Drones, surveillance, population control: how our cities became a battleground

A new kind of warfare: how urban spaces are becoming the new battlefield, where the distinction between intelligence and military, and war and peace is becoming more and more problematic.

Feodora Hamza
20 September 2016

Drones. Gregor Hartl/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In the late 18th century the institutional building of the so called panopticon, was designed by British Jeremy Bentham. The aim was to obtain “power of mind over mind”.[1] Since its design the panopticon has served as an inspiration for the construction of prisons since it allows for people to be observed without their knowing whether or not they are being observed. The constant uncertainty of being under surveillance serves as a behaviour changer.

Cities are becoming the new battleground of our increasingly urban world

The panoptic gaze is not limited to prisons. It is present in all sorts of public places from factories to shops, particularly settings in which people are put into groups, counted, checked and normalised.[2] While the panopticon concerns surveillance of the individual, the panspectron was designed to observe whole populations, where everyone and everything is under surveillance at all time. [3]

Such disciplinary techniques are used by governments to strengthen their sovereignty. In a world of increasing urbanisation, these projects show the interest of national states to employ military ideas of high-tech omniscience into urban civil societies. By the end of the 20th century, 10% of the world’s population lived in cities. Most of them lived in the metropolis of the global north. Today the urban population amounts to almost 50% of the world’s population, living mostly in mega cities of the global south.[4]

This rapid urbanisation matters profoundly; how cities in developed and developing countries are going to organise themselves is critical for humanity.[5] While western cities are focusing on improving their security, cities in developing countries are facing increased violence and crime rates and intensified militarisation.[6] Therefore, maintaining control and surveillance over populations and people’s movement allows state authorities to better prepare for violence and war. In the globalisation of western societies, mobility has increased significance to power and development.[7] While modern powers need to limit and define people’s movement, they also require the movement of the people in order to be able to monitor and analyse them.[8]

The 21st century battleground

Fuelled by the belief that global urbanisation is working to undermine the disciplinary and killing abilities of imperial nation-states, countries like the United States and Israel are radically rethinking the way they wage war in cities.[9] Cities become the new battleground in our increasingly urban world, from the slums of the global south to the wealthy financial centres of the west.

Cities become the new battleground in our increasingly urban world

Gaza, for instance, is a densely populated 360 square kilometre area a population of 1.7 million. Physically separated from the rest of the Palestinian territories, Gaza has been controlled by Hamas since 2007. Following Hamas control, Israel initiated a total land closure for Gaza and created essentially the world’s largest prison.[10] The only way in and out is through tunnels, which connect Gaza with Egypt. This closure forced Israel to invest more heavily in surveillance technology, since their access to informants became so restricted that it was more or less impossible.[11] Consequently, Gaza became the testing ground for new surveillance and population control technology. Such technology, which is used in Gaza and the West Bank include biometric identity systems, facial recognition and the use of surveillance balloons and even drones which allow security authorities to control all communication.[12]


The view of 9-11 from Jersey City. Wally Gobetz/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The ethnic and behavioural profiling invented by Israel’s aviation security has become standard in airports around the world. After 9/11, the demand for homeland security-related technology increased rapidly and Israel became the top provider.  Israel controls 70% of the drone (UAVs) market and is a leader in border surveillance control. Furthermore, Israel provides the world with advanced technology on aviation security systems and protocols, fences and robotic gun systems.[13]

The strong relationship between the US and Israel, provides the country with access to markets in Europe, China, India and many more, thus making much of this technology the new standard in many western countries. For example, the biometric passport is the only passport valid around the world and facial recognition is even used by Facebook.

The border between Gaza and Israel has undergone massive reconstruction. It is designed to guide entrants to a series of identification cabins. Each cabin is equipped with its own biometric identity system, which compares the entrant with the data on their ID cards.[14] Evidently, surveillance technology used in the battlefield is now being used for civilian control. The politics of space create struggles over the processes in which space is produced.

