On McGill’s Complicity in
Racialized State Violence and the Repression of Social Struggles

Summary of Findings

28 August 2014

ferguson2McGill did not develop the tear gas that was fired night after night at the residents of Ferguson resisting police violence this summer. But a wide array of the University’s military research activity does implicate it in the systems of knowledge and technological development that enable states to violently enforce race and class hierarchies and more effectively repress popular movements. Demilitarize McGill’s findings in this area are based on publicly available information.

Domestic Drones

The governments McGill partners with on military drone research and development [R&D] are beginning to deploy drones domestically against protests, and its corporate partners are marketing drones for the same purpose. In March 2014, Canadian police deployed drones above a Tyendinaga Mohawk highway blockade demanding an inquiry into the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. McGill’s Aerospace Mechatronics Lab is engaged in drone software development for Defence Research and Development Canada in which it runs tests on drones made by Draganfly, the same company whose drones were used against the Tyendinaga blockade.

The US Department of Homeland Security controls a fleet of Predator drones customized for domestic surveillance, and records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit show that the agency loaned the aircraft to domestic police agencies 500 times between 2010 and 2012. General Atomics, the manufacturer of the Predator drone, is a likely beneficiary of McGill CFD Lab R&D related to drone flight simulation and anti-icing. Meanwhile Lockheed Martin, a defense contractor partnering with the CFD Lab on ongoing research, has developed drones specifically to meet police needs for “aerial reconaissance in crowded areas.”

Expanded use of surveillance drones by police augments their capacity to gather information on protests and coordinate violent crackdowns on unruly crowds. Drone manufacturers are also planning to develop police drones armed with rubber bullets, tasers, and tear gas.

Social Psychology, Network Analysis and Counterinsurgency

Military research, though, is not only about developing material technologies for warfare. In 2012 Professor Donald Taylor and graduate student Michael King of McGill’s Department of Psychology alongside researchers at Carleton reported to the “Socio-Cognitive Systems Section” of Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) on military-funded research investigating young Somali Canadians and their propensity to support terrorism. Purporting to provide evidence of factors contributing to Somali Canadians supporting “armed non-state actors,” or terrorists, Taylor’s report expresses a concern that the respondents identify more strongly as Muslims than as Canadians. It suggests that a lack of allegiance to Canadian identity, a strong Muslim identity, as well as a personality trait termed ‘social dominance orientation’ correlate with a propensity toward violence and terrorism. View the report here.

In actuality this research functions as a justification for the Canadian state’s racial profiling and the targeting of migrants and people of color by its police and intelligence agencies. Whilst claiming to “give a voice to Somali Canadians,” Professor Taylor’s work lends an academic veneer of legitimacy to racist surveillance and policing practices. Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) documents suggest that the spy agency is actively targeting Somali Canadians for surveillance due to a recruitment campaign by Al Shabaab, an armed group in Somalia, effectively violating people’s privacy for reasons totally beyond their control. Somali communities in Canada already face racism, Islamophobia, and disproportionate levels of police violence, exemplified by Toronto’s 2013 ‘Project Traveller’ raids.

Research subjects were not informed that DRDC was behind the research, according to the consent form published with the report. This constitutes a serious ethics violation even by the minimal standards McGill has agreed to abide by. The ‘Informed Consent’ documentation for the research shows that subjects were invited to participate in a study titled “Your Voice: Somalia According to Somalis,” aimed at “obtain[ing] a better understanding of issues facing the Somali Canadian community.” By completely omitting to mention the military funding and military purpose of the research, McGill researchers violated the Informed Consent provisions of the Tri-Council Policy Statement, which governs research ethics across Canada:

Article 3.2
Researchers shall provide to prospective participants … full disclosure of all information necessary for making an informed decision to participate in a research project.

The information generally required for informed consent includes:

(b)  a statement of the research purpose in plain language, … the identity of the funder or sponsor
(c)  a plain language description of all reasonably foreseeable risks and potential benefits, both to the participants and in general, that may arise from research participation;

(i)  an indication of what information will be collected about participants and for what purposes; … a description of the anticipated uses of data;

According to Article 3.7 of the Statement, alteration of consent is only permitted, among a number of criteria, where participants are given a debriefing at a later time, in which they are provided with information in accordance with Article 3.2 and given the opportunity to retroactively refuse consent. The debriefing documentation attached to Prof. Taylor’s report makes no mention of the fact that the military is behind the research.

This disclosure comes as McGill prepares to begin a research policy review process, which Principal Suzanne Fortier has offered as an answer to mounting student opposition to military research. The flagrant disregard shown by Prof. Taylor and his colleagues for the letter and spirit of research ethics policy casts further doubt on the prospects of restricting military research through policy reform. When research policy presents an inconvenience for McGill’s military researchers, they find a way around it, or in this case, simply ignore it.

