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.
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…
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.
Fascinating and disturbing news from the MIT Technology Review blog that a team of researchers appears to have cracked the problem of how to produce cheap, effective Terahertz Wave (TW) cameras and receivers. TW are found between infrared and microwave radiation, and produce what we called in A Report on the Surveillance Society, a ‘virtual strip search’, as they penetrate under layers of clothing but not much further, and can thus produce images of the body ‘stripped’ of clothing. Thus far, they’ve been used on an experimental basis in some airports and not really any further afield.
This is largely because of the way that TW waves have been detected up until now has basically been a bit of a kludge, a side-effect of another process. This has meant that TW equipment has been generally quite large and non-portable (amongst other things).
However one Michel Dyakonov of the University of Montpellier II in France has followed up theoretical work he did in the 1990s, with a new larger team, to show that tiny (nanoscale) ‘field effect transistors’ can – and they are still not quite sure how exactly – both produce and detect TW. The details are in Technology Review, but the crucial thing for those interested in surveillance is that:
the output is ‘good enough for video’; and
‘they can be built into arrays using standard silicon CMOS technology’ which means small, cheap (and highly portable) equipment. This could be an add-on to standard video cameras.
I’m getting a genie-out-of-bottles feeling with this, but is it really as damaging to personal privacy as it feels? Does this really ‘reveal’ anything truly important? Or will it become something to which we rapidly become accustomed, and indeed with with which we quickly get bored? In some cultures, specially those that regard covering the body and modesty as being god-given, this is clearly going to present massive challenges to social and moral norms. It seems to me that there is also an immediate conflict with current constitutional and legal rights in several jurisdictions, not least the US Fourth Amendment right not to be subjected to warrantless searches and the European Convention Article Eight on the right to privacy.
But it seems that unless such a technology is banned, or at least particular commercial implementations, we’re about to cross another Rubicon almost before we’ve noticed it has happened. Ironically bans on technology can only really be effective in states where intensive surveillance and state control of behaviour is practiced. In other places, I am not sure banning can be effective even if it were desirable, as in reality, a ban simply means reserving the use of the technology to criminals, large corporations which can afford to flout laws, and the state.