Monday, August 20, 2007

Living in the Future

A few months back, Gwyneth Jones published
“We have the technology”
in the Guardian. She concluded:

Our gadgets are just like our children. They have the potential to be marvellous, to surpass all expectations. But children (and robots) don't grow up intelligent, affectionate, helpful and good-willed all by themselves. They need to be nurtured. The technology, however fantastic, is neutral. It's up to us to decide whether that dazzling new robot brain powers a caring hand, or a speedy fist highly accurate at throwing grenades.

A couple of months after Gwyneth’s article appeared, I read that California State Senator Joe Simitian had introduced a measure in an Assembly committee “that would prohibit an employer from implanting tiny ID chips in workers, block RFID technology from being embedded in driver's licenses, prohibit schools from issuing ID cards to track student attendance, and make it a misdemeanour to skim identification cards.” Despite Simitian’s efforts, likely, the fairly recent technology of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), used to track packages and shipments, will become yet another nail in the coffin of individual privacy in the United States.

A few years ago, Maureen McHugh actually wrote a story, "In the Air," in which a woman, anxious for her loved ones’ safety and with the best intentions, implants tracking chips in her teen-aged daughter as well as her mother (who has Alzheimer’s); the story confronts the personal consequences of the use of such technology.

Living as we do in a society governed by the marketplace without reference to ethical questions or the general welfare, we know all too well that the applications of new technologies will never be limited to the benign and practical. One doesn’t have to be a Luddite to believe that every technology invented will be abused. If a technology can be used to control and exploit people (on both a small and a large scale), businesses will happily pursue the resulting profit and thus Make It So.

Still, until recently, certain uses of surveillance technology were considered impermissible in the US and thus were politically unfeasible. Very few politicians have shown any interest in challenging the NSA’s access to every email sent and phone call made by US citizens, nor to secretly accessing citizens’ computers and tracking their book purchasing an library records at will. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Demian Bulwa writes that the ACLU’s 19-page report “Under the Watchful Eye,”

argues that the cameras have proven ineffective in decreasing violent crime and recommends that cities replace them with less invasive measures. Short of that, the report calls for “intense public scrutiny” of surveillance systems…. The report comes after a week of renewed debate over cameras in San Francisco. Since 2005, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office has spent about $500,000 on 70 cameras placed at 25 high-crime hot spots, and the Housing Authority has spent $200,000 on 178 cameras for its sites.

Police have defended the 70 city cameras, saying they deterred crime, while acknowledging they have contributed to just one arrest in two years. City cameras are not monitored in real time due to privacy concerns. Investigators have ordered copies of footage about once every three weeks, police said.

Although the US Government is unwilling to help the many impoverished people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast rebuild in the wake of Katrina, it is happy to dole out funds for to keep streets and parks under surveillance. In a Boston Globe article last week, “US Doles Out Millions for Street Cameras: Local Efforts Raise Privacy Alarms,” Charlie Savage writes:

The department will not say how much of its taxpayer-funded grants have gone to cameras. But a Globe search of local newspapers and congressional press releases shows that a large number of new surveillance systems, costing at least tens and probably hundreds of millions of dollars, are being simultaneously installed around the country as part of homeland security grants.

In the last month, cities that have moved forward on plans for surveillance networks financed by the Homeland Security Department include St. Paul, which got a $1.2 million grant for 60 cameras for downtown; Madison, Wis., which is buying a 32-camera network with a $388,000 grant; and Pittsburgh, which is adding 83 cameras to its downtown with a $2.58 million grant.

Small towns are also getting their share of the federal money for surveillance to thwart crime and terrorism.

Recent examples include Liberty, Kan. (population 95), which accepted a federal grant to install a $5,000 G2 Sentinel camera in its park, and Scottsbluff, Neb. (population 14,000), where police used a $180,000 Homeland Security Department grant to purchase four closed-circuit digital cameras and two monitors, a system originally designed for Times Square in New York City.

Why in the world would a town with a population of 95 would want a camera in its park? Savage notes that

[Pr]ivacy rights advocates say that the technology is putting at risk something that is hard to define but is core to personal autonomy. The proliferation of cameras could mean that Americans will feel less free because legal public behavior — attending a political rally, entering a doctor’s office, or even joking with friends in a park — will leave a permanent record, retrievable by authorities at any time.

Businesses and government buildings have used closed-circuit cameras for decades, so it is nothing new to be videotaped at an ATM machine. But technology specialists say the growing surveillance networks are potentially more powerful than anything the public has experienced.

