I've been following the subject of personal privacy and official monitoring for some time, as regular readers will know. I thought it was long past time to point out that the situation has become so severe, so intrusive, that it's reached a tipping point. If we don't rein in the all-seeing eye of Big Brother within the next year or two, it may be so established in public life and policy that it can no longer be remedied at all.
Consider the following news reports over the past year.
- In downtown Seattle, the authorities have installed a system that can allegedly monitor the movements of any personal electronic device (and, therefore, its user) and keep track of their location. After public outrage at the disclosure, it's since been deactivated . . . but it hasn't been removed. It can be reactivated at any time. I'm willing to bet that as soon as the authorities think that the public has forgotten about it, and the system's antennae have become just another part of the urban skyline, they'll do just that.
- Public buses across the USA are installing microphones to record passenger conversations.
- Las Vegas is installing streetlights that can monitor conversations, record sound and video, and generally monitor everything (and everyone) in their vicinity. The system is called Intellistreets. The manufacturer says of it that "RFID equipped staff can be identified and tracked". If it can track a 'staff member' carrying an RFID chip, it can do the same with almost any RFID chip attached to almost anything, including your cellphone, computer - even your chip-implanted pet or the goods you've just bought at the supermarket. The supplier also claims that the system "provides a platform and many developed applications to assist DHS in protecting its citizens and natural resources". Given DHS's aggressive invasion of our privacy (see next story) this does not give me warm fuzzies. Here's a video presentation on Intellistreets.
- DHS is seeking vendors to provide DNA testing of "samples collected from various individuals". It appears that these samples will not necessarily have been obtained through normal criminal investigations or by court order, because the report goes on to speak of identifying individuals "when fingerprints are not available". Given DHS's cavalier disregard for our privacy, I can't regard this development with anything but suspicion.
- IARPA is seeking to "improve face recognition performance using representations developed from real-world video and images instead of from calibrated and constrained collections. During daily activities, people laugh, smile, frown, yawn and morph their faces into a broad variety of expressions. For each face, these expressions are formed from unique skeletal and musculature features that are similar through one's lifetime. Janus representations will exploit the full morphological dynamics of the face to enable better matching and faster retrieval." In other words, this software will use any available video camera footage to identify individuals, whether or not they are aware of being under surveillance. Again, given the intelligence community's deliberate and ongoing violation of our privacy, I can't feel comfortable about this.
- Motor vehicle computers (so-called 'black boxes) are being programmed to record more and more information about their activities, and how their drivers manage them. There are efforts to expand the amount of data recorded, but there are no legal restrictions on how such data may be used.
- Late last year the Electronic Frontier Foundation analyzed information on unmanned aerial vehicle activity over the USA, and found a lot of evidence about the growing scale of such operations. It observed that "law enforcement agencies want to use drones to support a whole host of police work", and gave details of several agencies' activities in that regard.
- It's just been revealed that the personal information of thousands of American citizens was compromised by a Federal agency without their knowledge or permission, by sharing it with other Federal agencies who could then use it in ways never intended or authorized by those concerned.
The real problem is that although these reports make the headlines, nothing appears to be done about them. If the offenders get away with it, if they believe that the public will make a lot of noise but never demand (or get) action, then there's nothing to stop them doing it again, and again, and again - and more and more egregiously.
We have to agitate for legislative and regulatory reform, to outlaw this 'bureaucratic mission creep' on the part of the security establishment. If we don't, the day may come when they can literally get away with murder. Some would say that day arrived some time ago.