Street art in NYC,
by French artist JR.
Photo by JR.
Last spring, designer Adam Harvey hosted a session on hair and makeup techniques for attendees of the 2015 FutureEverything Festival in Manchester, England. Rather than sharing innovative ways to bring out the audience’s eyes, Harvey’s CV Dazzle Anon introduced a series of styling methods designed with almost the exact opposite aim of traditional beauty tricks: to turn your face into an anti-face—one that cameras, particularly those of the surveillance variety, will not only fail to love, but fail to recognize.
Harvey is one of a growing number of privacy-focused designers and developers “exploring new opportunities that are the result of [heightened] surveillance,” and working to establish lines of defense against it. He’s spent the past several years experimenting with strategies for putting control over people’s privacy back in their own hands, in their pockets and on their faces.
Harvey’s goal of “creating a style that [is] functional and aesthetic” has driven several projects and collaborations, including a method for “spoofing” DNA, and via the Privacy Gift Shop, his drone-thwarting Stealth Wear line (clothing he claims “shields against thermal imaging…[which is] used widely by military drones to target people,” seen below) and the OFF Pocket phone sleeve, able to keep out unwanted wireless signals.
Harvey’s work is focused on accessibility in addition to privacy. “Most of the projects I’ve worked on are analog solutions to digital challenges,” he said. His hair and makeup style tips – a veritable how-to guide for how to create “privacy reclaiming” looks at home – are “deliberately low-cost.” His current project – software to “automatically generate camouflage…that can be applied to faces” – will allow a user to “create [their] own look and guide the design towards [their] personal style preferences.”
Other low-tech protections against widespread surveillance have been gaining ground, too. Though initially designed as a tongue-in-cheek solution to prying eyes and cameras, Becky Stern’s Laptop Compubody Sock offers a portable, peek-free zone to laptop users, while the CHBL Jammer Coat and sold-out Phonekerchief use metal-infused fabrics to make personal gadgets unreachable, blocking texts, calls and radio waves. For people willing to sport a bit more hardware in the name of privacy, the Sentient City Survival Kit offers underwear that notifies wearers about real-life phishing and tracking attempts, and its LED umbrella lets users “flirt with object tracking algorithms used in advanced surveillance systems” and even “train these systems to recognize nonhuman shapes.”
Large companies are also getting in on the pushback against increasing surveillance. Earlier this year, antivirus software leaders AVG revealed a pair of invisibility glasses developed by its Innovation Labs division. The casual looking specs use embedded infrared lights “to create noise around the nose and eyes” and retro-reflective frame coating to interfere with camera flashes, “allowing [the wearer] to avoid facial recognition.” In early 2013, Japan’s National Institute of Informatics revealed a bulky pair of goggles it had developed for the same purpose.
A spokesperson for Innovation Labs claims its glasses represent “an important step in the prevention against mass surveillance…whether through the cell phone camera of a passerby, a CCTV camera in a bar, or a drone flying over your head in the street.” Innovation Labs says that, with a person’s picture, facial recognition software “coupled with data from social networking sites can provide instant access to the private information of complete strangers. This can pose a serious threat to our privacy.” Though AVG’s glasses are not scheduled for commercial release, Innovation Labs said that individuals can take a number of steps to prevent their images from being “harvested”:
“First and foremost, make sure you’re not allowing private corporations to create biometrics profiles about you. When using social networks like Facebook, be aware that they are using facial recognition to give you tag suggestions. Facebook’s DeepFace was already tested and trained on the largest facial dataset to-date (an identity labeled dataset of more than 4 million facial images belonging to thousands of identities).”
Holmes Wilson of nonprofit Fight for the Future, which works to defend online privacy and freedoms on various fronts, is more concerned with other types of privacy invasion than real-life image harvesting. “It’s pretty unlikely in most of the world that you’ll get followed around using a network of street cameras with face recognition,” he said. “It’s probably pretty likely, though, that you’ll get filmed by police at a protest. But [there’s] not much you can do about that other than wearing a mask.”
