SURVEILLANCE TECHNOLOGY OF THE FUTURE….THE

SURVEILLANCE TECHNOLOGY OF THE FUTURE….THE NEAR FUTURE….JB Holston had a good post last week inspired by this report from the ACLU warning about the growth of surveillance in America:

I recently re-read Orwell’s 1984. Just in case.

I’d forgotten how bleak it is.

We have better technologies for surveillance today than Orwell dreamed.

He’s right, and at 17 pages the ACLU report is not a long read. There’s only one problem with it: its intent is to scare people, but it doesn’t do a good enough job. So I’d like to take a crack at it.

First, you need to have an idea of what kind of technology we’re talking about. In a nutshell, here it is:

  • Cameras. These are becoming ever cheaper (only a few dollars each before long) and more ubiquitous. Within a few years it’s likely that virtually every store, every intersection, and every public place will be under 24-hour surveillance. Even today, it’s difficult to walk the streets of New York without being almost continually under video surveillance.

  • Face recognition software. This is still in its infancy, but it already works and is in use at airports and sports stadiums. Within a decade it’s highly likely that it will be efficient enough to pick out virtually everyone in a crowd and then track and store their movements permanently.

  • RFID chips. These are tiny chips that emit a signal that can be picked up by a nearby sensor. They are already in use for things like toll-booth speed passes, and are getting small enough that they can now be embedded in cans of food, credit cards, and driver licenses ? even money. If you carry one of these around, you can be identified without your knowledge anytime you pass a sensor ? in a store, on the street, or by a nearby police officer, hundreds of times a day.

  • Massive, interconnected computer databases. Current databases already contain detailed information about everything you buy, where you surf the net, your medical records, and your financial records. Put them together, and you know more about a person than most spouses do.

  • Location detection technology. Thanks to federal regulations, all cell phones can now be tracked by location. A GPS receiver in your car can track your whereabouts when you’re driving. GPS receivers can even be implanted in human beings.

An awful lot of people simply don’t understand how good this technology already is. Within a decade all of them are likely to be widespread, highly accurate, and inescapable.

Of course, it’s computers that tie it all together. Much of this information has been available for a long time, but we have become accustomed to a sort of de facto sense of privacy due to the effort of having to retrieve it from hundreds of different sources. In essence, the difficulty and cost of gathering this data for a single person places practical restrictions on the ability to do it very often. But once it’s all stored in online, interconnected databases, there is nothing to prevent it from being correlated and used by both government and commercial organizations as often as they like. They will know:

  • When you left your house in the morning.

  • What route you took to work and how fast you drove while you were getting there.

  • What you bought on your way to work.

  • Who you talked to on your cell phone.

  • When you showed up at work.

  • What emails you wrote and received.

  • Where you went for lunch.

  • Who you met with.

  • What movies you rented, what books you purchased, and what organizations you belong to.

  • Your financial condition, your medical condition, and your buying habits.

  • What TV shows you watch and what websites you frequent.

In short, there will be hundreds of data points about you that are stored and indexed every hour, and this makes it possible to reconstruct your movements and your actions every single minute of the day, every single day of the year. And remember: this technology is already more advanced than most people realize. It’s not science fiction anymore; ubiquitous surveillance is only a few years away.

Needless to say, this information is of great value to law enforcement ? including legitimate counterterrorist programs. But it is something we should fear anyway. Yes, initially it will be used only to target criminal behavior, but it’s a certainty that “criminal” will eventually be relaxed to include “suspicious,” and then again to include “anti-social” ? while corporations will need no reason at all other than the information’s sheer commercial value.

It is a truisim of government that you should not give powers to your friends that you would not also feel safe giving to your enemies. Regardless of the possible benefits of ubiquitous surveillance, and regardless of soothing words that it will be used only for good, never for ill, we should fear it. And we should insist not just that programs like TIA be shut down, but that privacy laws be passed that strictly control how surveillance technology and database profiling can be used and shared ? both in the public and private sectors.

We should not want Big Brother watching us.

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