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The Future, Big Brother and You

Simon Davies assesses the new generation of Big Brother technology, and predicts that the path for the next decade will be unpleasant.

The Future, Big Brother and You

By Simon Davies

The surveillance industry is enjoying a boom period at the moment. The range of new technologies, and their (almost) limitless range of functions, is creating a buoyant economy in the snoop market.

Rapid advances in video and audio intercept equipment, identification technologies and intelligence gathering systems have created an unprecedented sweep of opportunities for police and security agencies. More important still is the fact that these new technologies are within the reach of almost anybody. Surveillance has become a fixed component of the burgeoning information economy.

The next generation of technology will exploit a growing fusion between people and technology. An intimacy without parallel will mean that areas of life traditionally considered private, will be comprehensively revealed. Lubricated by the mantra "Nothing to Hide; Nothing to Fear", surveillance technology will enjoy a fast track into all areas of our lives.

And central to the construction of surveillance is the rapid evolution of an intimacy between humans and technology - a fusion that softens the image of computers and which makes surveillance appear to be a natural and beneficial component.

There are five key technologies that are making important inroads throughout the world.

Video Surveillance

The government of Massachusetts in the U.S. has developed a novel plan to fight crime and fraud. In late 1995 it launched a state-wide computer database containing the digitized photographs of all 4.2 million drivers. Within about one second, the state will be able to match any photographed face against the database images. Who is that bank robber? The system knows. And who are those political demonstrators?

The system can look past hairstyles and spectacles into the essential light and shade created by the facial structure. The new technology has been motivated by a crackdown on fraud through false ID, and its potential is limitless. Any photograph can be scanned, digitized, and matched against the state database. It's a sophisticated version of the technology which automatically scans number plates using roadside video cameras.

Known as Computerized Facial Recognition (CFR) or Facial Mapping, these systems can convert any face into a sequence of numbers. Within a decade, if the FBI has its way, such systems could be operating across the U.S. By then, new technical standards will allow a face to be matched simultaneously against digitized facial records stored in numerous law enforcement, drivers license and commercial computers. The revolution in CFR will inevitably produce a national face recognition system that can be accessed by a range of authorities. The Atlanta Olympic Games will employ CFR at all entrances. The Sydney games will also use this technology.

The CFR system becomes supremely powerful if it can be linked to a network of Closed Circuit Video Cameras (CCTVs) stationed in public places. If this convergence of technology sounds far fetched, the current experience of Britain should provide a warning. There, CCTV camera technology has reached saturation levels. Already there are upwards of 300,000 cameras installed nationwide, and at least three hundred towns and counties across the UK are planing to introduce integrated centrally controlled systems. These modern camera systems involve sophisticated. technology, which includes night vision, computer assisted operation, automated self capability, independent power and communications supply, and automatic motion detection facilities. And the clarity of these pictures is brilliant. The cameras have full remote controlled pan, tilt and zoom, are able to read a cigarette packet at a hundred yards, and can even work in pitch blackness, bringing all images up to daylight level. The companies producing this technology are now selling their product to state governments and private companies in the U.S. and Australia. Given the British experience, there is a good chance that the technology will have a snowball effect and could reach into every facet of private and public space.


Even if the specters of illegal workers, rampant crime or wholesale tax evasion are not convincing enough bogeys to motivate the population at large to adopt ID cards linked to a vast database (and Australians know all about this), there are more tempting technologies that achieve the same result. If you can't put human identity onto a card, why not put the human into the machine?

Governments and corporations across the world are doing just this. The process is known as Biometry - the process of collecting, processing and storing details of a persons physical characteristics. The most popular forms of biometric ID are retina scans, hand geometry, thumb scans, finger prints, voice recognition, and digitized (electronically stored) photographs. Spain is planning a national fingerprint system for unemployment benefit entitlement. Russia has announced plans for a national electronic fingerprint system for banks. Jamaicans will shortly need to scan their thumbs into a database before qualifying to vote at elections. Blue Cross and Blue Shield in the U.S. have plans to introduce nationwide fingerprinting for hospital patients. This may be extended into more general medical applications.

Conventional forms of identification have always been subject to fraud and manipulation. Card systems are the most vulnerable. Fake blanks of even the highest integrity cards are generally available in Singapore or Thailand within weeks of issue.

Biometric technology offers the prospect of highly accurate identification, but involves some difficult technical and public relations problems. All the same, hand geometry (involving a scan of the shape and contours of the hand) is already employed in over 4,000 locations including airports, daycare centres, nuclear research establishments, banks, computer facilities, hospitals, sperm banks, high security government buildings and retail shops.

An automated immigration system developed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) uses hand geometry. In this project, frequent travelers have their hand geometry stored in a smart computer chip card. The traveler places a hand onto a scanner, and places the card into a slot. More than 70,000 people have enrolled in the trial. If the INSPASS project is successful, the technology may ultimately make conventional ID cards and passports redundant. And, as a trade-off for faster immigration processing, passengers will have to accept a system which has the potential to generate a vast amount of international traffic in their personal data. The government hopes that by 2010, all travellers to and from the United States will need to be biometrically registered. Information about passengers will be shared on the basis of the biometry.

