On the occasion of this year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, artist and writer James Bridle wrote the essay ‘Sneakers and Snoopers’, about security and surveillance during the Games. Starting with the camera technology that records the performance of the athlete in the stadium, Bridle zooms out in his essay to the huge scale in which our cities are controlled and their safety is guarded. Bridle gave a lecture at Het Nieuwe Instituut on 10 November 2016. His project Citizen Ex is also currently part of The Life Fair at Het Nieuwe Instituut.
There is a famous photograph taken in 1912 by Jacques-Henri Lartigue, captioned Grand Prix de Circuit de la Seine, showing a racing car travelling at speed - so fast that it appears to lean into the bend, its rear wheel stretched and elongated, while the spectators in the background seem to lean back, blasted by the exhaust. All the excitement of early motorsport - and early photography - captured in a single frame. Lartigue showed us a vision that aligned with our experience, even if it was impossible to capture with the naked eye.
The distortion which created Lartigue’s memorable image was produced by a rolling shutter as it moved across the surface of the film, too slow to capture in one instant the objects moving at high speed past the photographer. This effect is employed by slit-scan photography, both a mechanical glitch and an artistic tool, used to document everything from the temporal flow of dance to the vast extent of landscapes, with cameras attached to aircraft unspooling the earth’s surface as one continuous exposure.
Where conventional photography freezes space in time, creating a snapshot of a single instant recognisable to us as the blink of an eye, slit-scan freezes time in space, creating strange, dream-like images which allow us to peer into the heart of a moment, and perceive events as they unfold below the threshold of comprehensible reality. This is what happens in a photo finish, our most regular encounter with slit-scan photography’s singular ability to change the nature of perception.
When you see an image of athletes, one slightly behind the other, throwing themselves forward across a line, what you are seeing represented as distance is in fact time. What separates the runners in the frame is not metres but seconds, the line itself becoming the shutter of a camera, capturing a narrow slice of everything that crosses it. Look closely and their pumping legs and flailing arms resemble the wheel of Lartigue’s racing car, subject to the same distortion, but here operationalised, put to use, quantitative, and accountable.
A milestone in timekeeping was passed at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games, when Omega, the Swiss watchmaker, first deployed precision chronographs capable of recording intervals of one tenth of a second. Sixteen years later, at the 1948 London Games, their first photo finish camera was employed to record times with an accuracy of one thousandth of a second - that is, shooting images at one thousand frames per second. (Under research conditions, fighter pilots have been capable of perceiving events to around an equivalent of 255 frames per second, while the average is around 45). Omega has kept the time at every subsequent Olympic Games (and at most other international sporting events); today, its Scan’O’Vision Star camera system takes two thousand images per second - twice the accuracy of 1948. But it is not only at the finish line, and not only in the visible spectrum, that technological appraisal and adjudication is performed.
When a technology has become perfected, it becomes mobile, capable of transmitting itself and its meaning from the site of inception to any other application. Today, the technology of the photo finish has spread, in action and affect, from the thin line of the goal to encompass the totality of the event. At the modern Olympic Games the entire track is an instrument, attuned to the measurement and evaluation of the athlete. As well as three cameras on the finish line, Omega supplies a starting device, starting blocks, and light beam sensors distributed along the length of track to capture split times, and to stop the public clock at the end of the race. (The difference between the public result and the official time, and the delay between the announcements of the two, is thus a result of this difference in accuracy between the light beam and the photograph.) The starter is an electronic update on the traditional pistol, emitting a bright flash and a simulated gunshot, which is piped through loudspeakers so that it is perceived by all participants in the same instant. All of these systems are networked, so that the starting pistol releases the blocks, and triggers the timer, which is stopped by the light beams and inscribed by the cameras. If the blocks register a start before the pistol is fired, a false start is called and the system reset. The actions of the athletes take place within an uninterrupted field of surveillance and calculation.
The requirements for technical surveillance differ from sport to sport. High-speed pursuits such as track cycling and speed skating require the precision of the photo finish, but also the persistence of transponders which, constantly accumulating data, are attached to the bodies or equipment of the athletes. In sports which technology has not yet learned to see, such as gymnastics and figure skating, slow-motion replays are reviewed by a panel of judges, with all performances stored and annotated in case of later appeal.
In many sports, however, technology sees better, and is more trusted, than any person. At the London Olympics in 2012, more than twenty sports used Hawk-Eye technology to uphold or overrule the human judges. Hawk-Eye’s ball-tracking technology follows the path of pucks, shuttlecocks and volleyballs in order to determine goals and line calls, but its appreciation is not purely visual. Rather, software calculates and simulates the path of the projectile in order to generate a wholly virtual representation of the game based on digital models and trajectories. In order to remove the inaccuracy and bias of the real world, it literally removes the game from reality.
The arrival of Hawk-Eye’s cool, machinic gaze has been controversial in a number of sports. Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter was the leader of a vocal minority who maintained that sport was a fundamentally human endeavour, subject to chance and error, where human referees were as much a part of the game as the human players. This position has lost ground in an increasingly surveilled world, where the urge to record and review is as much part of life on the street as on the sports field.
Because Hawk-Eye’s decisions are formulated in the rational, technological sphere of machines rather than the turbulent, fallible minds of men, they are popularly attributed a greater degree not only of accuracy, but of that most sporting of qualities: fairness.
The evidence of the photograph supersedes the knowledge of the expert, the memory of the participant, the eye of the spectator. Sport gives to surveillance the illusion of omniscience.
Once a technological intervention in sport is understood to make it more accurate, fair, or impartial, it becomes impossible to extricate it, however flawed the logic of technological accuracy and fairness is within the domain of a sporting event. The same is true for legal regimes, and as in sport can best be seen through the lens of surveillance technologies. The imposition of such regimes is facilitated by the exceptional circumstances of the Olympic Games.
In advance of Sydney 2000, thousands of cameras were installed around the city, while website and email surveillance was used to identify demonstrators who were allegedly planning opposition, information which was then used to support baton charges against peaceful protestors at the World Economic Forum meeting in Melbourne in the days before the games (the cameras are still in place, of course). Beijing used the pretext of the 2008 Olympics to install thousands more cameras, as well as facial recognition systems and mandatory electronic ID cards for all residents. In the run-up to London 2012, the British government used terrorism fears to revive its plans for widespread online eavesdropping and data retention, which ultimately bore fruit in the Communications Data Bill, or “Snooper’s Charter”, repeatedly opposed by privacy campaigners but on the agenda again for 2015.
The arrival of the Olympic Games in town brings with it a perfect combination of heightened security concerns and bloated security budgets, an opportunity which has yet to be wasted.
In all of these cities, the games left behind, alongside the bus lanes and stadia, an infrastructure of security and control.
There’s no better example of how surveillance lingers after it’s “exceptional” introduction than the home of the Olympics itself. The 2004 games in Athens were a disaster for the city in many ways, costing twice the initial projections, and leaving the city with a legacy of expensive and underutilised, if not entirely abandoned, infrastructure. Today, many Greeks view the games as a reckless exercise in self-promotion that they could not afford at the time - and certainly can’t afford now.
In preparation for the 2004 games, hundreds of CCTV cameras were installed around Athens, with the assurance that their use was limited to “traffic management issues”. Many residents were unconvinced, provoking sufficient consternation that the mayor of the suburb of Nikea, host borough for Olympic weightlifters, ordered crews to disable the ones in his district with spray paint. Most of the cameras stayed, however, and in 2006 local human rights groups presented evidence in court of how the cameras were being used by police to monitor workers’ and students’ demonstrations in the centre of the city. An extensive arson campaign followed, using Molotov cocktails as well as paint against the camera installations, with demonstrators explicitly comparing the anti-CCTV battle to the fight against the Junta, Greece’s last dictatorship. (As in Germany and South America, strong feelings about privacy tend to be linked to historical experience of its abuse.)
The cameras were just the physical aspect of Athens’ new surveillance network, and the electronic component was both far more widespread and far harder to destroy. Buried within Greece’s telephony infrastructure was another Olympic legacy, which, a decade on, is still being reckoned with. With the games taking place just three years after the September 11 attacks, in 2003 the Greek government asked the United States to assist with security. With secret authorisation from the government, the US’s National Security Agency (NSA) installed surveillance systems in Vodafone Greece’s telephone system to monitor all phone calls, on the understanding that the system would be switched off once the games were over. Unbeknownst to the Greek authorities, NSA secretly installed their own malicious software, and subsequently used it to eavesdrop on the government itself, including calls made by the Prime Minister and his wife, the Greek cabinet, and many other top officials. The malware was only discovered when a bug caused it to nearly crash Vodafone’s systems in 2005. In February 2015, following a decade-long investigation, prosecutors finally issued an international arrest warrant for the former CIA chief in Athens - a charge that is unlikely ever to be met.
Following the release of documents by Edward Snowden in 2013, the newspaper El Globo published a series of Powerpoint slides documenting NSA’s political and espionage activities in Brazil. These included tapping the phone of President Dilma Rousseff, stealing corporate secrets, and, as in Greece, thoroughly penetrating the nation’s communications systems. Rousseff has since been one of the most vocal critics of the NSA’s spy programme, saying in a speech to the UN “A sovereign nation can never establish itself to the detriment of another sovereign nation. The right to safety of citizens of one country can never be guaranteed by violating fundamental human rights of citizens of another country." With its own Olympics looming, however, such sentiments have not prevented Brazil from turning the same surveillance on its own citizens.
In 2016 the games will take place in Rio de Janeiro, and as at previous games the opportunity has been taken to socially cleanse the city and install an infrastructure of surveillance. In the favelas of Vila Autódromo, Morro da Providência, Favela do Metrô, and Santa Marta, which surround the Olympic sites, residents have fought a years-long battle against the government and developers, some succeeding in extracting compensation for the loss of their houses and communities, others staying put until forced to move by “lightning evictions” accompanied by bulldozers, rubber bullets, and batons. Alongside the official “pacification units” of the Police - their reputation tarnished, as in Greece, both by contemporary violence and by memories of military rule - the city has used vast tranches of its World Cup and Olympic funding to create the world’s most ambitious “urban command centre”.
