For further discussion, see Provocation: Technology, resistance and surveillance in public space, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34(6): 1007-1024. Free to access for 3 months

n Europe, as in other parts of the world, private security officers have become regular actors in order maintenance in public spaces since the 1990s, next to the police. In some countries, such as Belgium and The Netherlands, this development is accompanied by an increased legal mandate for private security officers. The landscape of order maintenance now also includes a diverse range of corporate technologies for surveillance and control offered by private security companies. In the article I wrote for Society and Space I focus on one private security profession and one corporate technology: the usage of "synthetic DNA" (a spray to mark and track suspects) in privatized public transport by ticket inspectors in The Netherlands.1

Dutch ticket inspectors are licensed private security officers on top of their roles in passenger hosting and inspection. Their mandate has increased to include roles in public order maintenance, to check identification and (limited) usage of force and means of violence such as handcuffs. In sum, their role in public space is changing. The fact that they routinely test policing technologies is relevant, I think, because the status, mandate, and responsibilities of private authorities are topics of everyday negotiations between citizens and private security officers (mostly friendly, at times hostile). Policing knowledges and technologies take part and shape these interactions by making specific types of behavior visible and available for intervention. Here I explore how terms like aggression and anti-social behavior took shape to capture the phenomena that inspectors intervened in.

Through "violence instructions" (Geweldstraining), a standard part of Dutch private security officer training curricula, inspectors were taught how to respond to threat and physical attack. Like other authorities in The Netherlands, public transport companies continue to express concerns about harassment, assault, and aggression against their staff. The exact causes of incidents are difficult to establish, and my aim is not to attribute guilt to passengers or ticket inspectors. It is equally important to note that many inspectors used a range of strategies to avoid hostile situations. For instance, they attempted to manage the atmosphere in a vehicle by greeting passengers and making eye contact.

Violence instructions included the "aggression matrix" (see below), which distinguishes three types of "aggression": self-aimed (a-behavior), aimed at the organization (b-behavior), and aimed at the employee (c-behavior). The officers were taught that they should always attempt to respond with de-escalating behavior (d-behavior). During training the inspectors were presented with a variety of scenario’s, such as "curious passengers" or "fighters" (indicated by stretching one’s hands in preparation for a physical confrontation). Presented with these characters played by a colleague, they needed to decide what to communicate, and whether to arrest or let a person walk away. The emphasis was always on de-escalation and preventing arrest and use of violence. However, what was missing was the adrenaline, stress, and fear experienced by instructors—factors that might stand in the way of such rational scenarios. As indicated by inspectors themselves, they might not always be able to de-escalate. "Aggression" (and, in a similar vein, adrenaline and fear) was primarily conceptualized in policing knowledge as a phenomenon located in the other: the passenger. Moreover, with the exception of a-behavior, the matrix specifically enables naming, categorizing and making visible aggression as hostile behavior against authorities, such as criticizing the rules and intimidation. [table id=1 /]

Table: Version of the aggression-matrix used in private security instructions, translated from Dutch by the author

Evidence gathering for prosecution also works to make aggression and assault visible, for example, through the documentation of verbal insults. The walls of the ticket inspectors’ briefing room were covered by printed instructions explaining the (often complex) rules and regulations in place. The instructions included guidelines about what sort of incidents to report to the public prosecutor and how to do this. Included in the guidelines were three lists with color-coded insults. Yellow indicated a low likelihood of conviction, orange a reasonable chance, and red a high probability (see picture below). With these instructions, public transport management intended to prime the inspectors to record insults as evidence.

Fieldwork picture: Legal instructions for ticket inspectors. Categories of insult on the bottom row, third frame from the left (The Netherlands, May 2012)

(Unfortunately I cannot publish a detailed picture of the full list here because the public transport company involved wished to protect its "security knowledge" as part of its revenue base—an interesting finding by itself.) The picture above serves as an indication of how this knowledge was offered the ticket inspectors.

Here I highlight one striking category of insults mentioned in the lists. In the red column, several references are made to World War II related insults, such as "Hitler," "Nazi," and "SS-er" (member of the Nazi Germany paramilitary organization). While recognizing the need to address these insults, what might be at stake in such name calling? It seems to specifically accuse the inspectors of authoritarianism and discriminatory intent, calling into question their practices and mandate. My point here is not that passengers should be allowed to direct these insults at the inspectors. It is that knowledge of the judiciary system was used to make visible objections to inspectors’ authority.

The final way of making "threatening passengers" visible is by using technologies of surveillance and control. Here I briefly discuss the example I examined during my fieldwork, although more technologies were used, such as camera observation, experimental facial recognition, and access to basic personal data in municipal databases. In my fieldwork I followed the introduction of a spray that was supposed to mark suspects of threat and assault. The spray was normally transparent, but would light up under UV-light (so the official scenario stated, see the picture below taken during a demonstration in a night club). The idea of being traceable and made visible was meant to deter potentially hostile passengers.

As discussed at length in the article, this technology was not always used according to the instructions and intentions of its suppliers and public transport management. Its prescribed usage was to discourage passengers from refusing to identify themselves, from running, and from verbal or physical assault. However, the spray was also occasionally used by the inspectors to assert their authority in cases where passengers objected to fining or arrest on the grounds that they are not aware of the inspectors’ legal mandate, or when passengers questioned their authority and training. In intended and in unintended usage, therefore, the aggression targeted by this technology was again made visible as objections against ticket inspectors, located in the other.

Fieldwork picture: Demonstration of synthetic DNA in a nightclub. A sprayed sign lights up in the dark, indicating guilt (The Netherlands, May 2011).

To conclude, corporate policing technologies, together with bodies of knowledge about intervention and the judiciary system, make aggression visible in a particular way. In these examples, aggression and related phenomena were individualized and located in the bodies of passengers. This notion of aggression was made more relevant than aggression as, for instance, the outcome of an interaction between two parties, or even as the behavior of the inspector. Consequently, technologies in public transport can shape social spaces for the negotiation of norms and authorities because they can cast debate, contestation, and light forms of civil disobedience as hostile and potentially dangerous. Technologies therefore do not only perform their intended roles, such as "prevention," monitoring, tracking, and surveillance. They shape and are shaped by the social spaces they are applied in, and do this in relation to existing bodies of knowledge.

For a full account of the case discussed in this essay, please see Grommé, F (2016) Provocation: Technology, resistance and surveillance in public space, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34(6): 1007-1024


[1] Funding from a European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant (Agreement no. 615588) under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013) supported the writing of this text. Principal Investigator, Evelyn Ruppert, Goldsmiths, University of London.