“Security Glitches: The Failure of the Universal Camouflage Pattern and the Fantasy of Identity Intelligence”

A few years back, I went to a pretty terrific conference in Paderborn, Germany, called “Tracking, Targeting, Predicting: Epistemological, Ontological, and Biopolitical Dimensions of Techno-Security.”  And now the organizers are putting together a special issue for the journal Science, Technology, and Human Values.  I’m writing about this:

This is a paper about security glitches, faults in the state’s management of visibility.  It focuses on the paradoxes revealed in two case studies: the multi-billion dollar sartorial mistake of the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP) and the expansive scope of a leaked National Security Agency briefing on its approach to “identity intelligence.”  These seemingly disparate events have in common their status as efforts by the United States government to mediate and militarize perception.  

For a 2004 redesign, the U.S. Army adopted a “digital” camouflage pattern, rectilinear clusters evocative of the pixels that comprise digital images.  This proved to be a pattern that  rendered soldiers more, rather than less, visible in the field; the Army formally acknowledged its error in 2012.  Two years later, “Identity Intelligence: Image is Everything” visualized the episteme of NSA surveillance with an illustration detailing hundreds of different types of data—biometric, biographic, and contextual—that the Agency believed it could exploit to identify and monitor ‘targets of interest.’  The “Identity Intelligence” illustration was leaked by Edward Snowden along with documents related to the NSA’s unprecedented plan to electronically intercept millions of images to be used for facial recognition, and reflects a similar magnitude of ambition.  From saliva to pocket litter to fishing licenses, the list of data it aspires to collect is extensive.

In both endeavors, the state applied a mechanized logic to the practice of security, whether to make its soldiers more difficult to target or to develop a catalog of ways to track bodies that might pose a threat.  The UCP was predicated on the assumption that a digital-looking pattern would be more deceptive than earlier designs inspired by natural forms.  Relatedly, this approach to identity intelligence presumed that subjects could be granulated into tiny fragments of data, interpretable by algorithms and security personnel alike.  These glitches have common origins in their technofetishistic convictions about the capacity of the digital form, limited ways of imagining bodies and lives, and reductive understandings of the complex relationships between power and perception.  Together, they expose the paradoxes that arise as the state tries to extend its power over the senses, and how contingent that power is on the smallest of things.