Recent geoprofiling has confirmed the identity of Banksy. But more importantly it has opened up a new method of criminalising protests under the guise of the war on terror.
A recent article published in the not-oft-perused Journal of Spatial Science caught the attention of the world’s press. Well, a couple of the quality papers and one or two blogs picked up on it anyway. The piece is called “Tagging Banksy” punning, I presume, on the practice of tagging or signing your name intrinsic to street art, at the same time as the mode of digital surveillance that we all submit to when we allow our pics to be tagged on Facebook. I say I presume the title is punning as the paper itself is devoid of wit, drear of irony.
Making it sound much more exciting than it actually is, let’s say the paper tells the story of how four maverick scientists got together and decided to use a process called geographic profiling, normally the preserve of criminology and the study of infectious diseases, to instead profile the anonymous and ‘cool’ street artist who goes by the name of Bansky. There was no point to this, they admit, in that Banksy was already outed by the Daily Mail in 2008 as one Robin Gunningham. They were just a bunch of dudes, havin’ fun.
Not letting intellectual irrelevancy get in the way of a possible publication as is often the case with modern academia, our envelope-breaching team set about analysing the location of nearly 200 of Bansky’s works, all of which are site-specific making him an ideal target for the geoprofiling technique. The mathematic algorithms of geoprofiling allowed them to map these 200 works against 'anchor points' pertinent to the life of the suspected Gunningham, such as where he lived, his school, his girlfriend’s address, his local pub and so on. Putting the data together in the same way as is used for other criminals like serial killers, it was found that in all likelihood Banksy is Paul Gunningham further suggesting that, going against the grain of most advice, he does tend to shit on his own doorstep. If the discovery itself was long short of revelation, that fact that the Mail once published a fact that was correct is itself a miraculous find I am sure you agree.
One Person’s Protester is Another’s Terrorist
In that we already knew Banksy was Gunningham, and in fact it was because we knew this that Banksy was profilable in the first place as geoprofiling needs suspects in order to map their movements when they are abducting their live victims and abandoning the murdered corpse, the point of the paper is mainly unclear until you get to the final, to me chillingly negligent, paragraph. Here we learn that the purpose of this mode of profiling is to catch bad-guys, in particular those bad-guys that are “so hot right now”, namely terrorists.
Indulging in two whole sentences of cultural history, the paper reminds us that Graffiti, acts of vandalism and the like have long been associated with protest groups. In fact, one of the first applications of protest tagging was tracing the profiles, in 2014, of known anti-Nazi protesters Otto and Elise Hampel. The Hampel’s bravely left around 200 protest postcards in Berlin apartments during the war, urging their recipients to resist the Nazis.
As we tend to forget, one person’s political activist is another’s terrorist and the practice of low-level protest of these kinds is something they both share in common, mainly because activists and terrorists are often the same people, described in different ways. So if one is able to trace what the authors term a terrorist’s “low level activities”, not just the headline grabbing bombing and decapitating, then a new front could be opened in the war of terror, one at street level, one based around the tracking your daily life. Geoprofiling basically uses surveillance to see how you are living and thus tag you as a potential committer of crimes. This then is the authors’ justification for outing Banksy when a) it violated his privacy and b) it had already been done.
A Load of GunningamThe paper ends with something of a sense of its own purposelessness with this rather flaccid pay-off: “Of course, all this would be unnecessary if political protest only involved bombs stencilled on building walls”. I find myself a little confused by this I must confess. Are we keeping an eye on protesters in case they become something more? If so, who determines when protest becomes terrorism and does this mean that all forms of social protest should be subject to invasive surveillance? Or are we trying to catch terrorists using the minor acts of protest that they might also indulge in? And what of poor Robinsy, is he a protester who is a terrorist in potential, or is he a terrorist suspect who also protests? Neither would appear to be the answer. We are at war; Banksy is just collateral damage. Sorry Banksy! Shit happens.