Until recently, most surveillance cameras produced only grainy analog feeds and had to be stored on bulky videotape cassettes. But the new, cutting-edge cameras produce clearer, more detailed images. Moreover, because these videos are digital, they can be easily transmitted, copied, and stored indefinitely on ever-cheaper hard-drive space.

In addition, police officers cannot be everywhere at once, and in the past someone had to watch a monitor, limiting how large or powerful a surveillance network could be.

But technicians are developing ways to use computers to process real-time and stored digital video, including license-plate readers, face-recognition scanners, and software that detects “anomalous behavior.” Although still primitive, these technologies are improving, some with help from research grants by the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate.

“Being able to collect this much data on people is going to be very powerful, and it opens people up for abuses of power,” said Jennifer King, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who studies privacy and technology. “The problem with explaining this scenario is that today it’s a little futuristic. [A major loss of privacy] is a low risk today, but five years from now it will present a higher risk.”

As this technological capacity evolves, it will be far easier for individuals to attract police suspicion simply for acting differently and far easier for police to track that person’s movement closely, including retracing their steps backwards in time. It will also create a greater risk that the officials who control the cameras could use them for personal or political gain, specialists said.

Yesterday’s Baltimore Sun has an editorial about the US Government’s plan to use satellites to spy on its citizens:

Once the federal government had rationalized its authority to violate the privacy of Americans by tapping their phones, reading their e-mail, surveying their library selections and poking through their bank records, it was only a matter of time before the Department of Homeland Security would point spy satellite cameras intended for foreign enemies into the private lives of Americans as well.

Indeed, the country is becoming so inured to the Big Brother tactics of the Bush administration, news of this intrusive new eye in domestic skies has provoked little outrage. Congress has apparently given the plan its blessing, totally abdicating its oversight role.

The Bush Administration has repeatedly used the al-Qaeda threat to make the case that a population under surveillance is Safe (though obviously in no way a “Safe Space” for anyone). I’m wondering how much my response of visceral horror is a legacy of growing up during the Cold War. Propaganda in the US took a two-pronged approach: celebrating materialism (availability of consumer goods) on the one hand and fear of police-state culture stripping individuals of the right to privacy and due process on the other. Perhaps if I hadn’t been so inculcated with a horror of the Stasi way of life, I wouldn’t now find the politicians’ foisting a police state on us so intolerable.

On the panel “Thinking About the World” at the Locus Awards weekend last June, Charles Brown, Neal Stephenson, Vernor Vinge, and Greg Bear discussed, among other things, changing attitudes about surveillance. Mark Kelly noted on his blog, Views from Medina Road:

The discussion veered into the virtual realm; Brown noted how much people want to be watched these days, in an inversion to 1984; Vinge sensed a sea change about what young people are willing to give away; and Stephenson cited the guy on a government watch-list who's put his entire life on the web, as a defense. Most people don't have anything to lose, he said; for most, it's a net gain to put their personal stories out there for everyone to see.

I took a few notes myself:

CB: Orwell’s 1984 was one of the most important sf books of the 20th century. Some of his predictions came true. But Orwell never imagined the webcam—the idea of wanting to be watched 24 hours a day. Predictions can never be strange enough.

VV: One of the strengths of sf is that we talk about possiblities—particularly “scenario planning”—think about extreme versions of what could happen and hen play them out. SF is performing a sociological function that dreaming has for human beings. I wonder about people who are 13-23 years old. Maybe young people don’t understand that there will be consequences in the future [for sacrificing their privacy].

CB: We’re heading toward Chinese attitudes toward privacy—what happens on the outside doesn’t matter.

NS: I’m horrified by what people are willing to put up on their blogs. The downtrodden value getting their stories out (unlike people at the top, who value their privacy). [NS cites the case of a guy who uses a 24-hour-a-day webcam to let the world know about his persecution by US authorities; when he’s stopped at airports, he tells TSA to look at his webcam as proof that he hasn’t committed any acts of terrorsm.]

Unidentified Audience Member: Children have been conditioned to be watched all the time—so that they don’t feel safe unless they are always being watched.

Jay Lake: Indirect surveillance is really total—most people are unaware of that [Sprint records, credit card slips, etc]

GB: In the past, we had judicial safeguards.

I’m not sure that the men on that panel are correct about the generational difference. But I’ll give the last word to Gwyneth:

It's hardly surprising if the children of the 21st century find it difficult to distinguish between a scientific discovery, this year's new gadget, and utterly fantastic concepts such as the man with the 50s 'do, who wears his pants over his tights and flies faster than a speeding bullet. After decades of stalling, it seems that science fiction is finally, rapidly, becoming fact - just as the first pulp writers and movie-makers were convinced it would, back in the 1920s.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for talking about this!