to the Stasi in the 1970s. (There’s a lovely vignette in the summary testimony of Bout’s alleged co-conspirator, Andrew Smulian, where he describes going with Bout to the UAE arms fair in 1997 to meet both Mirchev and Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, who’s been Izhmash’s cheery Ronald MacDonald figure for years. Getting to shake the ageing General Kalashnikov’s hand at arms fairs used to be as predictable as meeting Sylvester McCoy at a Dr Who convention – a guaranteed part of the ticket price, but not as exciting as getting chatted up by Tom Baker). What’s more interesting is that these guys seem to continue to do business perfectly happily from jurisdictions that have ostensibly cleaned up their export control acts since the wild west days of the 1990s – like the UK or Bulgaria. Perhaps the dealers have cleaned up too. Or maybe they’re just better at getting round the rules.

  2. Our friends still want to do business with dodgy people: The rest of Bout’s alleged recent arms dealing career is also a blast from the past. The prosecution’s Memorandum of Law describes 2007 emails between Smulian and Bout about arms deals allegedly proposed by contacts of Smulian, on behalf of those notorious members of the axis of evil
    • Tanzania (“a multifaceted [investment] project…among other things, the provision of military hardware to the Government of Tanzania, construction and development, telecommunications equipment, and minerals and gas exploration….satellite and surveillance equipment, air equipment, helicopter gunships, patrol boats, tanks, and other military-related hardware”)

    • and Kenya (“the provision of military-related equipment to a contact in Kenya for the benefit of the Kenyan government”).

    Hmm. After millions of dollars in US export control outreach programmes, surely US-friendly East African governments are really supposed to have cleaned up their arms procurement acts by now and not be tendering from people on UN sanctions lists? Of course, there’s no clear evidence they knew that Bout was to be involved. But Smulian’s pedigree (Air Pass etc.) should have been enough to ring alarm bells. Equally, Smulian’s mates might have been bullshitting about their prospects of getting the deals – but they were reportedly good enough for a Tanzanian People’s Defence Force (TPDF) official to travel to visit Smulian to discuss.

    (There are more traditional customers here as well: a Skype-chat between Bout and an unnamed individual discussing a prospective deal for AT-14 Kornet anti-tank missiles to Libya.)

  3. Remember who your friends are: There are further inklings about how the DEA’s undercover agents made themselves convincing to Smulian and, ultimately, Bout. From the memoranda from Bout’s lawyer, it appears that the approach to Smulian was made by an ‘undercover operative’ named Michael Snow, playing the role of an aircraft broker who flogs some mysterious South Americans a Moldovan Antonov-12 and then contacts Smulian and Bout when the South Americans want some more serious hardware. The transcripts featuring Snow during a restaurant meeting in Curacao with the fake FARC contacts are awesome: he seems to be straight out of central casting for a Frederick Forsythe film adaptation, playing a grizzled ‘this is Africa’ aviation veteran who says things like “if it wasn’t for me, he’d be left in fucking Africa to fucking rot…what you say? I’m fucking deaf…oh, merci beaucoup madame…I must show them how to make a proper crème brulee.” (I’m not making this up. In fact, the whole dessert schtick is brilliant: in the middle of talking about arms smuggling to Angola, Snow gets the fake FARC rebel commander “Carlos” to discuss his pudding:
    CARLOS: It’s a chocolate mousse with cream on the top.

    SNOW: But they never burnt it properly.

    CARLOS: No, because they got the ice-cream on the top.

    Serious pros. I’m wondering whether Snow was so ludicrously convincing because he actually *was* a grizzled ‘this is Africa’ aviation veteran. I’m not sure who he is, but there was a Captain Mike Snow who flew for the ill-fated Africargo in eastern DRC during the war in the early 2000s. No idea if it’s the same guy. It’s presumably not impossible that someone flying there around that time might have bumped into Bout at that time when Bout was reportedly hanging around in the eastern DRC.

  4. New friends…from Iceland? The prosecution also names a new co-conspirator in the FARC deal: one Jon Gylfason, based in Tanzania, who - according to the prosecution – pitches up to Smulian with the Tanzania proposal and a TPDF contact, travels to Moscow to meet Bout, and continues to act as a messenger between Smulian and Bout during the fake-FARC negotiations. I’ve never heard of Gylfason, although I now have some ideas about who he might be. Sounds lcelandic, which is also tangentially suggested by the fact that Smulian communicates with Bout using an Icelandic root-domain email address (development@xnet.is) which he says was “set up for Jon by his buddy who owns the server”, and which he says deletes the emails after they’re sent.

  5. Good old friends: There’s been much supposition and speculation about Bout’s ability to sit in Moscow all the way through the 2000s and not be bothered – an ostensible immunity often attributed to alleged high-level friends in the Russian government. That government’s subsequent efforts to argue against Bout’s extradition from Thailand have fuelled this geopolitical speculation further. From affidavits filed with the Thai court, reproduced in the US case filings, some of this speculation, at least, seems to be true: there’s one from a Russian Duma member, Serge Ivanov, who says that he met Bout for coffee in Moscow before he went to Thailand; and that after his arrest the Duma issued letters to Thailand and President Medvedev in March and September 2008 requesting Bout’s assistance and release.

  6. Other old friends (or maybe new ones): Finally, two new bit-players not yet identified. When discussing an aircraft from Moldova, Smulian refers to the country as ‘Paul’s place’. And when emailing Bout about a prospective trip to discuss the fake-FARC deal, Smulian proposes that Bout sends ‘A from your side’.

    Who’s Paul, and who’s ‘A’? Any thoughts?

    (Picture from the dependable Brick Arms. Lego weapons for all occasions)


    *** I’ve never been convinced that Bout, as some of his mythmakers would have it, was really the biggest arms dealer going in Afghanistan and West Africa, single-handedly keeping the Taliban in business and Charles Taylor up to his Rolex in child soldiers’ blood. Nor am I at all convinced by the arguments from the other side, that Bout just did logistics (including arms) and never dealt arms himself: documentation already presented in the current pre-trial proceedings and by Richard Chichakli in his 2006 civil suit against OFAC, if genuine, strongly suggest that Bout has long been involved in setting up real arms deals.