26 April 2009


Taking photos doesn't make you a terrorist

As far as I know, no actual or suspected terrorist has ever scoped out a potential target by walking around or in it in plain view, with a big camera and lens, and taking pictures. The 9/11 hijackers didn't, the U.S.S. Cole attackers didn't, the bombers of the London Underground and Madrid and Bali didn't. The FLQ kidnappers in 1970 didn't. Ahmed Rassam didn't. Suicide bombers in Israel and Iraq and Afghanistan don't.

So ads like this one, postered at SkyTrain stations here in Vancouver as the 2010 Olympics approach, bother me:

Photography is not a crime in Canada, you know

The theme of the ad campaign is "report the suspicious, not the strange." It's an odd slogan. What's the difference between, "Hey, that's strange" and "Hey, that's suspicious"?

And the examples it gives are ridiculous. In this particular instance, if you see a camera floating in mid-air with a translucent, ghost-like figure beneath it, you should apparently call a paranormal investigator. But if you see a man with a DSLR taking photos of the security camera in the station, report that to the Transit Police, because he could be a bad guy.

Here's the thing. Taking photographs in public places isn't illegal in Canada. (Is a SkyTrain station a public place? Interesting question.) Neither is it illegal in the U.S., nor in Britain—though laws are more restrictive in the U.K.

A U.S.-based lawyer has put together a quick PDF card about photographers' rights, and it's also interesting to note that TransLink itself has responded to photographers' concerns about the campaign:

Specifically, the image of the photographer is not intended to say photography and photographers are bad. It's intended to say that a person who is intently making records of specific transit security elements like cameras should raise a flag as suspicious activity.


They're taking pictures of wiring, pipes, electrical panels. Well, I'm sorry, not many people go around doing that.

Really? Sure about that? Hmm?

The problem, of course, is that while TransLink staff and police may understand that intention (I hope!), the implication is that if members of the general public see a photographer taking pictures of something other than friends and family, they should be suspicious and report it. In short, that they should be afraid.

There's a more general message in these types of campaigns, and the way some reporters and photography enthusiasts are treated by authorities, too: that big cameras with big lenses are particularly evil, as this satire notes:

I don’t want to be too technical, but the focal length of the lens is directly correlated with hatred of America. It goes something like this:

You have a a cell phone camera, point and shoot, or 20mm wide angle lens: you are a red blooded American who wants to celebrate our national heritage by taking pictures of popular tourist locations.

A 50mm lens: you are also, by and large, a good American, but you have a disturbing interest in “understanding” the terrorists and why they attack us.

An 85mm lens: you loathe your own country and secretly admire the 9/11 hijackers for giving us our comeuppance. You are not a terrorist, but your camera should probably be confiscated and your pictures deleted, lest they find their way to al Jazeera message boards. Your middle name may be Hussein.

A 200mm lens: you are an al Qaeda henchman actively scouting for security vulnerabilities.

A 300mm lens: you ARE bin Laden!

This approach, of course, is the very opposite of sensible. If terrorists really were checking out a target, they would probably work to be as surreptitious as possible. Use small cameras, like the camera phone I used to photograph the ad poster. Memorize things and sketch them out later. Steal plans. Not plop down a big-ass tripod out in the open and carefully compose an image with a huge DSLR and a monster chunk of lens mounted it. At the very least, all that gear would make it hard to get away quickly and unobtrusively.

You know what I think has really prompted this security theatre? Spy movies and TV shows. That's where you see the telephoto lenses in the hands of the bad guys, and the good guys, for that matter. (Then again, James Bond prefers small cameras.)

What this approach fails to notice is that those are fiction.

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09 April 2009


The terrorists you read, hear, and view

Buzz Bishop has a good point: if you measure the effectiveness of terrorism by the fear it generates and the behaviours it changes—the goals of terrorist organizations, after all—then the biggest terrorists are the news media. We humans, as usual, suck at evaluating risks, so TV, paper, and radio news often take advantage of us because of that.

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26 March 2008


The real stakes of a U.S. election

state of the union at Flickr.comI've just finished watching the full online version of the first part of "Bush's War" (via Kottke), an extraordinary PBS Frontline documentary about the tactical battles and infighting within the U.S. federal administration between September 11, 2001 and the initial invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003.

It is a multi-hour program, extraordinarily depressing, though not surprising. The sinking feeling I had back in 2002—as I slowly lost the belief that there were good intentions somewhere, anywhere in the call to war—comes seeping back as I watch it.

I recommend you watch "Bush's War." (I plan to check out the second part tomorrow.) It is election season in the U.S. again, and it's worth some time for all of us, inside and outside America, to remember what the real stakes of voting in that country are.

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30 December 2007



Several years ago, before the 2004 U.S. election, I wrote about Guantanamo Bay, still for me the key symbol of the failure of American foreign and legal policy after the 9/11 attacks, although I have been encouraged that the country's courts and media have at least done some chipping away at the edges of its black hole.

