By Philip Boyle and Kevin D. Haggerty
A group of researchers—ourselves included—recently released the Vancouver Statement of Surveillance, Security and Privacy Researchers about the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. That statement concludes with a call to all levels of government to conduct a full and open review of the costs and wider implications of securing the 2010 Games. This statement emerges from a collective concern about the potentially negative legacies of Olympic security initiatives.
The Olympic Games now amount to a machine for change, initiating processes and producing outcomes that linger long after the closing ceremonies. There are, however, some less discussed legacies pertaining to Olympic security that deserve attention.
Security comes in many forms, but in the Olympic context one cannot separate security from surveillance. A raft of surveillance measures aim to make people, places, and processes visible in new ways using diverse tactics and technologies that include new CCTV cameras, satellite monitoring, facial recognition devices, chemical detection, databases, and forms of personal credentials. Outside of airports and prisons, it is difficult to think of comparable situations where citizens are monitored to the extent they are at the Olympics.
Such surveillance “surges” are important because of the wider surveillance legacies of the Games. Many examples can be found of intensive surveillance tools remaining in place after the Games or of them being subsequently reused for markedly different purposes. Past experience suggests that in the post-9/11 period these legacies are no longer accidental, unintended, or partial outcomes. They, like transportation improvements and property development, are entirely planned deliverables—another ostensibly beneficial outcome to be “leveraged” from an opportune moment.
The Games can also generate less tangible surveillance legacies that are both vital to understand but difficult to demarcate. In many ways, the Games have become a crucible for experiments in monitoring, functioning as a real-world mock-up of new informational and technological systems that reach far beyond the time and space of the Games. Public authorities intensively scrutinize their own performances, seeking to distil security lessons that will inform future practice. Private security and technology firms capitalize on the prestige of their Olympic involvement to market their products in other contexts. In the process, each iteration of the Olympics becomes both a platform for future Games to build upon and a paradigm for securing modern societies.
The Olympics can also help normalize initiatives that in other contexts would appear excessively intrusive. The tremendous global media attention dedicated to the Games now includes a steady drip-feed of stories and images of rooftop snipers, the latest in sophisticated screening technologies, or the most recent security exercise. Such stories cumulatively provide a form of public instruction, familiarizing citizens to new routines of high security. The proliferation of rituals of security, inflated and played out on a recurring basis before a global audience, fosters a security-infused pedagogy of acceptable comportment, dress, and documentation that reinforces the sense to which it becomes self-evident that such measures are required, that they do not unduly infringe upon personal liberties, that certain dangers are pervasive—and more pressing than other risks—and that the existing constellation of security interests is inevitable.
These legacies are not being orchestrated by malevolent authorities eager to undermine personal privacy. Instead, they are the result of government authorities seeking to secure a return on their substantial investment in security for the 2010 Games. So long as these developments are debated in a full and open manner, such legacies may well prove to be beneficial outcomes in terms of public safety.
That said, we also need to be alert to the prospect of dubious security legacies, as an expanded array of intensive monitoring devices and practices originally introduced and perfected for the exceptional security risks presented by the Olympics seek out new targets after the Games have departed. It is worth contemplating whether one of the unintended consequences of the Games might be that we, as Canadian citizens, could find ourselves visible in ways for which we had not bargained.
Philip Boyle is a PhD student and Kevin D. Haggerty is an associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of Alberta.