The algorithm is watching you

Eyal Weizman

Eyal Weizman is the founding director of Forensic Architecture, a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, that undertakes advanced spatial and media investigations into cases of human rights violations. What follows is an edited version of a statement presented on his behalf in Miami this evening.

Today I was meant to be at the Museum of Art and Design in Miami to open Forensic Architecture’s first major survey exhibition in the United States, True to Scale. But last Wednesday, 12 February, two days before my scheduled flight to the US, I was informed in an email from the US embassy that my visa waiver had been revoked and I was not authorised to travel to the United States. The revocation notice gave no reason and no opportunity to appeal.

It was also a family trip. My wife, Ines Weizman, was scheduled to give talks in the US herself. She and our two children travelled the day before I was supposed to go. On arrival at JFK, Ines was separated from the children and interrogated by immigration officials for two and a half hours before being allowed entry.

The following day I went to the US embassy in London to apply for a visa. In my interview the officer informed me that my authorisation to travel had been revoked because the ‘algorithm’ had identified a security threat. He said he did not know what had triggered the algorithm but suggested that it could be something I was involved in, people I am or was in contact with, places to which I had travelled (had I recently been in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia or met their nationals?), hotels at which I stayed, or a certain pattern of relations among these things. I was asked to supply the embassy with additional information, including 15 years of travel history, in particular where I had gone and who had paid for it. The officer said that Homeland Security investigators could assess my case more promptly if I supplied the names of anyone in my network whom I believed might have triggered the algorithm. I declined to provide this information.

This much we know: we are being electronically monitored for a set of connections – the network of associations, people, places, calls and transactions – that make up our lives. Such network analysis poses many problems, some of which are well known. Working in human rights means being in contact with vulnerable communities, activists and experts, and being entrusted with sensitive information. These networks are the lifeline of any investigative work. I am alarmed that relations among our colleagues, stakeholders and staff are being targeted by the US government as security threats.

This incident exemplifies – in a far less intense manner and at a much less drastic scale – critical aspects of the ‘arbitrary logic of the border’ that the Forensic Architecture exhibition in Miami seeks to expose. The racialised violations of the rights of migrants at the US southern border are of course much more serious and brutal than the procedural difficulties a UK national may experience, and these migrants have very limited avenues for accountability when contesting the violence of the US border.

As I would have announced in today’s lecture, the exhibition is an occasion for Forensic Architecture to launch a joint investigation with local groups into human rights violations at the Homestead detention centre in Florida, where migrant children have been held in what activists describe as ‘regimented, austere and inhumane conditions’.

In our practice, exhibitions are treated as alternative forums for accountability, ways of informing the public about serious human rights violations. They are also opportunities to share with local activists and community groups the methods and techniques we have assembled over years of work in the field.

True to Scale includes an investigation into a CIA drone strike in Pakistan that was presented by a UN Special Rapporteur in the General Assembly; an analysis of the Chicago police killing of a barber that lead to an investigation by the mayor and the city’s police department; and an inquiry into the Israeli bombing of Rafah in Gaza that informed the International Criminal Court’s recent decision to open an investigation into the possibility of Israeli war crimes in occupied Palestine. The exhibition presents other investigations with communities and human rights collaborators in Germany, Venezuela, the Mediterranean and Syria.

Our work seeks to demonstrate that we can invert the forensic gaze and turn it against the actors – police, military, secret service, border agencies – that aim to monopolise information. But in employing the counter-forensic gaze one is also exposed to higher level monitoring by the very state agencies investigated.


  • 20 February 2020 at 10:35am
    Phil Edwards says:
    There were news stories a while back about door staff - bouncers - using breathalysers to help them weed out drunks. The kit they use isn't perfect; a journalist asked one bouncer if he was concerned about the risk of false positives. He said he wasn't, because he would only breathalyse people he was going to throw out anyway.

    I wonder if something similar is true of the 'algorithm' here. Obviously the 'red flag' could have been triggered by all sorts of things, or combinations of things; alternatively, the US Embassy might just have Dr Weizman's name on a list of 'undesirables'.

