Surveillance devices get smaller… but it’s privacy that vanishes.

I’ve been blogging for a while about miniaturization and the ‘vanishing’ of surveillance devices. This disappearance occurs in many ways, one of which is the incorporation of high-tech surveillance features into objects and devices that we are already used to or their reduction to a size and form factor that is relatively familiar. Two examples coincidentally arrived in my inbox over the last week.

The first was the news that the US Navy has awarded a development contract for binoculars that incorporate three-dimensional face-recognition technology from StereoVision Inc (who may well be the bunch of  California-based face recog people I met at a biometrics industry show a few years back). This supposedly gets round the problems that standard two-dimensional face recognition has dealing with unpredictably mobile crowds of people in natural light (AKA ‘the real world’). The issue I’m highlighting here however is that we don’t expect binoculars to be equipped with face recognition. Binoculars may not be entirely socially acceptable items, and already convey implications of creepy voyeurism when used in urban or domestic situations, however this is something else entirely.

Small terahertz wave scanner being tested by NYPD in January (NYPD_

The second is the extraordinarily rapid ongoing progress towards working handheld terahertz wave technology (a far more effective form of scanning technology than either the backscatter x-ray or millimeter wave systems used in the bulky bodyscanners currently in use at airports). Just four years ago, I noted the theoretical proof that this was possible, and last month, it was revealed that police in New York were testing handheld terahertz wave scanners, (Thruvision from Digital Barriers) which of course people were likening to Star Trek’s tricorders. The idea that the police could perform a virtual strip search on the street without even having to ask is again, a pretty major change, but it’s also the case that the basic technology can be incorporated into standard video camera systems – potentially everyone with a mobile phone camera could be doing this in a few years.

I’m not a technological determinist, but in the context of societies in which suspicion, publicity and exposure are becoming  increasingly socially normative, I have to ask what these technologies and many others like them imply for conventional responses based on ‘privacy’. Privacy by design is pretty much a joke when the sole purpose of such devices is to breach privacy. And control by privacy regulators is based on the ability to know that one is actually under surveillance – when everything can potentially be performing some kind of highly advanced surveillance, how is one able to tell, let alone select which of the constant breaches of privacy is worth challenging? So, do we simply ban the use of certain forms of surveillance technology in public places? How, would this be enforced given that any conventional form factor might or might not contain such technology? And would this simply result in an even more intense asymmetry of the gaze, when the military and the police have such devices, but people are prevented from using them? Do we rely of camouflage, spoofing and disabling techniques and technologies against those who might be seeking to expose us? You can bet the state will not be happy if these become widespread – just look at the police reaction to existing sousveillance and cop-watching initiatives…

Growing Movement Against Body Scanners in the USA

Two of the major pilots’ unions in the USA are advising their members not to submit to body scans. There have also been a number of cases of people refusing to cooperate with the new (and so far unofficial) more intense TSA ‘pat-downs’ (including ‘testicular cupping’ for men…) for those who decide not to be scanned. Geek website, Boing Boing, has been documenting the growing movement against body scanning, including T-shirts, no-fly days and the like, however it seems rather optimistic to suggest, as they do, that the action of the unions will hasten the inevitable end of the scanners following some talk that they do not detect internal objects in the body and earlier demonstrations that they may not even be that good at finding some external objects. In fact, it seems more likely that not only will they eventually become mandatory sooner rather than later, but that the technical limitations of the current scanners will prompt their replacement by more advanced models that are now already being tested, which do detect internal foreign objects.

Well, I will soon have up close and personal experience of just what is going on when I fly to San Francisco tomorrow… wish me luck!

Security and the Economy (again)

The whole body scanners issue has once again brought to the fore the question of the relationship of security and the economy (see here, here and here). This is a more complex question than the political economy which argues that security companies benefit, therefore there are economic interests behind every surveillance surge than occurs. Of course, some companies, scanner makers, Rapiscan and L3 in particular in this case, make a lot of money form their patented systems: each one of the 44 L3 Scanners that Canadian airports are installing costs around $250,000 CAN (125,000 Euro), which adds up to a hefty income to L3. And of course there are connections to the revolving door of US Homeland Security governance at least: Michael Chertoff, the former Head of HOmeland Security from 2005-9 was making the case for scanners immediately after the December 25th thighbomber’s failed attempt, yet he neglected to mention his role as consultant to Rapiscan, which was awarded millions of dollars of contracts under his watch.

However, there are other interests here, notably the aviation industry, airlines and airports, not to mention those of travelers. The Toronto Globe and Mail today reports how airlines in Canada are increasingly concerned that already growing security levies from government (to provide security) will only spiral with every new measure introduced. The airlines expect the government to bear the costs. The government has merely said that it will try to ensure that costs passed on are minimised. However someone has to pay, somewhere along the line. If airlines (or their passengers) are not paying, then tax-payers are and it’s debatable whether ultimately, subsidising the security costs of international travelers is really what taxes should be for when times are hard. Of course no government wants this to come down to a ‘security versus the economy’ argument, but that has to be discussed, alongside the still largely unaddressed issues of privacy and other individual and collective liberties.

After the Thighbomber: Virtual Strip Searches at every airport?

The botched attempt to bomb a flight into the US by a the son of a wealthy Nigerian family, using explosive components strapped to his thigh, has led to an immediate techno-economic consequence, which is to speed up the process of installing terahertz wave or other body scanners in major airports, which if nothing else will provide a guaranteed income stream to Rapiscan and Qinetiq, who make these kinds of machines. Schipol in Amsterdam, where  announced they would be extending their body scanning operation and the British government almost immediately followed by saying that major British airports would be rolling out body scanning within weeks. Now, Canada is to do the same.

But, will this make a real difference or is it just more symbolic security? The scanners certainly ‘work’ in the sense that they do provide pretty good images of what is under the clothes of passengers (see below). However, interpreting what is seen is still no easy task and will the scanners will certainly not replace physical searches, but will add yet another extra layer of surveillant sorting and therefore delay. And there are questions over the effectiveness of the scanners in particular areas of the body. The Toronto Sun reports that trials at Kelowna Airport in British Columbia “left blind spots over the head and feet”, so these machines are certainly not the ‘silver bullet’.

Then of course, there are the privacy issues. I don’t have any particular problem with the technology, provided it is restricted to airports and doesn’t start to get used in other, more everyday, social settings (which given the rapid development of this technology is by no means certain). However, as I noted the last time I wrote about this, there will be many religious, gender-based and personal reasons for objecting to their use. The other question of course is whether, every time some lone lunatic tries something like this – that was, let us not forget, poorly planned and ineffective, and which should have been prevented by other conventional intelligence operations working properly – it makes sense to jump and harden security (or at least be seen to harden security) for everyone travelling internationally. Doing this just plays into the hands of terrorists as it disrupts the ordinary workings of an open society.

Body Scan Image (US TSA)