Monday, August 2, 2004

"They" see "us", "we" see "them"

An article by the author David Brin, part of a larger work he is preparing, lays a case that the rise of technology and the invasive surveillance possibilities it creates cut both ways. Not only is "big brother" being born, it will happen, but at the same time us individuals will have great powers as well. Okay, so long as we are vigilant as these capabilities are developed and deployed among society, and ensure that the freedoms we must have for individuals to continue having power are preserved.

Three cheers for the Surveillance Society! [; Aug 3, 2004, by David Brin]

All books by David Brin

The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?

Clearly technological progress is an unstoppable wave. In the beginning of the article, Brin evokes the story of the Norse King Canute from around 1000 AD ordering the ocean waves to cease. Of course this was futile, and Brin claims he did this soley to demonstrate to his people that even the powerful have their limits.

In todays age, the success of Science in creating new technologies is unparalleled. Each new wave of discovery unleashes a new torrent of product development. By now we know the pattern well. First a new technology is announced in some laboratory, then some expensive implementations of the technology are made (often for government or military purposes), and later the technology is built into consumer products. As the understanding of the technology improves it becomes easier and easier to shrink the implementation into smaller and smaller devices, each generation being cheaper and more reliable than the last.

Just think of the iPod. It contains 40 gigabytes of disk space in a unit the size of a pack of playing cards, yet a few years ago that amount of disk space was unthinkable in all but the most high end of highly centralized computing systems. Now it's a toy.

Let's skim over the technologies Brin discusses:

  • RFID technology that is replacing the ubiquitous "bar-code". RFID chips will soon be in "everything", and RFID readers will soon be "everywhere", making it easy to track "things" as they move around the world. If the "things" can be associated with the people who own them, it won't be necessary to install chips in people, it will be enough to track the things they carry all the time. Such as cell phones, credit cards, etc.
  • Surveillance cameras are getting cheaper all the time, and being installed in more places. For the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, a major effort with U.S. Federal Government funding was made to install a vast array of cameras in downtown Boston. The article I read quoted the Boston police saying "we just installed all these cameras, and certainly didn't do so just for this event, they're staying up". In Britain there are millions of cameras installed everywhere by the Government. In the U.S. the cameras tend to be owned by private corporations, but are still used by the government as evidence in criminal investigation and the like.
  • It's only a matter of time before face recognition or other biometric clues become reliable enough to be widely used. Human bodies reek with biometric clues, and it's just a matter of developing computer and software technology to detect these clues. This is a matter of research by the U.S. Defense Department, under the auspice of the programs formerly known as the Total Information Awareness System.
  • Of course citizens with video cameras have documented all sorts of "crimes". During the pre-war protests in March 2003 I felt that I helped prevent a crime by San Francisco police simply by being present with my cameras and observing the arrest of peaceful citizens.
  • The linking together of databases will serve to tie together currently widely disparate pieces of information. This is called "data mining". All of the information technologies listed above, and as new ones are developed, ultimately produces information that is propogated across computer networks and stored in databases. One simply needs to link the databases together into larger and more encompassing applications. This, exactly, is the intent of the Total Information Awareness System. If you think the little hooraw raised last year stopped TIA from being developed, let me talk to you about this bridge I have in Brooklyn that I'd like to sell you. I gaurantee all the projects TIA envisioned are continuing to be developed, because those projects have interest and support from the highest levels of government. They will have simply changed the project name and then continued on with their research.
  • Unmanned aircraft (UAV) are being developed and used in battlefields and other war-zone or semi-war-zone areas. The Israeli's are quite adept with these UAV devices. They are the professional equivalent to hobbyist radio-controlled airplanes, and can quietly provide mobile and flexible surveillance.
  • GPS units are shrinking and now becoming part of other gadgets, such as cellular phones. Especially interesting is that cellular phones are constantly "talking" to the cellphone network, and with the extreme accuracy that GPS affords this means that the cellphone network will know pretty darn precisely your every move. It already knows your every move within a 5-mile radius as you move from cell to cell. Part of the emphasis on the cellphone systems developing the E911 capabilities (that is, being able to automatically tell 911-operators your location) could well be to get fine-grained tracking of everybody's whereabouts in place, and the need for 911-operators to know your location so they can dispatch police could be the cover story.

All of these technologies are being actively developed. Together they make for an interlocking system of data gathering that will provide the watchers (government, that is) to track everything that happens. With every one of the technologies there are some selling points that will make each seem acceptible to the people.

  • If you can be distinctly and robustly identified with biometrics, then isn't identity theft nearly impossible? Wouldn't you be able to buy stuff without having to carry cash or credit cards, reducing the reason for theft?
  • Kids have a tendency to run off and sometimes disappear. Wouldn't it give peace of mind to know you can retrieve them easily?

At the same time we have in the book 1984 (by George Orwell) a warning of how this can be used to enslave society. A lot of people are up in arms raising cries of warning at every sign of increased Government Surveillance capabilities.

As Brin points out, this is a two-way street. In 1984 the government had all the power because the surveillance cameras were one-way. The people could not look back. Today we have many abilities to look back and be our own watchdogs.

The Rodney King beating case is an example. Perhaps the Los Angeles Police had been brutalizing their citizens for a long time, but nobody was able to prove it. Yet, a citizen with a video camera was able to do it, causing a huge uproar. And the examples continue happening, the latest being evidence of animal cruelty in the Pilgrim's Pride slaughterhouse captured by grass-roots vigilante's who worked undercover to gather evidence.

As Brin pointed out: Microsoft recently unveiled Sensecam, a camera disguisable as jewelry that automatically records scores of images per hour from the wearer's point of view, digitally documenting an ongoing daily photo-diary. Won't this provide incontrovertible evidence of a muggers identity? Isn't this a form of self protection and not just personal egomania?

The biometric devices which can be used to identify human identity can be used to identify other chemical signatures. They are used in battlefields and environmental enforcement today, detecting and documenting the existance of chemicals in the environment. On battlefields they warn of the presence of chemical or biological weapons, but in the hands of citizenry they can be used to document environmental crimes conducted by big business.

UAV aircraft are well within the reach of being constructed by hobbyists. On slashdot there are regularly articles by some geekoid with too much time on their hands, and their experiments with aerial photography from kites, balloons or other devices. It is well within the realm of possibility for hobbyists with radio controlled airplanes to build their own surveillance platforms, and fly them over big businesses suspected of environmental foul play etc.

There are already a number of privately funded and operated web sites that track various types of information. For example The Center for Cooperative Research [] has assembled a vast database of events and people surrounding various events such as the September 11, 2001 attacks, the 2003 "Coup" in Haiti. The conspiracy theorists have been warning for decades that the "secret government" is out to get us all, and the recent events indicate that it's highly possible they are. What Cooperative Research does is to tie together the disparate threads of events, to create a whole picture. It's been observed that a lot gets reported in the news media, but it's a snippet here and a snippet there. To see the whole picture one has to be looking for the little clues and be able to tie them together. It's too much for human memory to be able to track these things, and this is where the Cooperative Research site comes in, by holding a database of these little clues and the ability to tie it all together. And this site is merely the tip of the iceberg, compared to what can be done.

Brin closes with a warning. Our individual power to "look back" at the government are dependent on certain freedoms. That is, the freedom to know what the government is doing. It is when the government is able to act in secret that it has the most insidious power. This is because there is no counterbalance, the people have no ability to rein the excesses of government.

As a certain movie reviewer from Texas used to intone, without eternal vigilance it could happen here.