What the scientists are arguing, in essence, is that because of terrorism, we need to use science to improve the surveillance techniques of the modern virtual police state. What a load of Gunningham. We have had terrorism for over two hundred years and we have never had at our disposal the means to track terrorists that we have now. We don’t need more tools; we need more controls on the abuse of those tools. If you doubt my argument think for a moment of the Hampels. Didn’t the Nazi’s view them as terrorists or, using the rhetoric of their age of hate, degenerates? Yes, they did. It took the SS two years to trace the precise identity and location of the Hampels, but trace it they did. They were both executed in 1943.
So what precisely does geoprofiling actually facilitate? It allows a state to trace its Hampels in a couple of weeks or months, not a couple of years. And if the paper is successful and its authors can work in concert with the astonishing developments in data harvesting, face and voice recognition, digital tagging and so on, that might be reducible to a couple of hours or a couple of minutes. I am sure they are drafting their funding bid along these lines as we speak. What this means is that the Hampels would not have enjoyed two more years of married life. What this means is maybe 100 or more postcards of protest they would have been unable to leave behind. What this means is yet another nail in the coffin of our legitimate right to privacy and protest in the name of a chimerical threat of terror which is yet to substantially materialise, fifteen years after 9/11.
Why should anyone but Banksy and a bunch of doggy Graffiti artists care? It is not like we are living under a totalitarian regime and most of us are not criminals or even protesters right? For the record boycotting Starbucks does not count as protest, not does whining about the ‘environment’ over a latte bought in Costa. But let me just make this point. In recent times the UK government has illegally executed several of its own citizens by drone, in particular Reyaad Khan, Rahul Amin and most famously Mohammed Emwazi. More than this, in recent years it has also sanctioned the rendition and torture of its own citizens, and other people’s for that matter. All in the name of an entirely bogus War on Terror. Bogus because we are not at war and so we cannot declare a state of exception and simply disregard the rule of law. And bogus because we don’t agree what terrorism actually is in the world—and we are always in the world these days—and accordingly we don’t know who the terrorists are.
Example, since the commencement of their bombing campaign the Russians have killed over 2000 civilians in Syria, systematically, openly, with the aid of digital surveillance techniques. These techniques have been used to purposefully target civilian life in Syria, such as hospitals and schools, to demoralise the anti-Assad forces. Calling all anti-Assad protesters terrorists, the Russians have, effectively, weaponised locations of care and protection. How have they achieved this? Through the historic weaponising of the term Terrorist by George Bush and Tony Blair fifteen years ago, allowing the Russians to use the same word to refer to anti-Assad forces without anyone in the West being able to say anything because if they did then we would have to speak about our own dirty secrets in Basra, Guantanamo and the like. Those children, those doctors, those NGO workers who are no longer with us, are the Hampels of Syria, and geoprofiling will be a welcome tool, a welcome weapon, in the arsenal of states who wish to oppress any kind of protest, and that includes our own.
For me this paper is an enemy of our freedom now just Banksy’s, and that is bad, but it is also an enemy of knowledge which is maybe worse, and I will explain why. I am an academic and am embroiled on a daily basis in the politics of publication. From an outside perspective it may seem silly to publish a paper based on identifying a fact we already know, Banksy is Robin Gunningham, so why did the authors do it? Out of love for Banksy’s art? One of the authors said they thought Banksy was a cool artist, but when asked if they had learnt more about his art with this paper they admitted not. I think it is clear that the paper was not the product of art lovers. Rather, the choice of Banksy was a cynical ploy on the part of the authors to attain impact, a plot that has been hideously successful.
Impact is a measure of how widely read a piece of work is and in scientific research all papers are assigned a numerical impact factor. This number ties into your reputation as a scientist. If you go to the Journal website where you can read the paper if you are willing to pay for it, you will even find a lovely rainbow hoop called the Altmetric. The Altmetric measures the impact of this paper in real time based on its mentions in various sources. Not just academic sources but, more importantly for the modern academic wishing to attain funding, promotion, and a better life, the public impact of a piece.
