A view of The Empire State Building in April 2013 (Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
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Laurie Penny on everyday surveillance: Why I was afraid to take a picture in New York

Power is about who gets to do the watching and who has to put up with being watched.

If there’s something called a soul and it moves at walking pace, mine was hundreds of miles behind me a few nights ago as, sleepless, I took a stroll through Lower Manhattan. When they have things to forget, some people drink, some people take drugs, and others clear out their savings to pound the streets of a different city until the scale and pace of it makes them feel appropriately small.

New York’s financial district is a good place for this. At night, since Occupy Wall Street was cleared away, the streets are mostly empty, apart from all the ghosts, and the autumn air is moist and weird. Over everything looms One World Trade Center, recently completed. This past week, the artist Banksy wrote that the large, unremarkable edifice “clearly proclaims the terrorists have won. Those ten men have condemned us to live in a world more mediocre than the one they attacked.”

Not just those ten men. It will take years for the US and its notional allies to feel the chilling effect of the Edward Snowden revelations, detailing the extent of the US National Security Agency’s snooping on global communications data. Britain is complicit, and has no First Amendment to prevent the prime minister threatening newspapers with the prospect of court action if they don’t shut up about those NSA and GCHQ leaks. But it is still the US that is understood to be spying on the whole world.

What gives America the right to hoard all that information without consent? How can it justify doing so even as it hunts down anyone, such as the British hacker Lauri Love, who is suspected of trying to peek into its own systems to see who’s talking to whom? Power is about who gets to do the watching and who has to put up with being watched.

Viewed from Europe, the way that millions of citizens have had their data stored and Angela Merkel’s mobile phone has been tracked without permission looks like a monstrous invasion of national sovereignty. From here in New York, the entitlement is obvious: this is the heart of global capitalism, huge, beautiful and empty. Of course human rights come second to making sure that nobody thinks about attacking the United States ever again.

As I crossed the street in a light rain, a middle-aged couple walked ahead of me. It was too dark for the shadow of the new tower to fall over the street, but that’s how it felt and that’s what they were talking about – change and resurrection: “You know,” she said, “I still have a box of matches from Windows on the World. How much do you think they’d be worth now?”

Her companion thought about it. “Fifty cents,” he said. “This is New York.”

People in New York really do say, “This is New York,” as if they’re reminding themselves. I turned around to take a picture. I stood for a while trying to fit the intimidating scale of that dull glass-and-metal erection into the screen.

And then a curious thing happened. I stiffened and looked around. The couple had disappeared. I was alone on the street. Had anyone seen me take that picture? Was it even allowed? Did I look suspicious? Last time I checked, I was still white, which makes me significantly less likely to be hassled by any New York police officer. But just to be on the safe side, I posted the picture to my public Instagram site, with a cheeky message and a pretty filter. Smile! Nothing to hide. Anyone tracking my feed can see that I’m just an ordinary tourist, standing here being very impressed by your very impressive building.

The next day, over drinks with a security expert friend, I told him about my little attack of paranoia. That’s ridiculous, he said. That’s not the way the tracking gets done. What the NSA and GCHQ are interested in isn’t the content of your calls and emails, but the metadata –who you’re emailing, who you’re speaking to and for how long. Unless, of course, you’re a hacker or a head of state, in which case you might warrant a little more personal snooping. It takes far too long to process hard data.

Metadata is cheap to store.

Metadata. That’s what most people are, to the US government: part of the metadata, unless they are important or unlucky enough to merit special attention.

Before I came to New York, I didn’t really believe it existed. After I arrived, I knew for sure that it didn’t. It’s a city of a thousand film sets, a hundred thousand novels, plays, diary entries and feverish dreams. In the bookshops you can buy collections of essays by famous writers telling their own stories about coming to Manhattan, and all of them are true. The New York of legend is bigger and more brilliant than any real place could ever be, and everybody here is walking through the film set of their own life, imagining a city.

It has that in common with the rest of the enormous country it hangs off like a lifeboat: the idea of America is bigger than the hundreds of millions of actual Americans the country happens to be full of. People, going to work and falling in love and taking sleepless walks late at night, are just the metadata for that myth. It is a powerful and frightening myth, and the more powerful and frightening it becomes, the harder it gets to live inside it.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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