Wilson advises people concerned about privacy breaches through surveillance to first focus on the ways in which their gadgets are supplying info to third parties. “The place where it’s easiest to fight back against surveillance is in protecting the security of your messages,” he said, adding that message security “can be a problem for activists, too.” He said apps like Textsecure, Signal, and Redphone can make it “a lot harder for people to spy on you.” Wilson added:
“Phones are the biggest thing. Lots of people think of smartphones as the big privacy problem, but old-fashioned phones are just as bad, and worse in some ways. All cellphones report on your location to the network as you move around. That’s just how they work, and they need to send that information or the system won’t know where to send your call. There’s no way to turn that off, other than by turning off the phone and, for good measure, taking the battery out.”
In collaboration with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future recommends a variety of options for encrypting messages, password-protecting accounts and securing a user’s various communication and browsing activities via Reset the Net. Wilson encouraged those with specific privacy concerns to check out tutorials, resources and break-downs of privacy issues from Surveillance Self-Defense.
Last year, Facebook announced that its DeepFace facial recognition technology can detect a person’s identity from photos with 97.25 percent accuracy, only a hair below the 97.5 percent success rate for humans taking the same test. Currently, a congressional front is preparing to extend surveillance powers granted to legal bodies by Section 215 of the Patriot Act—the NSA’s legal foothold of choice with regard to mass collection of US phone records since 2006, and set to expire on June 1—with the light-on-reform USA Freedom Act.
It seems likely that a growing number of both tech-wary and tech-savvy people will continue weighing how best to ensure their personal privacy, whether by putting stark makeup on or by turning their phones off.
Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of President Obama’s announcement Thursday that two hostages of Al Qaeda, an American and an Italian, were killed in a US drone missile strike in Pakistan is the lack of any significant reaction from official political circles or the media.
There was a certain amount of tut-tutting in the press and expressions of sympathy for the family of Dr. Warren Weinstein, the longtime aid worker in Pakistan who was kidnapped by Al Qaeda in 2011 and killed by the US government in January 2015.
But there was no challenge to the basic premise of the drone missile program: that the CIA and Pentagon have the right to kill any individual, in any country, on the mere say-so of the president. Drone murder by the US government has become routine and is accepted as normal and legitimate by the official shapers of public opinion.
Obama’s own appearance Thursday was chilling. He made perfunctory expressions of regret, but only because the latest victims of US drone strikes included an American and an Italian who were being held hostage. It was a transparently poor acting performance, convincing no one but the editors of theNew York Times, who praised Obama’s “candor and remorse.”
After blaming the deaths of Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto on “mistakes” made because of “the fog of war,” Obama declared, “But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional, is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.” He had decided to admit responsibility for the deaths because “the United States is a democracy, committed to openness, in good times and in bad.”
What a farce! Far from admitting “mistakes,” Obama, the political front man for the military-intelligence apparatus, was making clear that the drone assassination program would continue and no one would be held accountable for the latest atrocity.
Today’s America is “exceptional” only in the degree to which the entire ruling elite has embraced a policy of reckless violence around the globe that includes murder, torture and aggressive war. The United States is run by criminals.
A major test of any American president is readiness to approve state killings in his or her capacity as the political representative, not of the American people, but of a cabal of generals and CIA assassins. How much longer before such actions are carried out not just in remote parts of Afghanistan or Yemen, but in major urban centers of major countries, including, ultimately, the United States itself?
The drone strike in Pakistan’s Shawal Valley that killed Weinstein and Lo Porto is part of an unending campaign of death and destruction. Obama did not even have to sign off on this particular missile strike, since he has given the CIA blanket authority to conduct such operations in the predominately Pashtun-populated Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.
The claim that drone attacks target individuals designated by the US military-intelligence apparatus as “terrorists” is hardly a limitation, given the indiscriminate application of this term to anyone offering significant resistance to US foreign policy, as well as the cynical practice of posthumously applying the label of “enemy combatant” to any military-age male killed by a US drone-fired missile.