The Snooperhighway

Each day, around fifty officials from Britain's top spy agency, GCHQ, file into the headquarters of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland. These people, under the cover of the top secret UKUSA intelligence agreement, are employed to tap millions of U.S. phone calls without any warrant or authorization. Two liaison officials from Britain coordinate this activity. The same practice is undertaken in Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

This activity has a long history. Immediately following the Second World War, in 1947, the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand signed a National Security pact known as the Quadripartite, or United Kingdom - United States (UKUSA) agreement. Its intention was to seal an Intelligence bond in which a common National Security objective was created. It is in all probability the most secretive document in the world, classified in the U.S. as Top Secret - SEI, the highest classification of secrecy.

The UKUSA Agreement standardized terminology, code words, intercept handling procedures, arrangements for cooperation, sharing of information, and access to facilities. One important component of the agreement was the exchange of data and personnel. The link means that operatives from one agency could use the facilities of another agency to spy on local phone conversations without either nation having to formally approve or disclose the interception.

Anyone with concerns about the surveillance activities of law enforcement and national security agencies has ample justification to fear the Superhighway. The technology is no less than a one-stop-shop for snooping. The three-letter agencies are particularly delighted with the Superhighway. It will contain vast amounts of sensitive information. And because of the ordered convergence - the bringing together - of this information, it will be easy for the agencies to extract masses of transactional data about our minute-to-minute activities. Much of its data can be accessed without the requirement of a warrant.

Voice Printing

Three years ago a small number of software companies working on computer voice recognition (the quest to have computers recognize instructions from a human voice) independently succeeded in developing software packages that gave computers the ability to recognize human speech with 95 per cent accuracy.

Then last year another processing breakthrough brought the technology up to a breathtaking level of sophistication. The Power Secretary and Dragon Dictate systems use a Pentium chip to achieve a processing power that allows the computer to understand up to 100 words a minute of speech with almost perfect accuracy. The words are converted instantly to text on the screen, or they can be directed to instruct the computer to achieve a series of complex operations. At no time is the keyboard ever used.

At first sight this technology seems benign, but its impact on employment cannot be overstated. As computers perform more complex tasks and as information systems become integrated, the human interface will become redundant. Public servants, bank and insurance staff, inquiry officers, telephone operators, booking agents, middle management and all word processing staff face retrenchment. The new package, after all, will cost less than a thousand dollars.

Beyond this, the new voice recognition technology is likely to be used as a form of mass personal ID. Companies across the world are in a race to create a smart card that can hold the "template" of a voice. The intention is to give all networked computers the ability to understand oral instructions. People will be "offered" a card so they no longer need messy PIN numbers. The card will help the computer to perfectly understand the relevant voice. In the process, the human becomes perfectly identified.

The Ultimate Fusion

It is worth spending a few moments considering the extent to which the human/machine fusion has evolved. Consider, for example, the implanting of microchips into live human brains.

In a procedure until recently confined to the fantasies of science fiction, microchips are now being routinely placed into brain stems and cortexes to relieve a variety of medical conditions. Micro-engineered probes many times thinner than a human hair are buried deep inside the brain, fed by platinum wires lacing underneath the skull. More than fifteen thousand people so far have had their brains wired, and this population of cyborgs will increase exponentially. The National Institute of Health leads this field.

Medical science has become blas‚ about placing objects into patients. Plastic hips, polythene penises, silicone breasts and bionic ears hardly raise an eyebrow. Implant technology, however, is constantly evolving. Some second generation implants can now think. They can interface with the brain, provide complex instructions to mechanical parts, and read brain activity. The use of computer microchips also allows these implants to provide a mass of unique information about the host human.

A new generation of intelligent materials and chemicals can fool the brain into believing they are part of the human body, and thus become part of it. Scientists at ICL, IBM and Rank Xerox have independently developed organic based engineered computers, allowing them to construct machines out of living material, using protein strands as wires, and molecular movement as memory. As computers can be "grown" on living tissue, the inter-dependency becomes limitless.

Miniaturization will accelerate the development of Homo Cyborg. In the absence of any limitation of size, the fusion of human and machine will be inevitable. In our lifetime, microscopic robots will pound an arterial beat, interacting with a variety of intelligent implants located around the body, and communicating with external technology. The application at present is for people suffering chronic medical conditions. In the future, such technology will be as common as disease inoculation. When linked with automated DNA analysis, our lives will be an open book to insurers, employers and government agencies.

Most people under the age of thirty have developed a symbiotic relationship with technology at a far more intimate level than at any time in history. And most people under 30 appear to believe that knowledge, well-being, health and wealth are dependent on new technology. Technology doubtless offers some benefits, but as dependence and intimacy with technology increases, autonomy, privacy and sovereignty will be imperiled.

Simon Davies is the Director General of the Washington, DC-based watchdog group Privacy International. Click here for Privacy International's WWW site.

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 36 (May-June 1996)

Reprinted from:

The Truth is Out There   May 16 2002
Moving Toward a Cashless Society  May 16 2002
The Future, Big Brother and You  May 16 2002
Superhighway to Dystopia  May 15 2002

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