The war on terror

More important to politics than movement per se, is the right to move or remain in one place.[15] When the population becomes normalised to this kind of technology, it becomes the basis for national policy. Furthermore, the legitimising of surveillance and control technology is often used under the pretence of the 'war on terror' and the need to defend states from internal and external threats. This leads to an exploitation of new technology in order to strengthen the state’s legitimacy and to deepen its control.[16]

The legitimising of surveillance and control technology is often used under the pretence of the 'war on terror' 

The techniques and technology used by Israel have inspired the US military for years. Now, techniques such as blending real-time high-tech surveillance, total coverage by sniper fire and blowing up new streets and pathways in cities, built the basis for the US invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq.[17]

Remembering the attacks on the city of Fallujah, a city which was constructed as the symbolic centre of resistance against the installation of a US-friendly regime in Iraq -- even though it was unproven that Fallujah was in fact the base for the key Islamist resistance leader of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.[18] Here, US forces participated in the heaviest ssaults of the Iraq war on a densely populated city. The Fallujah assaults were legitimised by US propaganda campaigns, depicting all casualties of the Iraq war as 'terrorists', 'Saddam Loyalists', or 'Al-Qaeda fighters'.[19]

This propaganda rests on imagined geographies, which manipulate the discourse of the 'war on terror' and constructs Islamic urban places in very powerful ways.[20] Just like Israel’s military discourse on Palestinians, whereby all of Palestinians are constructed as evil 'children'.

Hence, othering does the work of distancing cities and their inhabitants from any notion of civilization and supports the legitimisation of the massive, indiscriminate use of force by the military.

The attack on urban space

The quintessential characteristic of urban life is that urban space should encourage people to live together without really 'knowing' one other.[21]  Societies need places where strangers come together to become aware of one another, but this ideal of the public sphere has been 'attacked' by privatisation and technology like television and mobile phones.[22] This leads to people segregating themselves socially and disappearing more and more from public place to their private domains which enables the authorities to implement their security measures more easily.

The prolific use of technology by individuals and the restriction to their private domains, decouples the effect of bringing strangers together, which urban space is supposed to provide. In imagined geographies, the enemy is constructed as a dormant terrorist in the war against the unknowable others.[23] 

Nowadays, the simplest technology can be used against us and we won’t be aware of it

Nowadays, the simplest technology can be used against us and we won’t even be aware of it. For example, everyman drones can easily be purchased online. Most of these toy drones are already equipped with a camera and can be piloted by smart phones. What if a potential terrorist advances these toys and builds a more complicated version fitted with a homemade bomb, thus producing a new level of terror, created just around the corner?[24]

All of this means that lethal potential relies on the simplest technology, in just contra functioning them. Technology we take for granted such asWeb 2.0, have their panoptical aspects, and can be used to map social relationships and to leverage against a specific subject.[25] Nevertheless, we contribute freely to this framework, since we don’t want to miss out on the comforts that new technology provides us.

 In the 21st century, it is almost impossible to live without social media and the internet

In the 21st century, it is almost impossible to live without social media and the internet, particularly in modern western states. Intelligence organisations also use this kind of information to map social networks of political activists. For example, during the Arab Spring, much of the information about the demonstrations in the Middle East was gathered freely online via social media networks.[26] Subsequently the technology that helped the revolution can also be used to track and arrest the very same activists.

With the start of the war on terror and the technology involved in it, anti-globalisation protests, social movements and demonstrations are facing the same kind of verticalised electronic and military power and surveillance as is also employed in the US military strategy agaist Afghanistan.[27]

Warfare has for ages targeted the technological infrastructure of a nation or city. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the underground bombings of London and Madrid demonstrate this. In the past, wars were waged on the battlefield. The main goal was to raise mass armies, but not to target the civilian population. 9/11 has produced a new kind of warfare, where the war on terror now rests on dialectical constructions of urban space.

Historically modern sovereignty was shaped in the Westphalia Peace treaty of 1648, in what was also the starting point of the international system we know today. This reorganisation of public violence and the state’s monopoly on violence is the central instrument that ensures everyday safety of the state’s citizens from random acts of force.[28] Terror attacks undermine this monopoly, creating fear in the population. They also lead to increased surveillance and stricter domestic policy, since terrorists and insurgents are often expected to be under the population.

