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The Coming Surveillance Tsunami
by Alex Lightman
Thursday, September 30, 1999
Comments: 25 posts

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Classic Ford Mustangs, the Internet and the Future of the World : Riel Miller rethinks the promise and problems of Internet community.

When Will Humans Become Obsolete? : Michio Kaku contemplates the potential for a world populated by robots with artificial intelligence.

A Snapshot View of a Complex World : David Boaz ridicules the notion of a "digital divide" and encourages a closer look at the facts.

The Need to Heed the Web : How can the Internet be applied to resolving policy issues? Dana Blankenhorn examines.



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Today's Internet is a tame technology relative to what it will be once the cameras are untethered. Enjoy your one-sided watching while you can because the same Internet that you use to look at the world, with almost God-like omniscience, is about to turn its all-seeing, never-forgetting capacity to focus millions of increasingly wireless cameras onto you. And, like the Terminator, it absolutely will not stop, ever.

Wearable technology will soon put little cameras (and monitors) into eyeglasses, sunglasses and apparel. Spending less than $100 will give you the ability to monitor all your conversations almost effortlessly and nearly invisibly. You will say, "Save the last 30 minutes" after you've seen something interesting or incriminating, and your wearable will comply. Once the video is stored on an Internet server (perhaps equipped with an IBM 15-gigabyte drive the size of a matchbox), you can review it, edit it and send it on. The Truth Machine, a novel by James Halperin, describes how nearly foolproof lie detectors alter society in the 2050s -- and make the founder richer than Bill Gates. Wearable cameras will initiate a similar contagion of truth telling.

Imagine that every interaction that you have in business is recorded, and that everyone else's actions are as well, indexed via a Virage video logger that transcribes each word, and available via a Lycos video search engine. How far do you think people who lie, cheat or steal will go in this future society? Combine this FBI file-on-steroids with the online ratings that people can and will make about you (perhaps modeled on the eBay ratings) and ubiquitous wireless news, and a picture emerges of a society with almost no privacy, but possibly almost no lies or crime. Will we be happy?

A window toward the future

Wearable technology
Wearable technology will
soon be the rage
We can look for clues in people from the future among us now. Thad Starner and Steve Mann are among the first to enter this Brave New Unwired World. Both earned their Ph.D.'s at MIT's famed Media Laboratory, and were among the first students at the Media Lab to focus their research on wearable computing.

Starner is the first person to build a wearable computer that converts his desktop into a device worn continuously, except in the shower. Yes, even in bed where, he says, he can read his e-mail in the dark without waking his wife. He wrote his doctoral thesis while walking around, on a one-handed pocket keyboard-like device called a Twiddler. Starner enjoys the ability to tap into Borg-like collective intelligence with others. He can be in a conversation with one person while corresponding about that person via e-mail at the same time.

Mann's site shows the evolution of his camera since 1980 and says that wearable cameras change the balance of power between individuals and institutions. His interactions with, say, an employee at the return counter of an electronics store, is altered because he might just be recording the interaction. Mann can also edit the conversation as well, and ignore requests to "turn that thing off" because it is a part of his apparel. Mann points out that, over the last 500 years, punishment is getting ever more mild (compared to whipping, burning, being dragged behind horses) while becoming every more certain.

There are currently tens of millions of video cameras in the world, with an increasing fraction (impossible to count) of them connected to the Internet. While many are connected to presumably secure intranets, many more feed sites like Livecam, Webcam and Earthcam for anyone to see. Wearable cameras, which will eventually cost less than $10 and be a standard feature in mobile phones, game devices and even clothes, will alter the balance by turning users into a civilian surveillance army that would be the envy of the former Russian KGB and East German Stassi. To paraphrase Alvin Toffler, they are the prosumers of surveillance, able to broadcast their conversation with you to millions even as they impress you with their blow-by-blow of events happening at sites scattered around the world.

