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Governments and citizens alike are increasingly turning to private security firms to protect the urban space and population; the Netherlands is no exception. What impact does this growing role of private organisations have and which developments are evident in the security field? These questions were the subject of research conducted by Rivke Jaffe (Professor in Urban Geography) and her team.

Cameras in cities

Cities throughout the world are putting security measures in place, including the increased presence of security guards patrolling the streets, the erection of fencing and walls and the use of digital technology. Private organisations are playing an ever greater role in this field.

We almost seem to be taking this increased privatisation and militarisation of our cities for granted

'But these measures are shaping our cities today. Who has access to protection, who benefits from it and who is being targeted?', Rivke Jaffe asks.

Jaffe and her team spent five years researching the growing role of private security organisations in cities and its impact on citizenship, focusing specifically on Miami (US), Nairobi (Kenya), Recife (Brazil), Kingston (Jamaica) and Jerusalem (Israel/Palestine). The research was funded by the European Research Council and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.

Prive beveiliger

State and private security intertwined

Jaffe and her team claim that there is no straightforward privatisation process in any of the cities in which they conducted their research, and that the same applies to the Netherlands. Instead, state and private security are intertwined.

For example, private companies and individuals sometimes hire police officers as 'off-duty cops' and the government hires private security guards. Security criteria (what and who is potentially dangerous) and quality requirements (the criteria to be met by security) vary as well. For example, police officers will have had more intensive training and are expected to comply with different quality standards compared with their private counterparts. A company will usually apply different criteria to identify potential danger. In addition, police actions come under far closer scrutiny from politicians and citizens than the activities of private organisations.

The team concludes, therefore, that the privatisation of security creates scope for the unequal treatment of citizens, between individuals who have access to protection and others who are excluded from protection or indeed have become targets.

Politieman met hond

People and non-human elements

Security guards, whether private or state hired, do not operate alone. Their work virtually always involves the use of a number of non-human elements of security networks, such as weapons, dogs, barbed wire, cameras, algorithms and big data.

During the course of its research, the research team became more and more fascinated by this non-human dimension of security. It prompted the team to research the role of money (who is able to pay for security?), normativity (ideas about what is good and what is bad), materiality (technology and weapons), digitality (the use of algorithms, AI and big data, but also WhatsApp communities/groups) and spirituality (God or Allah, who proved to be the most important protectors for many people).

Jaffe's research has left her even more convinced that the security industry is based on the connection between people and these non-human elements and that these often work together to reinforce stigmatisation and exclusion.

Camerabeveiliging in de stad

Technological solutions in cities

Digital technological security solutions in particular are really taking off in cities. After all, it is easier to install a CCTV camera than to restructure a large police force or organise a neighbourhood watch group. The use of algorithms, AI and Big Data also ties in well with the concept of 'smart cities', in which the smart use of technology provides solutions for many urban issues.

Jaffe warns that as technological solutions like this are usually presented as neutral and impartial, they are not subject to the critical assessment that they ought to be.

Security problems are complex social problems that cannot be resolved with simple technological solutions

However, in many cases, control of systems of this nature is assigned to companies that are contributing to the privatisation of urban administration. In this situation, a profit motive can override the interests of residents when using technology.