New military urbanism

Now the modern state has to prove that it can protect all of its citizens from political violence anywhere and at any time. The less the population becomes used to political violence, the greater the public shock after an act of terrorism will be. To meet this demand, nation states implement new security measures to control and monitor their population and to predict future terrorist attacks. To identify these enemies, technology —which has been used in Iraqi and Israeli cities— finds its usage in modern western cities. 

The less the population becomes used to political violence, the greater the public shock after an act of terrorism will be

This new military urbanism rests on the central idea that technology utilised in military tactics of tracking and targeting people is being permanently implemented in the city landscape and in the space of people’s everyday life, in both cities of the West and the world’s new frontiers, like Afghanistan and Iraq.[29] Much of this is justified by the fear that terrorists and insurgents benefit from the anonymity offered by western states who will exploit and target the cities’ technological infrastructure. The New York, Madrid and Mumbai attacks along with the military assaults on Baghdad, Gaza, Beirut, etc. support the assumptions that this new warfare is a trigger for violence around the globe.[30]

 In other words, in this so called low-intensity conflict the spaces of the city are becoming the new battlefield, where the juridical and operational distinction between intelligence and military, war and peace and local and global operations is becoming more and more problematic.[31]

Consequently, states will continue to expend resources to separate between good and threatening people. Instead of human rights, the new legal basis will be based on the profiling of individuals, places and behaviours. Scholars have even diagnosed a resurgence of typically colonial techniques into the management of cities. Shoot-to-kill policies developed in Israel are now adopted by police forces in Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, more aggressive and militarised police in western cities are using the same weapons to control public demonstrations and protests, just as Israel’s Army does in Gaza.[32]

[1] Dahan, Michael: The Gaza Strip as Panopticon and Panspectron: The Disciplining and Punishing of a Society, p. 2

[2] Innokinetics: http://innokinetics.com/how-can-we-use-the-panopticum-as-an-interesting-metaphor-for-innovation-processes/  Download: 17.01.2016

[3] Ibid. p.26

[4] Graham, Stephen: Cities under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, p.2

[5] Ibid. p. 4

[6] Graham, Stephen: Cities under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, p.4

[7] Reid, Julian: Architecture, Al-Qaeda, and the World Trade Center, Rethinking Relations Between War, Modernity, and Spaces After 9/11, p. 402

[8] Ibid.

[9] Graham, Stephen: Remembering Fallujah: demonizing place, constructing atrocity, p. 2

[10] Dahan, Michael: The Gaza Strip as Panopticon and Panspectron: The Disciplining and Punishing of a Society p. 29

[11] Ibid.

[12] Dahan, Michael: The Gaza Strip as Panopticon and Panspectron: The Disciplining and Punishing of a Society p.28

[13] Ibid. p.32

[14] Ibid.

[15] Geographies of Mobilites p. 182

[16] Chamayou, Gregoire: Drone Theory, p.27- 28

[17] Graham, Stephen: Remembering Fallujah: demonizing place, constructing atrocity p.2

[18] Ibid. p. 3

[19] Ibid. p. 4

[20] Ibid.

[21] De Waal, Martijn: The Urban Culture of Sentient Cities: From an Internet of the things to a Public Sphere of things, p. 192

[22] Ibid.

[23] Graham, Stephen: Cities and the “War on Terror”, p.5

[24] Schmidt, Eric; Cohen, Jared: The New Digital Age, p. 152 - 153

[25] Dahan, Michael: The Gaza Strip as Panopticon and Panspectron: The Disciplining and Punishing of a Society, p.27

[26] Ibid.

[27] Dahan, Michael: The Gaza Strip as Panopticon and Panspectron: The Disciplining and Punishing of a Society, p.27

[28] Kössler, Reinhart: The Modern Nation State and Regimes of Violence: Reflections on the Current Situation

[29] Graham, Stephen: Cities under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, XIV

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid. p.4 

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