Moreover, as events in Syria and Libya demonstrate, yesterday’s anti-American “terrorist” can become today’s “rebel” or “freedom fighter,” the recipient of US cash, military training and weaponry. Similarly, today’s “freedom fighter” or ally in the “war on terror” can become tomorrow’s target for overthrow or assassination.
The CIA recruited Al Qaeda sympathizers for its overthrow of the Libyan regime and murder of Muammar Gaddafi, formerly an ally, and for the ongoing regime-change operation against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The latter effort gave rise to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, in which terrorists turned “rebels” were subsequently branded terrorists, in accordance with the twists and turns of US foreign policy.
Obama administration officials have confirmed that the drone missile attack that killed Weinstein and Lo Porto was a “signature strike,” in which targets are not identified by name, but selected on the basis of a pattern of activities supposedly consistent with those of a terrorist group. The CIA carried out a drone missile attack that killed six people, including Weinstein and Lo Porto, based on aerial observation of the comings and goings at the building targeted, without actually knowing who was there or what their relation, if any, was with Al Qaeda or the Taliban.
Such attacks are in flagrant violation of international law. The US is trampling on the sovereignty of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other countries where it carries out such strikes.
Drone missile murders are war crimes under the Geneva Conventions, which forbid deliberate attacks on civilians or military operations that recklessly endanger civilians. According to a study by the human rights group Reprieve, US drone missile strikes targeting 41 supposed terrorists killed a total of 1,147 people, including many women and children.
Not a single significant voice in the US political or media establishment has been raised against the elevation of assassination to a major element of American foreign policy. In the 1970s, when the US Senate’s Church Committee held hearings on CIA assassination plots against a handful of foreign leaders, its revelations had the capacity to shock. There was a reaction even at the highest levels of the political establishment, and the White House was compelled to issue an executive order disavowing murder as a tool of government policy.
Today there is no such reaction. On the contrary, earlier this month the Timesrevealed that congressional leaders had put pressure on the White House and CIA for more acts of drone missile murder. Describing discussions about whether to kill or capture a Texas-born Islamist who had joined Al Qaeda in Pakistan, Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, the Times reported: “During a closed-door hearing of the House Intelligence Committee in July 2013, lawmakers grilled military and intelligence officials about why Mr. Farekh had not been killed.” (See: “US targeted second American citizen for assassination”).
The American media is well aware of the drone missile death toll, but covers it up. An article Friday in the Times noted that the White House refuses point-blank to discuss civilian victims of drone missile attacks when they are Pakistani or Yemeni. “When Americans have been killed, however, the Obama administration has found it necessary to break with its usual practice and eventually acknowledge the deaths, at least in private discussions with reporters,” the newspaper wrote.
The lack of any significant protest of the latest revelations of US war crimes is a warning to the working class, both in the United States and internationally. As the WSWS has consistently warned, the war drive of imperialism is inseparably linked to a frontal assault on democratic and social rights.
The struggle against war and in defense of democratic rights requires a turn to the working class, the only social force capable of disarming the ruling elite. That is the purpose of the International May Day Online Rally called by the International Committee of the Fourth International for Sunday, May 3. We urge all readers and supporters of the WSWS to register for the rally today.
The US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics report on state and regional unemployment for March 2015 shows a deteriorating economic situation. Despite modest job growth nationally, nonfarm payroll employment declined in 31 states and the District of Columbia last month. Only 18 states saw an increase in employment.
In particular, states and regions that once benefited from a boom in domestic oil production are now hemorrhaging jobs as a result of the oil price decline. States with the largest over-the-month job losses were Texas (25,000), Oklahoma (12,900) and Pennsylvania (12,700).
In percentage terms, the largest over-the-month declines in employment occurred in Oklahoma (0.8 percent), followed by Arkansas, North Dakota, and West Virginia (0.6 percent each).
The rapid job losses in Texas—America’s second most populous state with 27 million residents, with an economic output equivalent to Spain—has generated concerns in major economic and political circles. March 2015 is the first time in 53 months that the state of has showed a net loss of jobs.
JP Morgan Chase economist Michael Feroli was among many analysts who predicted a severe loss of oil-related jobs in the state in late 2014, earning him the ire of then-President of the Dallas Federal Reserve who last month, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, publicly dismissed such predictions with contempt.
