To say the least, the Lebanese military has not usually been perceived as the most reliable or legitimate enforcement, defense, and protection force in the country. In fact, the institution is satirically known as the third-strongest force in Lebanon, after El-Muqawamah (the forces of resistance associated with Hizbullah) and the Syrian army (whose presence in Lebanon lasted until the 2005 Cedar Revolution). The December 27 bomb blast in Beirut, which killed former cabinet minister, Mohammed Chatah, and several others, is the most recent reminder of the army’s failure to bring security to the country.
All this may change, however, with the release of the military’s new smartphone application, LAF Shield, which is being promoted via a Facebook page and through Arabic video. Released on August 30, 2013, the application enables users to inform the army of possible security breaches, suspicious activities, and other crimes. With a simple touch of the app, anyone passing through the country carrying a smartphone can alert the military to potentially dangerous or deadly activities, from an empty car or suspicious suitcase located in a densely populated area.
Based on a locative technological platform, the app gives the military direct access to the time and place of events as they are reported. Developed by apps2you, LAF Shield presents a possible avenue for centralizing the military’s power through the direct collection of information, and may create opportunities for promoting the military as the hero in fending off or foiling security threats. In this sense, the app may be a valuable commodity for rehabilitating the military’s public image.
It is easy to view the app as the product of a system of control and surveillance, which ultimately may be rejected by the Lebanese smartphone user. While it is too early to gauge the app’s reach, according to one report, it was downloaded at least 10,000 times within a week of being released on both iPhone and Android systems.
But, what is more interesting is the socio-political environment that stimulated LAF Shield’s creation and the effects it may have on social and political relations and configurations of authority. Why has the military decided to release this technology now? Is it taking advantage of the growing ubiquity of smartphones in the country and joining forces with an emerging mobile communications industry (despite high telecommunications rates and relatively weak infrastructure)? Or, is the app a way of asserting the military’s authority at a time when the Syrian civil war has ignited conflict and created a deteriorating security situation inside Lebanon? What types of socio-political relations might this technology impact?
Perhaps, the app is a sign of the military’s on-going intentions to affect social relations and assert its role as the sole source of enforcement and security in the country. As technology theory tells us, society and technological innovation are in a mutually constitutive relationship whereby new technologies are generated by perceived social need while also producing and shaping social relations. Technologies both reflect and generate the ways we live and organize societies.
LAF Shield: The Basic Facts
The military’s app looks and functions as follows. Written entirely in Arabic, the main page has links to its reporting feature, which presents several options for possible infractions and emergencies, including suspicious vehicles and objects, armed robbery and theft, assault, fire, drugs, and illegal entry across national borders. To report an incident, users must take a picture or describe the situation. There is little available information about how the military may respond to reports logged onto the app.
LAF Shield uses GPS to track locations and send the information directly to the army’s IT team. The app also has a list of individuals wanted by military and police forces (still under construction), a news section curated by the army, a map indicating violent hotspots (still non-functional), and a section for photos and films posted by both the army and individual users, which seems to serve as a tool for military propaganda. There is a swipe bar called SOS for emergencies that connects the user directly to a military response unit.
The military’s app is not the first of its kind, although it is the first to be released in Lebanon. Lebanese telecommunications engineer Firas Wazneh has issued a funding pitch to develop a comparable app called “ways to safety,” designed to track and communicate the location of gunfire. According to one report, Wazneh’s app, which is still being developed, would by-pass the military as the gatekeeper of information about security and public safety, and put the information directly in the hands of users. LAF Shield, by contrast, is not meant to inform people of erupting clashes and danger zones.
The military is releasing its app at a moment when new mobile and digital technologies are increasingly designed for citizen engagement. The app has even been compared to the phone-hotline campaign operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security “If you see something, say something” in its desire to bestow policing and surveillance functions on ordinary citizens. The Lebanese army has indicated it chose an app over a phone hotline because the former gives it direct, real-time access to locations of violent or criminal activity.