Cameras and crime

Is common surveillance good on a personal level? It depends on the situation. If you are not careful with what you say or are used to taking shortcuts, you are probably going to be unhappy. A couple in Texas went to court a few years ago after winning the lottery but then breaking up over who actually won the prize, which they purchased together with their groceries. The video surveillance of them checking out revealed that the man had made the purchase. Though the surveillance proved him correct, he did not collect the prize, because the tape's resolution was fine enough to show that he paid with food stamps. Since this was illegal, the couple ended up empty handed. The Rodney King video scenario is cliché by now, but the fact that his every move has been subject to surveillance, his every ticket a subject of TV news, is a taste of what an increasing number of us will experience.

On the other hand, court costs could potentially be greatly reduced by early introduction of video evidence that was correlated with other wearables taping and with sounds and other digitally recorded information. The United States has been remarkably free, relatively, of terrorist activity. Part of the credit, no doubt, can go to the National Security Agency and other agencies that routinely scan millions of e-mails, webcams, faxes and phone calls every hour. One joke, which may not be a joke, holds that e-mail is slower in Japan than America because it has to pass through three Japanese intelligence agencies in addition to the standard four American ones. Internet millionaire Patrick Naughton was nabbed after corresponding with a FBI man pretending to be a girl, perhaps in part because Internet wealth attracts more Internet surveillance.

Is common surveillance good on a community or societal level? Early indicators show a qualified "yes." Crime rates have dropped astonishingly in areas that are under surveillance. David Brin, author of The Transparent Society, writes that the trend that led to over 300,000 video cameras taping Britain began in the town of King's Lynn over a decade ago. Crime in or near the zones covered by 60 surveillance cameras dropped to one-seventieth of the former rate. Monaco, which has perhaps the highest density of surveillance in a sovereign territory, can claim an ultra-low crime rate. Waiters have been known to return wallets left behind back to the owner's hotel after reviewing multiple surveillance tapes , for a possible negative crime rate, if found items can count as the inverse of crime.

Changing everything

The Surveillance Tsunami is coming so fast that the only way to have a choice will be to adopt hermit-like tendencies or even emigrate into oblivion, though this will be only a temporary solution. K. Eric Drexler's Foresight Institute, with Brin's participation, has been exploring the implications of nanotechnology, or molecular machines, on privacy. Reading Drexler's Nanosystems or the soon-to-be-published and breathtaking Nanomedicine by Robert Freitas, we see just how small and numerous surveillance devices can get.

Like it or not, a government or corporation could use a remote sensing device so small as to be effectively invisible in thousands of offices, or deploy virus-like quantities of nanobots, some of which would watch, others of which would swim in your bloodstream, to keep track of almost everyone, almost all the time.

Common surveillance will eventually transform all of our concepts of personal space, community and memory. We will need to increase our ethical sense at a faster rate than we decrease the size and cost of our cameras and microphones, or we could wind up unhappy, even in a world where crime without punishment was unknown and "don't bug me" became a polite request.

Alex Lightman is producer of the Unwired World fashion technology show (which will be held Oct. 6 and 7, 1 PM, at The Jacob Javits Center, Fall Internet World, New York City), CEO of InfoCharms and a contributing editor for Red Herring magazine. He graduated from MIT in '83 but does not yet wear a wireless camera or read e-mail in bed.

Related Links
Found out more about wearable technology and what will be available on the marketplace. Click here for information on a wearable camera. A site that consolidates news stories, academic and research resources, related government and business sites, and papers is a good start. A slide presentation aims to help someone overcome personal limitations through the utilization of Wearable technology. Check out the Wearable computing sites at MIT, and Stanford. Visit the Society channel at Voxcap.com to explore this topic further.


Is Lightman's scenario realistic? Is common surveillance good for community? Is it good for individuals?