Referring to the March jobs report, Feroli said if the national economy had lost jobs in the same proportion as Texas did, the US would have lost 304,000 jobs last month, an amount associated with a full-blown recession.
The slump in oil prices threatens jobs in other industries, including steel and automobile manufacturing. The steel sector closely followed the boom in shale oil and natural gas production over the past several years when higher oil prices prevailed. Globally, the industry has undergone a restructuring over the last quarter century that is almost without parallel, forcing prices down and destroying jobs and productive infrastructure.
On Friday, United States Steel Corporation sent layoff notices to 1,404 workers involved in producing pipe and tube products used in the oil and gas sector. The layoffs could come as early as June for 579 employees at a plant in Lone Star, Texas, 166 at a factory in Houston, 255 at a mill in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and 404 managers in the company’s tubular operations.
Since March, US Steel has announced plans to idle its Granite City, Illinois, factory that employs 2,000 workers, a tubular steel facility in Ohio employing 614 workers, as well as layoffs and closures in Pennsylvania and Minnesota.
Ford Motor Company announced Thursday that it will idle 700 workers at the Michigan Assembly Plant in the Detroit suburb of Wayne starting June 22, citing decreased demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles. The facility produces a number of vehicles in this category, including the Ford Focus, Focus ST, Focus Electric, C-Max hybrid and C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid.
Sales of the Ford Focus fell 14.5 percent in March, and sales of the C-Max Hybrid were down 22 percent during the same period and by 31 percent during the first quarter. General Motors has announced similar plans for facilities making its more fuel-efficient models.
The United Steelworkers and the United Auto Workers unions accept without question the destruction of tens of thousands of jobs by the corporate giants, with the USW predictably blaming foreign steelmakers for “dumping” steel.
The report on state unemployment further exposes the Obama administration’s lies about the supposed economic “recovery.” It dovetails with poor economic figures in recent months, including retail sales, industrial production and home building, all of which point to a deepening economic downturn.
Flush with more than $1.3 trillion in cash—and benefiting from virtually free credit poured into the financial markets by the Federal Reserve—major corporations are not investing in expanding production. Instead they are pouring billions into stock buybacks and dividends to benefit wealthy investors, and to fuel a wave of mergers and acquisitions that will destroy even more jobs. Meanwhile the workers who remain are subjected to unrelenting demands for lower wages and benefits and higher levels of exploitation.
Financial news outlets are now referring to “mega-mergers.” A case in point is this month’s takeover by energy giant Shell of the smaller firm BG in a $70 billion deal. ExxonMobil is also widely expected to make a bid for BP. Both the Shell-BG mega-merger, as well as any acquisitions by rival ExxonMobil, will serve to boost profits not through new investment in infrastructure, but through layoffs, closures and the lowering of labor costs.
While better-paying jobs in the US manufacturing sector are evaporating, what little job growth there is consists largely of low wage service sector work. In one sign of the deteriorating conditions for workers in these industries, a study by the University of California’s Center for Labor Research and Education released April 13 found that a majority of spending on public assistance programs goes to households headed by someone who is working.
“When companies pay too little for workers to provide for their families, workers rely on public assistance programs to meet their basic needs,” Ken Jacobs, chair of the labor center and co-author of the new report said in a press release.
Thus, at the state and federal level, the US government subsidizes companies that pay poverty wages, to the tune of $153 billion per year.
According to the report, workers in a diverse range of occupations systematically rely on public assistance, and in staggering proportions, including frontline fast-food workers (52 percent), childcare workers (46 percent), home care workers (48 percent) and even part-time college faculty (25 percent).
While Wall Street executives are making record bonuses, four out of 10 bank tellers in New York City are forced to rely on some form of public assistance because their wages are too low to survive.