Military researchers’ interest in “armed non-state actors” (ANSAs) stems from a desire to develop better counterinsurgency strategy, responding to what Prof. Taylor describes in an earlier research report as a situation in which “Western militaries are more likely to get involved in asymmetrical, insurgency-type conflicts as opposed to ‘conventional’ wars of opposing state armies.” As an evolving system of knowledge, counterinsurgency also shapes and is shaped by domestic policing practices.

Kristian Williams writes that counterinsurgency describes a style of warfare “characterized by an emphasis on intelligence, security and peace-keeping operations, population control, propaganda, and efforts to gain the trust of the people.” Its purpose is “to prevent any real shift in power” and to preserve the state’s authority, a project to which violence and control of territory are inherent. Counterinsurgency necessitates a “social science of repression,” in which university psychology departments have clearly been enlisted.

Another key aspect to counterinsurgency theory is social network analysis (SNA), which happens to be the principal research interest of a McGill computer science professor named Derek Ruths. SNA aims not only to understand how members of a real-world social network relate to and interact with one another, but to empower police and intelligence agencies to disrupt those relationships by, for instance, exploiting potential for internal conflict and striking at “cut points” (“people who are the only connection among people or groups of people”) (Williams, p. 97).

It is unknown whether any military body is currently funding Ruths’s efforts, and much of his research indicates no direct military purpose. However, in the past two years he has presented to the Department of National Defense, the RCMP, and CSIS on “Social Media and Social Mobilization,” been invited to speak on “Controlling Complex Networks” at NetSci 2014, a conference sponsored by the US Army Research Office, and published an article titled “Control Profiles of Complex Networks,” which names “social unrest” as an “undesirable behavior” of a complex system, in explaining the motivation of his research into how such systems can be controlled. Part of his work is developing “predictive models of the effect of counter-insurgency strategies”, and in 2008 the CIA sought out his expertise on “Predicting insurgent group structure and behavior.”


August 2014: A protester in Ferguson, Mo. defends themselves against militarized police aggression.

It follows from the scope of counterinsurgency theory that the science of analyzing groups resisting military occupation in Afghanistan or Iraq is also applicable to domestic resistance movements. Indeed, Ruths’ interest in “social unrest” and the interest of the RCMP and CSIS in his work are evidence that his research is highly relevant to techniques of social control within Western states. SNA is a viable field for domestic counterinsurgency because of the pervasive use of social media like Facebook and Twitter by members of popular movements, which exposes our relationships, attitudes, and behaviors to mass data collection and data mining. The FBI, which has targeted resistance movements in the U.S. since its inception, considers recent advancements in SNA to have enabled “a systematic approach for investigating.”[1]

Beyond merely identifying and investigating networks, military agencies are actively developing techniques for manipulating them. A 2014 study funded by the US Air Force Research Laboratory seeks to develop a “decentralized influence algorithm” capable of driving “group social behavior” to a desired state, namely one in which network members do not deviate from their “leaders.”

This research is not merely theoretical: documents leaked by Edward Snowden show that the NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ have developed cyber-weapons capable of manipulating flows of information and influence online, including tools that disable online accounts, mass-deliver text messages and emails, amplify a given message via YouTube, and spoof any email address and send email under that identity. Research aimed at understanding social networks and ways in which they may be controlled helps the state decide where, when, and how to deploy these tools. Mathematical knowledge of the kind advanced by Derek Ruths and his military collaborators is being applied in the world to increase the effectiveness of cyber-weapons against whichever groups the United States and its allies deem targets.

The findings summarized here show again that those who side against the social order need to overcome the liberal and neoliberal concept of freedom in knowledge production and understand work done by universities as integral to a larger apparatus of social control. By going further and acting to interrupt this work, we may find configurations of resistance that are easy to replicate and spread, and which materially subvert the structures of power that seek to contain us.


[1] Today’s research for purposes of counterinsurgency fits into a long history of the state, through the academy, studying that which it wants to destroy. The emergence of area studies (e.g. Russian Studies, East Asian Studies) on North American campuses in the 1950s and 60s largely served U.S. military objectives, as Bruce Cumings writes: “It is now fair to say, based on the declassified evidence– that the American state and especially the intelligence elements in it shaped the entire field of postwar area studies, with the  clearest and most direct impact on those regions of the world where communism was strongest– Russia, Central and Eastern Europe, and East Asia. In the decades after 1945, when the United States competed with the Soviet Union for the power to rule and/or destroy the world, these regions were the ones that required continued, specialized super-vision; to this list we may also add Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. As areas to be studied, these regions took on the significance of target fields- fields of information retrieval and dissemination that were necessary for the perpetuation of the United States’ political and ideological hegemony.”

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