    • 22 February 2020 at 4:05am
      Graucho says: @ Phil Edwards
      Computer says no. Of course in U.S. law if computer says no for any type of credit application you are obliged to spell out the reasons in order to show that refusal was not based on race or gender. As no such obligation exists in this case I suspect that your theory is correct.

  • 21 February 2020 at 12:48pm
    AndrewCorser says:
    Well, one positive effect of this is that your carbon footprint hasn't been enlarged by that flight to Miami...perhaps you would think in future of sending papers to be read on your behalf, rather than attending, in order to support those other of us who are not flying any more...
    ...and although, after listening to Meehan Crist at the LRB Lecture on Valentine's Day, I agree that the notion of an individual carbon footprint may have been introduced (by BP, Crist claimed) to distract attention from those mainly responsible for the Climate Emergency (i.e. BP, Shell and Exxon among others), it still remains my mantra to Think Global, Act Local...and a carbon footprint is one way to measure those local acts.

    • 23 February 2020 at 9:13pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ AndrewCorser
      Digression: BP, Shell and Exxon (“and others”) did not create a demand: they satisfied it.
      We all burn fossil fuels and we’ve all benefitted from it.
      Now is the time to change.

  • 21 February 2020 at 4:42pm
    staberinde says:

    Perhaps the algorithm is designed to identify foreign nations who seek to enter the US in order to criticise it?

    What upsets you more? The suspicion that your work has led to your blacklisting? The suspicion that some aspect of your politics, identity or associations has led to your blacklisting? Or that you don't know what the blacklist criteria are and cannot challenge the evidence on which the blacklisting decision has been made?

    • 21 February 2020 at 4:59pm
      Rodney says: @ staberinde
      I think all of the three reasons you suggest for blacklisting are upsetting.
      I assume you mean "foreign nationals" rather than "nations", but do you think it's okay for the United States (home of the brave, land of the free, etc) programs its algorithms to weed out critical voices?

    • 21 February 2020 at 7:30pm
      staberinde says: @ Rodney
      Indeed: "nationals".

      The USA is frequently misunderstood by idealists outside its borders. Its values and constitutional rights are for Americans. Hence the CIA can do to foreigners on foreign soil what the FBI can't do to American citizens on American soil.

      Sometimes American presidents are more internationalist in their vision - Wilson, Kennedy and Reagan, for example. This is often criticised as imperialistic.

      I would suggest it's fine for America to treat those seeking entry however it fancies. That's only for Americans to decide. But if they don't want to deter tourism and business travel, they would be wise to declare their criteria for entry rather than leave people guessing.

    • 22 February 2020 at 2:38am
      zproberts says: @ staberinde
      As an American, I can assure you there is no misunderstanding here by outside idealists. America was founded on high ideals and has traditionally seen itself (and advertised itself) as a shining city on a hill, a beacon of hope for the world— whether it lives up to those ideals is something else entirely, but that’s the sales pitch. Therefore it’s more than reasonable for visitors to assume that they will be treated fairly and conscientiously. If you erect a giant statue of a woman holding aloft the flame of liberty at the entrance to your greatest port of entry, you have certain obligations to try and live up to.

    • 22 February 2020 at 2:54am
      zproberts says: @ staberinde
      You are also incorrect in saying its values and constitutional rights are only for Americans. For example habeas corpus, Miranda rights, and due process apply to non-citizens in the country just as much as Americans. While not all rights extend to non-citizens, a significant number do, and most certainly our values are available to everyone.

  • 21 February 2020 at 5:29pm
    RosieBrock says:
    It is an honour to reach out to you. I doubt there is any trigger algorithm. From your brilliant CV, you have been designated undesirable or potentially undesirable, along with Ines, So, given Trumpism and John Bolton's work (before he departed) the US visa system now errs on the side of fascism, and bolts the doors. You presumably become marginally less undesirable if you blab the names of people who could then be entered into the database list of further potential undesirables. It is a McCarthy tactic. I would write to all the people you know with influence, ensure that this report is in the print edition of the LRB, that it gets into the Guardian, that you start a petition, or several, lodge a complaint with the FO, Jeremy Corbyn to take up your case, write to Bernie Sanders, and to the US Ambassador to the UK. Use all your influence ( on the basis of 6 degrees of separation. you must know many people with important connections) and make a stink after a stink. Then lie back and watch. .