I remember coming to work on the morning Kurt Cobain was found dead, and feeling puzzled that a younger writer at our San Francisco alternative weekly – who would go on to become a prominent newspaper and magazine editor in New York – was so upset that she sat at her desk all day crying. I could psychoanalyze myself at Cobain-like depth, but the reasons I didn’t get it were basically stupid and defensive. Of course I knew Cobain’s music, and I understood that his death was a big story. But I was also deeply committed to my own disillusionment, to never being taken by surprise. I had already been through the first wave of punk rock, the worst years of AIDS, the deaths of a lot of people less famous than him. I would have rejected Cobain’s status as generational icon even more forcefully than he did – which, in retrospect, looks a lot like deep yearning, thinly wrapped in snobbery. His combination of suburban angst, drug addiction and mental-health issues was an old story, wasn’t it? Just another “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song David Bowie wrote in 1972. Nothing to cry about.
For many viewers of Brett Morgen’s extraordinary HBO documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” the most fascinating and powerful elements of the film will be found in the intimate home videos shot by Cobain and Courtney Love in the early ‘90s, before and after their daughter Frances was born. (Frances Bean Cobain is an executive producer of the film, and both its remarkable depth and its limitations derive from the fact that it’s an authorized biography, made with the cooperation of Love, Cobain’s parents and various former friends and bandmates.) That footage is absolutely heartbreaking in its depiction of a loving, flawed, high-spirited and essentially normal young family, a long way from the drug-crazed rock-star fiends favored by the tabloids of that not-so-distant era. Yes, rock fans, you do get to see Courtney naked. Impressive as that is, it’s not half as much fun as hearing her ventriloquize baby Frances complaining that her dad’s band are self-indulgent whiners who aren’t as good as Guns N’ Roses. (Footnote for scholars: Cobain’s obsession with GnR frontman Axl Rose is fascinating, but ultimately aren’t they more alike than different?)
But I watched that amazing material with a sense that by that time the die had already been cast. Love and Cobain were famous and their baby, allegedly born addicted to heroin, was famous too. What they were “really like,” as human beings, was irrelevant. As long as they lived they were going to be famous rock ‘n’ roll fuckups, damaged symbols of a damaged generation. For someone with Cobain’s particular set of neuroses, ailments and vulnerabilities, not to mention his philosophical and aesthetic predilections, that might literally be a fate worse than death. I’m not saying that other outcomes, not involving a shotgun blast to the head, were not possible. But there was no easy or painless exit from the prison-house of celebrity available to Kurt Cobain, and he didn’t much like living in it.
Morgen’s title refers both to an extended audio collage Cobain once recorded on cassette tape – just one example of his explosive, unstoppable cultural output – and to the method of the film itself, which assembles an immense trove of public and private material to illustrate a life spent first in obscurity and then in the unbearable spotlight. He has Cobain’s famous notebooks full of lyrics, journal entries, cartoons and momentary observations, of course, but also home movies of his 3rd birthday party, a collection of family snapshots, recordings of early radio interviews and footage of the first Nirvana shows in Aberdeen or Olympia, with a few dozen people in attendance.
He interviews Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s overly loquacious mother, Don Cobain, his monosyllabic father, and Tracy Marander, who was Cobain’s first serious girlfriend and the first woman he lived with. (He was a total deadbeat, from the sound of things, but Marander doesn’t seem to regret working for a living while he played guitar and watched TV. Here she is in a movie, all these years later.) Oh, and there’s music – a lot of it, the famous tracks and a bunch of lesser-known ones. You will indeed hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in a number of versions and a variety of contexts – and when we finally get the actual Nirvana recording over the closing credits, well, I’m not saying I cried in grief and joy and anger but I’m not saying I didn’t.
Rather than trying to describe all these people who have lived on and gotten older, and who now find themselves sitting on their couches struggling to describe or explain a guy they used to know who became very famous and then died, I would say that “Montage of Heck” paints a bitter but compassionate portrait of the downscale white America that shaped Kurt Cobain. He was born in 1967, which surely felt more like 1957 in Aberdeen, Washington, than it did in the tumultuous climate of big cities and college towns. O’Connor says she remembers Aberdeen as a wonderful place to raise a family, and that her kids had a happy childhood. Not much later in the film we hear Cobain describe Aberdeen, in a recorded conversation with an old friend, as an “isolated hellhole” dominated by moralistic Reaganite conformity. You don’t get the feeling that teenage Kurt was an easy kid to live with, or someone who naturally made the best out of difficult circumstances. But his inarticulate sense that the society around him was fundamentally inauthentic, and his yearning to transform it or destroy it, molded one of the last and greatest voices of what Casey Kasem used to call the “rock era.”