A big issue this year has been allegations of government-endorsed torture by U.S. government personnel at Guantanamo and elsewhere. I think P.Z. Myers's take on the subject today is cogent:

When the U.S. government announces [its] support for torture, they aren't talking about intelligence gathering: they are simply saying "Fear us." They are taking the first step on the road to tyranny.

The real problem is that fear isn't a good tool to use in a democratic society. [...] Anyone who supports torture is a traitor to the democratic form of government...

This upcoming year will give Americans a chance, once again, to decide what kind of country they want to become, and whether that will be a different one, with Guantanamo and torture as a sad past to remember, not a poisonous legacy for the future.

Iraq, well, that's more complicated, isn't it?

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19 May 2007


Feeling safe vs. being safe

Via netdud, I read once again another highly sensible article from Bruce Schneier about how badly we as a society usually react to security threats. It's a strange contrast to, and yet also a perfect demonstration of, my post yesterday about the Air India bombing, where it seems that direct, credible, likely threats didn't receive the attention they deserved—while today we confiscate nail clippers and remove shoes at airport security in a way that is likely totally ineffective.

I've written repeatedly about this stuff over the years here on my blog: about how our African savannah brains are poorly equipped to deal with the risks we face in the modern world.

But in another essay, Schneier also makes the point that "security theatre," as he terms it, isn't always wasteful, because sometimes it makes our perception of our security more closely match the statistical reality. That is rare—most of the time it throws money away and skews our perceptions further from reality—but we do also have to take into account how safe we feel, as well as how safe we are.

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18 May 2007


Air India

India at Flickr.comOne week before I turned 16 years old in 1985, a bomb set here in Vancouver by terrorists earlier that day killed two baggage handlers at Tokyo Airport. Less than an hour later, its twin exploded in the cargo hold of an Air India Boeing 747 flying near Ireland. That bomb destroyed the plane and killed everyone on board, more than 300 people, most of them Canadians.

Those events have stained Canada, and British Columbia, and Vancouver, ever since. They have been a shadow over our beautiful city my entire adult life. Now, after 22 years of botched investigations, erased evidence, the deaths of prime suspects, one plea bargain, and a momentously expensive yet ultimately unsuccessful attempt to convict two other men in the case, a new Commission of Inquiry is making it clear that the bombers could have been stopped.

The early 1980s were the peak years for Sikh separatism in India, and high-profile killings and violence around the issue were in the news, not only in India, where Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's own Sikh bodyguards assassinated her in 1984, but also here in Vancouver, where we were the hotbed of Sikh extremism outside the Punjab. We have a huge Indian community here, much of it Sikh, and there were great divisions at the time about the idea of Khalistan. The divisions were far from peaceful.

Violence predated the bombing, and followed long after it, even as the Sikh independence movement in India lost steam. For instance, a man with a lead pipe tried to kill prominent anti-violence Sikh lawyer Ujjal Dosanjh in a parking lot (Dosanjh would later become premier of our province and federal cabinet minister). Other thugs first shot and permanently disabled, and then a decade later killed Tara Singh Hayer, a newspaper publisher who also spoke out against violence in the name of Sikhism.

Back in 1984 and 1985, there were marches and meetings and protests throughout the Vancouver area on both sides of the debate. Some rallies included clear incitements to kill Hindus, to avenge the sacking of the Golden Temple, to undertake terrorist acts. Canadian security and police services had several men under surveillance, and yet, as the Air India Inquiry is now showing, both they and the various levels of security at Canadian airports and from Air India itself missed numerous chances to catch the criminals and stop the bombing plot, or find the explosives before they hurt anyone.

Why? I think we, as a country, a province, and a city, were naive. In 1985, Vancouver remained a bit of a sleepy backwater. Expo 86 was still a year away, the glass city of condo towers and movie shoots a decade off. We were at the tail end of our first hundred years as a somewhat British outpost on the edge of the continent. Today in 2007—when you ride a bus or walk a street in our polyglot city, when you're just as likely to hear Bhangra or Cantopop blasting from a passing car as heavy metal or hip-hop, when everyone's lunchtime takeout is sushi or butter chicken—that's hard to remember.

To be honest, governments and police and the general public treated the conflict between Canadian Sikhs in the '80s as a foreign problem, and Indian problem. It was not. It was a Canadian problem. And I don't think that very many people believed in our hearts that we Canadians could germinate terrorists capable of such mass murder. But we did, and worse yet, we didn't stop them.

It has always been a puzzle that after the bombing, the Canadian Prime Minister's first message of condolence was to India. It should have gone the other way—most of those who died were of Indian ancestry, yes, and were on their way to India, but they were Canadian citizens. The loss was ours, yet our own government didn't even see it.

I hope we've learned and grown since then. I think we've had to, because this city continues to mix it up, so that we can't let either the joys or the problems seem to be foreign ones, when they are really ours.

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