Laurie Penny takes a look at G4S, the scandal-embroiled "private security firm" (they're not technical mercenaries because the "security" people who work from them are usually born in the same territories in which they operate) that is the world's second-largest private employer, after WalMart. The company is providing 10,000 "security contractors" to the London Olympics, like these people, who think that it's illegal to take pictures from public land. G4S has lots of juicy contracts around the world, like supplying security to private prisons in the West Bank where children are held. They're also the proud inventors of "carpet karaoke," a technique used at private asylum-seeker detention centres, which is a fancy way for "stuffing a deportee's face towards the floor to contain them."
What difference does it make if the men and women in uniform patrolling the world's streets and prison corridors are employed by nation states or private firms? It makes every difference. A for-profit company is not subject to the same processes of accountability and investigation as an army or police force which is meant, at least in theory, to serve the public. Impartial legality is still worth something as an assumed role of the state – and the notion of a private, for-profit police and security force poisons the very idea.
The state still has a legal monopoly on violence, but it is now prepared to auction that monopoly to anyone with a turnover of billions and a jolly branding strategy. The colossal surveillance and security operation turning London into a temporary fortress this summer is chilling enough without the knowledge that state powers are being outsourced to a company whose theme tune features the line: "The enemy prowls, wanting to attack, but we're on to the wall, we've got your back." If that made any sense at all, I doubt it would be more reassuring.
I write books. My latest is a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). More books: Rapture of the Nerds (a novel, with Charlie Stross); With a Little Help (short stories); and The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (novella and nonfic). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.