Teenage alienation and rebellion is of course not a new phenomenon, and is not unique to the depressed lumber towns of the Pacific Northwest (although I imagine that lent it a particular coloration). In the animations Morgen’s team has created to illustrate Cobain’s audio montages, we witness the highly familiar quality of Cobain’s childhood and teen years: His parents were unhappy and got divorced, he smoked a lot of pot and had frustrating sexual experiences, he was an intelligent and creative kid who found school to be soul-deadening and found some release in loud music. There may be no comprehensible answer to the question of why he responded so keenly to these stimuli, which were applied with equal force to millions of other kids of the downward-trending ‘70s and ‘80s. From an early age, Kurt Cobain yearned to make memorable art, escape his surroundings and become famous, and from an early age he contemplated ending his life, with the kind of obsessive, repeated “jokes” that are impossible to gauge from the outside.
If Cobain and Wallace worked in different mediums and different registers, and emerged from different sectors of middle-class white suburbia – indeed, you can only call Cobain’s background “middle class” under the postwar convention that all white Americans who have jobs and cars belong to that class by definition – there is no mistaking the kinship of their unnaturally keen responses. They were 1960s babies who grew up amid Vietnam and Watergate and the gas crisis and Whip Inflation Now and Jimmy Carter in his cardigan talking about our “national malaise,” and who were teenagers and young adults as that malaise and turmoil turned to amnesia and denial and the suicidal, delusional counterrevolution of the Reagan years. America has not recovered from the cultural and political whiplash of those years and probably never will.
All of us who lived through that period bear the scars, and we have all tried to react to it and push forward as best we can. Of course Wallace is not the only important writer of their generation, nor is Cobain the only memorable singer-songwriter. But they are joined by the intensity of their response – “Nevermind” and “Infinite Jest” are highly singular works in totally different traditions, but I think they represent the same scale of achievement and possess a similar cultural resonance – and by the way they touched a deep well of passion, hunger and unease that transcended demographic or generational clichés. It’s by no means irrelevant that they were both white heterosexual men who were deeply aware of the problematic nature of the Great Man archetype, and committed to addressing that issue in their work and their private lives. And it’s certainly not irrelevant that they became overwhelmed by the vicious contradictions of fame in our era — or, to put it more simply, that they could not escape the private demons of mental illness and drug addiction and ended by killing themselves.
As I noted earlier, “Montage of Heck” was made with the cooperation of Courtney Love and several other relatives or intimate friends of Kurt Cobain. (The most prominent omission is Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.) Among other things, that means the movie does not traffic in any of the pathological conspiracy theories around Cobain’s death, or indeed depict his death in any way. It may whitewash some details of Love and Cobain’s relationship – I wouldn’t know, and don’t especially care – and it certainly depicts the reporters who raked up dirt on the couple, especially Lynn Hirschberg of Vanity Fair, as unscrupulous vultures.
I would agree that the media’s vampirical obsession with the Kurt-and-Courtney story was not journalism’s finest hour, and that it reflected profound anxiety about the youth-culture moment they were seen to represent. But that’s too large a problem to unpack here; I think it’s best to take the Courtney-centric area of the film with a grain of salt and draw your own conclusions. Those are minor issues in a masterful and often deeply moving portrait of a volatile American genius, a portrait that goes far beyond one man, one family and one rain-sodden small town. It depicts the society that nurtured and fed that genius, and that made his unlikely creative explosion possible, as being the same environment that poisoned him — and suggests that the rise and fall were inextricably connected. Kurt Cobain was a canary in the coalmine, as was David Foster Wallace. You and I are still in it, and it’s getting harder to breathe.
“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” opens this week in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, and then premieres May 4 on HBO.