From Bridal Wear to Biometrics: Security tech trade fairs are quite a lot like wedding conventions
As part of a series of research grants for projects using online data to understand specific emerging technologies, Nesta funded James Alexander’s research on the digital footprint of security tech events.
The volume of information available online about security technology is surprising. The digital footprint of today’s security tech trade fairs tells us about new tech clusters, like an emerging East Asian interest in the latest CCTV technology. Despite the seemingly murky world of the security professional, a commercial security tech sector event is much like any other business convention.
In a new working paper, written with Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet and supported by Nesta, I looked at the digital lives of international security trade shows and exhibitions. Having created a database of 160 major security tech trade fairs as part of my PhD, I took the opportunity to experiment with cutting-edge and experimental digital research tools to better understand the way these events relate to each other. By harnessing Google’s search algorithm, I mapped the websites most closely related to each event, and then visualised the relationships between sites that appear high in a search for each event. The analysis showed how central Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and similar social media sites are to connections between these events; these are the websites that showed up consistently in the search results for all of the trade shows.
If these were large industry events in, say, clothing retail, it would be unremarkable that media and networking sites dominate search results for the events. Trade fairs want to attract a large audience; the companies exhibiting want to attract customers to their products; and visitors are keen to discover new suppliers. Imagine the website for a bridal wear convention with a dedicated Twitter hashtag (#BridesRaid?), promotional videos specialists showing off the latest lacework, and a LinkedIn group for specialist tailors going to the event. What is remarkable is that the security technology industry follows exactly this pattern. Far from the shadowy and secret world that marketed itself as selling “oppression technologies” as recently as the 1980’s, specialist tech that is often sold to national security and defence customers now has the same public profile as many mainstream consumer brands.
Specialist tech that is often sold to national security and defence customers now has the same public profile as many mainstream consumer brands.
This represents a trend towards more integrated, interconnected security tech. Increasingly, this technology is indistinguishable from, or even an indispensable part of, the consumer and business-orientated technological artefacts that have become synonymous with modern life. More and more these are things to be desired; self-surveillance is becoming a lifestyle choice - just look at the recent trend for ‘lifelogging’.
Behind these tools we have a growing band of security entrepreneurs bringing us the latest and greatest technological security solutions, ever more integrated and inseparable from the mundane minutiae of everyday life. These are the new Dr Strangeloves of the Day-to-Day. Nothing encapsulates this better than a recent blog post by IFSEC, the International Fire and Security Exhibition and Conference – one of the biggest and longest running exhibitions of its type, where the industry meets to display, discuss and buy just the sorts of tools that I am interested in. In it, they present The Periodic Table of Security, with the tagline “Security professionals now have hundreds of elements to consider – from Fire to Facilities, Cyber Security to Safe Cities – it’s an increasingly complicated world”. In the post itself they present a modified periodic table, depicting a different security sector or technology in place of each element.
These are the new Dr Strangeloves of the Day-to-Day.
The table certainly demonstrates the proliferation of modern-day security concerns. But in doing so it represents a kind of alchemy: the art of fusing the most trivial of day-to-day business activities with our overarching concerns about security. Fire alarms, card readers, and filing cabinets alongside surveillance, intelligence and counter-terror – all in a days work for the security professional.
This is the new logic of the security technology industry that a mapping of its digital footprint helps understand. The social media interactions between the events themselves are not just a case of advertising the next event or driving sales of event space, but are actively involved in defining the rules of engagement: “the best practice of how to say and to do security.” The logic of these temporary clusters is thus much more about building strong trust networks, shared language and a sense of community than it is about strictly transactional value.
The normalisation of security concerns and security technology in everyday life sanitises technologies that have important impacts on privacy, freedom of speech and mobility. By treating them as objects of desire and discussing their aesthetic appeal as an end-in-itself, we too easily forget the context in which these tools are deployed; and the violence (physical or otherwise) that is enacted on those that fall foul of their algorithms. If we want to understand the lack of surprise or outrage from the general public at the illegal surveillance carried out by the NSA and GCHQ, this phenomenon is undoubtedly an area worthy of attention.
By treating them as objects of desire and discussing their aesthetic appeal as an end-in-itself, we too easily forget the context in which these tools are deployed; and the violence (physical or otherwise) that is enacted on those that fall foul of their algorithms.
Perhaps most importantly, having a security tech trade fair industry engaged with, and commenting on, everyday security concerns means they are actively involved in defining the current trends – not just in security technology, but in what it is we are securing against. In other words, how the trade show itself becomes not simply a site of reflection, or a microcosm for the wider security concerns of the day, but can actually be considered a site of production, reproduction and mutation of the public imaginary of risk, threat and fear.
It is here that we see the value of this new research – but also the point at which it is clear it is only the first step in a much wider discussion. This mapping of the digital footprint of trade fairs and exhibitions highlights the important role of mundane, everyday business practices in the formulation of imaginaries of an uncertain future. Yet it also shows how wide the net must be cast in order to develop a full understanding of these processes and the different actors involved in the creation of these clusters of knowledge exchange and understanding. If Twitter and Facebook interactions between events are key, then so too are the back room discussions inside the show walls themselves, the conversations between attendees over coffee, or the shared sense of community between rival firms’ engineers. It is in tracing and appreciating the complexity of this web of daily interaction that we can begin to understand who really helps to define the horizons of how we do security and what tools are deployed in order to achieve it. The ‘netnography’ conducted in our paper is only the first step in a much wider, and much needed, mapping of security.
Image credit: Johnson Cameraface via Flickr CC 2.0