    • 21 February 2020 at 8:36pm
      Rodney says: @ RosieBrock
      I'm not sure if "you presumably become marginally less undesirable if you blab the names of people who could then be entered into the database list of further potential undesirables." I'd guess that knowledge of those undesirables (and we know they're undesirable because you told us their names) would guarantee that you'll never get in.

    • 23 February 2020 at 9:18pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ RosieBrock
      Hey Rosie: getting Jeremy Corbyn to take up one’s case against the USA is clearly a sure-fire winner.

  • 21 February 2020 at 6:48pm
    Abe Hayeem says:
    Eyal is well known internationally , and his work on Israel's occupation and politics of Israeli architecture in Hollow Land, and then in establishing "Forensic Architecture" which recreates the truth of war and other crimes in forensic detail as evidence that proves the liability of individuals and nations, makes him a target of the New Censorship that is being motivated around the world, Julian Assange-like, to hinder his activities and presence in major events such as the exhibition in Miami.
    Algorithms or not, and despite Eyal's numerous visits to major universities and academia in the US, and to the UN to give evidence, his activities, which are lethal to the established war-mongering and hegemonic states, were bound to catch up with him.
    But his award winning and vital work which has set a new standard of forensic revelations of the stark criminality of states that is being taken up in research and creative work in universities and cultural and political media must be allowed to continue, and this case must be exposed world-wide to ensure that such hindering of freedom of movement and expression internationally is unacceptable in any country that claims to be a democracy.

    Abe Hayeem

  • 22 February 2020 at 2:45am
    Nikita Petroulias says:
    The monitoring that came after 9/11 was never going to end well. Now the tools are just that much better. We are all guilty it seems before we have committed a crime, or even know what the crime is we've committed. That is a fundamental of monitoring.

  • 22 February 2020 at 10:27am
    Claudio says:
    A return of MacCarthysm...

  • 22 February 2020 at 2:47pm
    Mita Choudhury says:
    The 15 years of travel history that Eyal Weizman was asked to provide reminds me of my interview with Homeland Security when I applied for Global Entry. Even if our networks and associations are "clean" and untainted by surreptitious visits to the Middle East or Islamic states, even if, fact is we all find it difficult to recall any and every instance of transgression. When I was asked why I went to Amsterdam (no Islamic city state, that one), it took me a few moments to recollect the conference I had attended in 2006. Setting aside for a moment the criminalization of Muslims, Mexicans, and others, it seems to me that there is some perverse pleasure in these algorithms to test our loyalty. But to whom? For what purpose? Human rights and watchdog organizations trigger fear in algorithms? And the programmer's job depends upon developing those algorithms? No, I do not agree with the suggestion that Mr. Weizman should have just sent his paper. (That is what landed up happening of course.) Meeting people, shaking hands, and engaging in real-time and face-to-face conversation are part and parcel of knowledge creation and dissemination. Whenever and wherever possible, networks need to be "live."

  • 24 February 2020 at 7:03am
    FoolCount says:
    There is no "algorithm". It is a total put-on. They just don't want to explain anything or to give you something you could dispute or appeal. With "algorithm" there is no recourse and no responsibility. It is just some stupid beaurocrat not liking something you did or said.

  • 26 February 2020 at 8:22am
    cgo says:
    Fascinating, particularly this: "The officer said that Homeland Security investigators could assess my case more promptly if I supplied the names of anyone in my network whom I believed might have triggered the algorithm."

    The security state positioning itself as the ally of its target against "the algorithm" is a tactic I had not considered but given the opaque nature of many algorithms makes perfect sense.

  • 28 February 2020 at 3:56pm
    Reader says:
    "The officer said that Homeland Security investigators could assess my case more promptly if I supplied the names of anyone in my network whom I believed might have triggered the algorithm."

    I find this 'network' reference utterly chilling. But I am probably the only one commenting on all this who is old enough (just) to remember the McCarthy witch-hunt and demands for the accused to name their fellow communists.

    The US has been there before, and under Trump, is going there again, it seems. But this time we don't have an Arthur Miller to blow the gaff by writing another Crucible.

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