Last time I looked “Tagging Banksy” had been mentioned in 60 news sources and 4 blogs, make that 5 now. It had been referred to on Twitter over 500 times. In short, in answer to the question what does this paper prove, what does it add to knowledge, the answer is you are missing the point. Increasingly, modern academia is not about adding to knowledge. Since the rise of the internet we are all up to our necks with knowledge, with data, and we academics are sick of it, overwhelmed by it. The paper is not about adding to the sum of knowledge in the field but is itself, ironically, an exercise in profiling, in this case augmenting the profile of its authors. In choosing to geoprofile Banksy they are piggybacking on Banksy’s cultural capital to gain visibility, and probably notoriety, for their own work.
Mugging BanksyIf Banksy possesses a lot of cultural capital, and the denizens of The Journal of Spatial Science do not (have you ever heard of it?) then what the paper “Tagging Bansky” actually commits is an act of cultural theft. Banksy has what the authors never will, cultural significance, because he has what they appear not to desire, cultural and social awareness. Banksy’s lawyers are said to be in conversation with the authors of “Tagging Banksy” and so they should be. Not just because they have invaded his privacy but because they have robbed him of a cultural capital which is also, by the way, worth a shed-load of actual cash. It is no use the authors saying they are respecting the privacy of Banksy in an “Ethical Note” tagged on to the end of the piece, when they are at the same time rifling through his private affairs. That’s like a burglar saying they respect your privacy because they only steal the things they can easily see around the place.
For me at least the authors of the paper are not so much involved in geoprofiling than kleptoprofiling; they are not naming Banksy they are mugging him. And in that petty theft is one of those low-level activities that terrorists engage with, and that this paper is clearly a threat to our freedoms, I ask the powers that be if it is not time that Hauge, Stevenson, Rossmo and Comber (the authors of the piece), be the target of a new campaign of geoprofiling? Let’s track them when they go to the pub, when they visit their sexual partners, when they drop in on their mum and dad. Let’s assume they are guilty until proven innocent and tag them. Let’s spy on them as they live out their humdrum lives and see how they like it.
Tag, You're It!
The final grand irony of the piece of course is to do with Banksy’s quest for anonymity. I could dwell on the law that the more you seek anonymity in public life, the more obsessed the public become with finding out who you are. I could also discuss the means by which a quest for privacy is the quickest way to guarantee that this right is breached. But perhaps instead I will go with the observation that this whole process is based on a layering of anonymity and the quest to be heard that is really rather fascinating.
Banksy is Robin Gunningham’s tag, his way of making his mark on the streets where he grew up, a method for all Graffiti artists to say here I am, I exist, I am worth something. Anonymity for them is the result of their being painfully aware of being considered low-level criminals, it is a prophylactic, a shield against reprisal. That the same word is also used by agencies and scientists alike who want to trace the identity of Graffiti artists, and not just Graffiti artists but all of us who protest, taking the first step, apparently, towards terrorism, is a delicious little thing to ponder on
Going further, the relative anonymity of the authors of the article feeds vampirically almost on the notoriety of their innominate quarry, giving them an opportunity to make their name by giving a name, Gunningham, and taking an identity, Bansky. While it is clear that the scientists have the most to gain from this, surely Banksy is giggling under his facemask because the whole discussion, in the end, is money in the cultural bank for him. Although I dislike the geoprofiling of Banksy, in the end both parties have much to gain, both are benefitting in a kind of cultural/political game of tag. So they are both winners it is we who are the losers. We have nothing to gain from tagging, we have no cultural capital to rely on, nor do we have any kind of impact. We are not the Banksy’s of this world, at best we are the Hampels, the little people desperately trying to make a difference. We are the small change protesters in the billion-dollar industry of tag which we cannot possibly win.
By the way, whilst you were reading this you got tagged. How does it feel? Did you notice? Either way, little Hampel, tag, you’re it!