The main concern surrounding the app to date has been the security of personal information. What types of surveillance do users risk by using the app? Who will have access and how will the military use the data? Upon first opening the app, users are prompted to put in a name and phone number (which can be fake and is not verified). The army has claimed the app is secure and that third parties cannot access the information. The data is stored on the army’s server, which remains under its supervision. The army has also indicated it will not use people’s personal information through location-based tracking to monitor citizen movement.
How the App May Impact Lebanese Society
Through this architecture, the app has several layers of consequence: connecting people directly to the military industrial complex; instituting new modes of surveillance vis a vis individual citizens; and potentially conditioning fear, anxiety, and paranoia about the presence of objects or actions that are possibly threatening to national security.
In the long-term, the app may generate new socio-political dynamics, with the citizen as a surveillance force engaged in national security efforts along side the military as the central and normalized source of security, enforcement, and stability in Lebanon. This rapprochement will only succeed, however, if there is popular consensus on which citizens should be protected; what types of actions violate national security and should be reported; which criminal perpetrators belong on the most-wanted list; and which armed groups (i.e. the military) are the rightful protectors of Lebanese citizenry.
In a blog for Foreign Policy, writer Mohamed El Dahshan, noted the army’s press release for the app (no longer available) described the technology as designed to initiate direct contact between the military and citizens. While increasingly widespread, however, smartphones remain largely accessible only to the limited few who can afford them. Even those who have these devices do not always have access to the data features on their phones because of high telecommunications rates and other limitations. Many of these users will only use these additional features when connected to a WIFI signal.
For these reasons, the apps success requires the cultivation of a middle class, technologically literate citizenry whose vigilance, watchfulness, and fear is increased to idealized levels, and who perceives the army as a fierce source of justice, security, and stability rather than a corrupt, dangerous, and bigoted institution. In this way, the app’s effectiveness, and indeed its very organization, relies on the protection and enforcement of elite interests, especially the protection of private property.
Because the app extends the ambit of national security beyond large scale violent attacks – like the recent Chatah assassination and double bombings against the Iranian Embassy in southern Beirut – to include quotidian acts of theft, violence, drug use, and so on, the very definition of the term is expanded. At the same time, the app raises questions about the identity of criminal perpetrators. What if state authorities are the ones committing act of violence (See a recent Human Rights Watch Report for testimony on violence and abuse within Lebanese police stations committed against alleged queer people, sex workers, and drug users.) Who would alert the military to these crimes, when the institution has upheld a legal and political regime that privilege elites to the detriment of other socio-political groups? – certainly not those who are on the losing side of this equation.
For these reasons, only those individuals, social classes, and groups already willing to be on the military’s radar or whose political sympathies align with the army are likely to be attracted to the app. Queer people, who have often been treated violently at the hands of military personnel, are, for example, unlikely to use the technology, as are Syrian refugees, and other vulnerable people who are often the targets of violence, both from private individuals and the state.
Like other military institutions, the Lebanese military has repeatedly used propaganda to assert its central role in the state’s security apparatus and promote itself as the legitimate source of national security and defense. Judging by the quantity and variety of highway billboards around Lebanon, featuring saying such as al-shab yureed al-jaish (“the people want the army”), or fii-l-qalb wa ‘ala el-hudoud (“in our hearts and the border”, referring to support for both the moral and physical presence of the army), it is obvious the app is another node in the military’s battle of words and images.
LAF Shield attempts to effect various kinds of political relations in Lebanon by positioning the military at the center of technological surveillance, enforcement, protection, and public safety; the mediator between citizens and criminals, and ultimate arbiter of who belongs in which category; the protector of private property; and an effective first responder to conflict. It establishes a direct line of communication and access between citizens and the military. It contains a dynamic and responsive feedback loop with the capacity to collect and store vast amounts of information about people, crimes, objects, and locations.
The long-term reverberations of this massive data pool can only be imagined. Scholars of big data and the digital humanities are in the infancy of debating the long-term effects of these types of archives like those currently housed on the Internet.
The app also connects military power with future developments in personal and intimate hand-held devices and everyday technologies, charting their future potentialities along shared lines, between people’s daily engagement with these technology products and military surveillance. In this imagined future, citizens and the military are bound together through an apparatus of control in which the army is the central national defense force, citizens are partners in surveillance, and private industry designs and manufacturers technologies for military rule.