In fact, it has created two of them. The first, the Centro de Operaçöes, is Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes’ pride and joy, with regular media tours and embedded journalists. Set up after devastating floods in April 2010 which caused major landslides and left over 250 people dead, the IBM-designed control room features a vast, 80 square metre digital screen, which collages live feeds from 450 traffic cameras and three helicopters, linking them to digital maps of roads, schools and hospitals, live emergency services and transport networks, as well as weather forecasts for a 150-mile radius. In front of the screens, four hundred government workers, from every branch of the city government as well as transit and utility contractors, rotate on 24 hour shifts to keep the city moving: tracking accidents, switching traffic lights, directing ambulances and sounding evacuation sirens when the rains close in again.
The operations room is an urban-scale Jumbotron, allowing its operators to zoom in, replay, and reconfigure the city itself. In the media room above, journalists play the role of commentators, reliant on digital narratives provided by the city government.
Just two blocks away, the Operations Centre has its dark mirror in the heavily fortified Centro Integrado de Comando e Controle (CICC), a parallel facility set up by the Federal Police. The CICC is one of a network of twelve centres built in each of the 2014 World Cup’s host cities, and is the official back-up site for the National Integrated Command and Control Centre (CICCN) in Brasilia. Like the Ops Centre, the CICCs contain a stadium-sized digital screen alongside hundreds of terminals, with full access to all of the city’s data and surveillance feeds. Where the Ops Centre brings together emergency fire and medical dispatchers, water specialists and rubbish collectors, the CICCs provide the same service for the state police, military, and intelligence agencies. Of course, notes a government press release: “The high investment will not be in vain. The CICCN and the regional centres will remain in operation, rendering services to the Brazilian population after the World Cup and Olympic Games.”
Together with the ability to peer inside the stadiums themselves, using their integrated security systems, the CICC is intended to provide a total image of the city at all times, and not only from traffic and other cameras. In April, the government purchased half a dozen high-altitude surveillance blimps of the kind familiar from US operations in Baghdad and Kabul, which, tethered at strategic points around the city, will provide high-resolution, twenty-four hour aerial footage of entire districts. At the recent Latin American Aero and Defense Exhibition held in Rio, the Civil Aviation Secretary announced new laws to cover unmanned aircraft over the city. The laws are intended to keep private drones away from crowds and buildings, but they don’t apply to the police and military, who have pioneered the use of drones to surveil civilian events.
At the same fair, South African company Desert Wold unveiled SKUNK, an “anti-demonstration” octocopter carrying loudspeakers, cameras, and pepper spray guns. Citing the Marikana massacre in which 41 mine workers died in South Africa, the manufacturer claimed that such technology would lead to less violent outcomes by removing the fear and stress of riot police from the scene - once again, citing the supposed objectivity of machines over the emotional human, even when those machines are covered in guns. An initial shipment of ten of the machines was on its way to Rio.
Brazil has the largest aircraft industry in Latin America, including a homegrown subsidiary of Israeli drone manufacturer Elbit, which produces the Hermes UAV. The Hermes 450 has a ten-metre wingspan and has seen extensive action in Gaza and Lebanon, and, with the British Army, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of Hellfire missiles, Brazil has fitted its fleet of Hermes with a Sky Eye sensor containing seventeen long-range, thermal, infrared and other cameras, capable of tracking activity across a hundred square kilometres and recording faces and license plates from 30,000 feet.
Brazil’s national commitment to both football and to militarised surveillance has already given birth to one spectacular piece of contemporary sports footage.
In July 2013, the Air Force released a film taken by one of its drones as it passed over the National Stadium at precisely the moment Brazilian star Neymar scored the opening goal of the Confederations Cup. The video first shows a Hermes in flight, a bolus of cameras swivelling in its belly, before cutting to the aerial shot, each player a few pixels across, dodging around avionics data, tracked by the crosshairs of the targeting system, just as the ball smacks into the back of the net. The video continues with footage of the stadium, of crowds of people surrounding it, of the team coaches arriving, and VIPs in helicopters. All are levelled: sport, transit, spectators, participants, threat, opportunity, all equal in the all-encompassing electronic vision.
The drones will be aloft again for next year’s Olympic games. Just as the cameras of the international media and the Olympic-funded Command and Control Centre spread out across the city, the eyes in the sky will gaze down on track and field, swimming pool and rowing lake; the high jumpers, discus throwers, sprinters and archers all caught in the crosshairs of the heads-up display. In “W, or a Memory of Childhood”, the French author Georges Perec described a country whose entire social structure was based on the Olympic Games, every citizen an athlete, every decision based on sporting prowess. In the endless expansion of military surveillance technologies into everyday time and space, we see the world transformed not just into a battlefield, but also into a sporting ground, a continuation of war by other means.
The future of the world according to the logic of both “W” and surveillance systems is a world in which we are constantly monitored, observed, measured, judged, and scored. From the databases of the International Figure Skating Federation to the datacentres of the National Security Administration every step, every turn, every leap is noted down and recorded. The drone that passes overhead keeps score for the kids playing football on the street, while watching through the upstairs window.