by Barry Chudakov on May 7th, 2010

Metalife of a Terrorist

A failed car bombing took place in the heart of Manhattan late Saturday evening May 1st. This is more than the story of a terrorist whose efforts were thwarted due to superior police work; it is also a case history of the rapid building, deployment, and capture of a Metalife.


Times Square at Dusk (New York City), Flickr, Stuck in Customs.

Here are the facts. A street vendor alerted a policeman on horseback to a smoking Nissan Pathfinder idling at Broadway and 45th Street. At first authorities thought a Times Square surveillance camera had captured the terrorist suspect, a man walking away from the explosives-laden Pathfinder, but the man later turned out to be only “a person of interest.” The Pathfinder had tinted windows, a stripped vehicle identification number and stolen license plates. The buyer of the car used a pre-paid cell phone registered to no one to contact the car seller and arrange the purchase. The phone received four calls from a number in Pakistan hours before the vehicle purchase on April 24. Luck played a role in thwarting a devastating attack: the device did not go off as the suspect intended it to. As I write this, Faisal Shahzad is charged with attempting to use weapons of mass destruction and several related crimes connected to the incident.


The criminal complaint charging Mr. Shahzad says that after his arrest he admitted attempting to detonate the bomb in Times Square and told investigators that he had received bomb-making training in Waziristan. The 10-page complaint tracks his movements in the days before and after the failed car bomb attack, describing how he used a pre-paid cell telephone to contact the seller of the car and arrange the purchase. The complaint says that about an hour after the phone received two calls from Pakistan he bought the Pathfinder using the same phone. The prepaid cellular phone was also used to call a fireworks store in Pennsylvania that sells M-88 firecrackers that were used as part of the bomb.


digital-fingerprint, Flickr, pure_martin, all rights reserved.


What This Means

As Jim Dwyer wrote in the New York Times:

“At virtually every turn, the evasive steps Mr. Shahzad took left digital footprints, a trail that ultimately led to his seat on an Emirates flight that was bound for Dubai …. If Mr. Shahzad is indeed responsible, he would not be the first car-bombing suspect arrested in a matter of days because of the things he left behind. With every breath of modern life, people leave a vast series of markings that are unseen and, usually, unnoticed.”

These traces, digital foot and fingerprints, constitute a Metalife. This Metalife is now becoming denser, more interconnected, less visible, more pervasive.


NYPD Security Camera, Times Square, Flickr, th.omas.


In the Times Square area, there are approximately 80 security cameras. According to Slate Magazine, in 2005 the New York Civil Liberties Union conducted a camera count focused mainly on Lower Manhattan. The group counted 4,176 cameras below 14th Street, an area about one-sixth the size of the island. That number is up 443 percent from 1998, when the group conducted its first study. Greenwich Village and SoHo offered the least privacy, with a rate of three cameras per acre, or one for every 84 residents. Yet New Yorkers lag well behind Londoners. In the 1990s in response to IRA bombings, it appears Britons became the most videotaped people on earth. London has some 500,000 security cameras, while Great Britain as a whole has about 4 million.

Integrating with our visual surveillance capabilities are 277 million cell phones in the U.S., a fraction of the 4.6 billion cell phones in use worldwide today. This chart shows the staggering global penetration of mobile phones.

According to Newsweek Magazine, the Justice Department does not keep statistics on requests for cell-phone data. In effect, we don’t know how often these records are retrieved. But Al Gidari, a telecommunications lawyer who represents several wireless providers, told Newsweek that “the companies are now getting ‘thousands of these requests per month,’ and the amount has grown ‘exponentially’ over the past few years. Sprint Nextel has even set up a dedicated Web site so that law-enforcement agents can access the records from their desks—a fact divulged by the company’s ‘manager of electronic surveillance’ at a private Washington security conference last October. ‘The tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement,’ said the Sprint executive.”


Watching You Watching Me, Flickr, Todd Huffman.


Why This Matters

1. Look beyond Faisal Shahzad, the terrorist. He is merely an actor in a larger technodrama of identity surveillance and tracking.

2. Our Metalife is reaching a tipping point as the number of security cameras integrated with cell phones, GPS, digital mapping and biometric technologies create highly sophisticated real-time capture, monitoring and locating capabilities.

3. The history of Metalife, the life we live as we follow the logic of our communication tools, goes back to the introduction of the alphabet. It took 5000 years to see how a standardized set of letters, basic written symbols, created the alphabetic Metalife of linear, sequential, hierarchical order and perception. It will not take us as long to comprehend this new Metalife, but we are nowhere near a full comprehension of it.

4. A terrorist captured after a failed bomb blast in Times Square serves as a stark contrast to the alphabetic Metalife that we have lived for the last 5000 years. To see where we really are, we need to better understand the logic of our newer tools.

5. The emerging Metalife of technology tools that capture us (our data, our movements, messages, identifying digits) marries technology with our biology (our physical selves, faces, voices, fingerprints, saliva, etc.).

6. At present we cannot see around the corners of our fascination with technology. Geolocation or tracking identity and movement is now in its infancy and will integrate seamlessly with video surveillance and digital devices. The applications for geolocation will likely expand exponentially. (See Mapping as a Metalife.)

7. The growth of worldwide terrorism and its homegrown manifestations have triggered an acceptance of spying on ourselves, creating what some have dubbed peep culture. The new logic here: the lens that can see all must see all. The new narrative: this is done to ensure our collective safety.

8. Soon our identities, however we understand them, will be inseparable from the databases that match them. In other words, our Metalife may not only complement our so-called real life, it may compete with it.

9. While there is no doubt that newer surveillance tools are a powerful boon to our security, there is also little doubt that our understanding of new privacy realities and boundaries is primitive, albeit evolving rapidly.

10. We must energetically engage with these issues. They are too important to leave in the hands of law enforcement, cell phone executives, technology developers, not to speak of politicians.

11. The complexity here should not be a cause for alarm, but for informed discussion and thoughtful consideration. If we do not question the emerging logic of our tools and technologies, we may find ourselves with little or no choice in the matter. Just as we have done with cell phones, we may adopt the logic of our tools and crash into our Metalives unawares.


More Information

Times Square, Bombs and Big Crowds

FBI Surveillance of Times Square Suspect ‘Broke Down’

Big Apple Is Watching You

The Snitch in Your Pocket

How Will Biometrics Affect Our Privacy?

Times Square Bombing Attempt Reveals Limits of Video Surveillance


Email This Post Email This Post     Print This Post Print This Post

From Commentary

1 Comment
  1. brant gaird permalink

    mr. chudakov’s information is amazing and mildly frightening – on it’s way to becoming terrifying in who knows how long?
    very well written, gives me the jitters just a little bit.

We invite your thoughts and comments about this post. Leave a reply here.

Note: XHTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS