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Here comes Big Brother

Published by marco on

There’s an excellent article on the NY Times Magazine site called A Cautionary Tale for a New Age of Surveillance. Note that it requires a NY Times account to view now. Sorry.

One company that seemed to be doing well in the wake of the attack on the WTC is Visionics. The CEO of Visionics voiced an understandable concern:

<q>How can we be alerted when someone is entering the subway? How can we be sure when someone is entering Madison Square Garden? How can we protect monuments? We need to create an invisible fence, an invisible shield.</q>

He, of course, believes that the solution of the future is biometrics or “a method of identifying people by scanning and quantifying their unique physical characteristics — their facial structures, for example, or their retinal patterns.”

In Great Britain, closed-circuit television (CCTV) is huge hit. Over the last ten years, the number of public cameras has grown logarithmically, riding campaign slogans such as John Major’s ‘’If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.‘’

<q>Instead of being perceived as an Orwellian intrusion, the cameras in Britain proved to be extremely popular. They were hailed as the people’s technology, a friendly eye in the sky, not Big Brother at all but a kindly and watchful uncle or aunt. … There are now so many cameras attached to so many different surveillance systems in the U.K. that people have stopped counting. According to one estimate, there are 2.5 million surveillance cameras in Britain, and in fact there may be far more. … By one estimate, the average Briton is now photographed by 300 separate cameras in a single day.</q>

The rage for cameras started for the exact same reason it threatens to start in the States: fear of terrorism. Of course, only an overarchingly evil reason like that could create such an atmosphere of bonhomie for continual government surveillance. What happens 5, 10, 20 years down the road, when the original intent and need for the surveillance have faded? Will the system be taken down? Not likely. Will report after report come out of civil rights violations, illegal intrusions, etc.? Undoubtedly.

In fact, that is exactly what is happening in Great Britain today.

<q>Although the cameras in Britain were initially justified as a way of combating terrorism, they soon came to serve a very different function. The cameras are designed not to produce arrests but to make people feel that they are being watched at all times. … And rather than thwarting serious crime, the cameras are being used to enforce social conformity in ways that Americans may prefer to avoid.</q>

On top of that, it seems they haven’t caught any terrorists with the system at all. Britain makes more use of the system to identify license plates because:

<q>[They’re still] experimenting with it to see if [they] could pick faces out of the crowd, but the technology is not sufficiently good enough … [One] system that [was] demonstrated two or three years ago, a lot of the time it couldn’t differentiate between a man and a woman.</q>

Some of the known cases of abuse of the system are pretty much as expected:

<q>when you put a group of bored, unsupervised men in front of live video screens and allow them to zoom in on whatever happens to catch their eyes, they tend to spend a fair amount of time leering at women. … [and] rather than eliminating prejudicial surveillance and racial profiling, CCTV surveillance has tended to amplify it.</q>

So it would appear we have another not-quite-ready-for-prime-time technology to go along with the Missile Defense Shield. As the article concludes:

<q>Of course there are some liberties that should be sacrificed in times of national emergency if they give us greater security. But Britain’s experience in the fight against terrorism suggests that people may give up liberties without experiencing a corresponding increase in security. And if we meekly accede in the construction of vast feel-good architectures of surveillance that have far-reaching social costs and few discernible social benefits, we may find, in calmer times, that they are impossible to dismantle.</q>

The article is really good, I urge you to go read the whole thing.