Friday, December 10, 2004

Civil Society, the WSIS and RFID chips

Back in Oxford for a few days, I attended a seminar at the Oxford Internet Institute today which dealt with the role of civil society in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) -- part of a series of seminars that the OII runs with help from the ESRC. We had a very interesting discussion on the involvement of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the preparatory meetings for and the main summit of the WSIS that took place last year in Geneva. (You can find papers and presentations here and there is also a webcast available that tries to provide a summary of the results.)

What stuck in my mind were primarily two things:

  • On the one hand, how difficult it is to define “civil society” (e.g., are companies a part of it or not? What about single activists?), how unclear the basis for the legitimacy of its involvement is (even among NGOs -- with “established” NGOs challenging “specialist” NGOs about their involvement and the “specialists” conceding that it was always the same people talking to each other at the meetings), how hazy the notion of “democratisation of global governance” is and yet how much effort was put into getting involved by a host of different groups and people -- although severe cases of “post summit fatigue” were also reported and have led to withdrawal by some (which makes you wonder how the learning processes both within participants and between them can have continuity then).

  • On the other hand (and speaking as a political scientist here) I am impressed how much participation by NGOs has become the norm in international processes in the last decade or so. Compared to the exclusiveness of state diplomacy that used to dominate this sphere literally for centuries, changes here seem quite impressive to me.

Another thing that I found reading the papers (and that relates to the main subject of this blog): at the summit, participants were issued with badges that contained “radio frequency identification” (RFID) chips -- without their knowledge, and without a privacy policy being in place. When researchers questioned summit officials about the use of the chips and how long information would be stored they were given no answers. (See the story in more detail here and here).

Since these chips allow tracking people's movements in real time, two scenarios unfolded in my mind. One was that social scientists could use such information to analyse the interaction in negotiations based on who meets whom, when, and where and thus to learn a lot about the tactical behaviour of negotiation participants in international diplomacy. The other was that this information could of course also be very interesting to one or more of the negotiating parties themselves, allowing them -- through constant surveillance -- a more complete picture of what is going on and perhaps even making preemptive action possible based on that information. All that is needed are RFID readers in all doors that people can pass through in the conference area so that you always know their precise location at any point in time. Advantage host nation, I assume.

This again demonstrates the inherent ambiguity of many technologies that have privacy implications: they have dual use, as it used to be called in weapons technology.

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