Below are the last ten comments in chronological order.
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10/3/99 12:25:09 AM CA
Who would have time to watch all that was captured by the minute videos? Anytime devoted to what has been recorded would be time lost from "real time" occurances.....I was perturbed when my ex-husband installed surveilance cameras at his business after the person who had their hand in the till had already been confronted and was no longer in a position to steal. I told him, "Your employees haven't had a raise in over two years, they didn't commit any crime, and now you have a camera trained on them, with the clear implication that you don't trust them and the cost of the cameras could have gone toward allieviating the injustice of their working hard, and honestly, with no raise for such a duration." He put in the exobitantly priced system anyway. This is the way to build resentment in the workforce. And I had told him, you won't have time to review the film you generate, so if any fresh crimes were committed, they'd go undetected despite the cameras.

10/3/99 9:40:17 AM Dr. Evil
I am going to invest trillions -- no BILLIONS -- in a company that makes cheap latex masks....

10/4/99 7:05:52 AM Me and My Monkey
I like the idea of people watching me.

10/4/99 11:00:36 AM ray_g
Mr. Lightman: You may be right about multiple cameras, but I am still concerned about unscrupulous people using fake images and audio to try to incriminate people, especially public figures. Unless there is some way to track the image back to the original scene (and the multiple image situation may be one way), I still don't think we can trust the digital data. I guess I am trying to say that if the situation you have outlined becomes reality, that, because of the possibility of fakes, or even real, innocent scenes taken out of context, and the damage to reputations caused even by false accusations, we as a society must put the onus of proof directly and heavily on the accuser. For example, in the multiple image case you suggest, if the accused must pay for the analysis to show that the images are fake, many people may not be able to afford an effective defense. And, we must somehow make the press more responsible in how they publish or broadcast such images. I am not suggesting legislation, except perhaps loosening of the libel laws. Also, I share Academie's skepticism about NSA. In my career I have dealt with intelligence agencies on engineering matters, and when I ask for their proof of extraordinary claims (some of which come near violating laws of physics), they tell me they can't show me for security reasons. How convenient. BTW, I am not from SGI, I have just used their equipment. I don't want to misrepresent myself.

10/4/99 4:12:49 PM Robert_R Robert_R@juno.com
CA (10/3/99 12:25 AM) asks, “Who would have time to watch all that was captured by the minute videos?” Computers, of course. Facial recognition technology is already being used in practical applications. See: “Caught on Camera” NEW SCIENTIST. http://www.newscientist.com/ns/19990925/caughtonca.html # # #

10/4/99 7:28:20 PM CA
Thanks, Robert. There was a man who was CEO of a corporation developing biometric systems being interviewed on C-Span last month, and nearly all people calling in were alarmed at the prospects of what he was touting. Using the iris, facial or hand contours, or voice recognition programs, banks could allow withdrawals without ATM cards or the like, BUT...there's no doubt more lurking with these concepts than anything intended to serve as a convenience for consumers. At any rate, in the older monitoring system such as my ex had installed, it would require a human to watch the video that was generated to know who'd perpetrated whatever nefarious act.

10/5/99 1:51:13 AM The Revenge Of The Paranoids
Ha-ha-ha... now ya'll know what its like to know they're watching you.

10/5/99 4:49:58 PM Ezekk
I've known that Revenge. I have always known that. That is why I try to dress nicely and wear clean underwear everyday.

10/6/99 8:03:33 AM Robert A.McTarnaghan DPD AIR 1@aol.com
WHY DON`T YOU PEOPLE GET A JOB.

10/27/99 7:30:16 PM MICHAEL SNORAHS12
I AM KA. AKA,PPMAN,ST. EPHA ONE MIKULTRA. ARK, TTNOAH,CC-X-AFALLEN. I KNOW THERE ARE OTHER PET NAMESBUT I CAN'T KEEP BEHIND WITH ALL OF IT!I KNOW. YOU KNOW. EVERY BODY HERE KNOW. STOP LYING TO MEREMIT TO ME WHAT IS RIGHTFULLY MINE. I AM, AS I'M SURE OTHERS ARE, SICK OF IT. THE EFEDRA L COV. WILL NOW PAYTHE PIPER. YOU ALL NAMED THE TUNE, SO LET THE MuSiC BETHE MASTER (bait). tELL ME NOW OR FEAR ME LATER.

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