Information-rich animals

Iris scanning has been proposed for horse by a company called Global Animal Management (GAM) Inc. As bloodstock is a huge and lucrative business – feeding everything from the private obsessions of the super-rich through the horseracing industry to the dreams of teenage horse-enthusiasts – it is not surprising to see such investment in biometrics. Racehorses were, after all, the first living creatures to be regularly microchipped. Vets seem sceptical about the idea, but surely members of the medical profession would be more enthusiastic about non-invasive replacements for invasive identification techniques like RFID?

Ironically, support for the scepticism comes form GAM’s own website, where a very interesting short video shows just how comprehensive the surveillance of animals through RFID chips has become. RFID chips do not just identify, they carry whole life-cycle information on origins, movements, health and disease and legal compliances. And because of the chips this information is carried with the animal not simply associated with it via a distant database as the result of an occasional scan. The system creates what GAM calls ‘information-rich animals’, which presumably is what makes GAM – and it hopes, its customers – cash-rich too…

(thanks to Aaron Martin, whose reading now seems to include Horse and Hound magazine…)

Pigs subvert surveillance

It is not just human beings who are subjects of surveillance. Animals are increasingly under surveillance too, indeed there are techniques of surveillance and tracking used on animals that are designed to achieve levels of control that (for the most part) would not be tolerated for human beings. Animals are tagged, filmed, implanted, tracked, and even used and adapted for surveillance (see Amber Marks’s book, Headspace, for example) for all kinds of reasons from the economic to the environmental. However, this great story from a BBC kids’ news program demonstrates that some animals can ‘fight back’ in ways that are inventive and heartening.

Many farms now limit the food consumption of individual pigs through the use of electronic Radio-frequency Identification (RFID) collars and gates: once the pig has gone through the gate, the collar communicates with a computerised food distribution system which will provide the pig with what is deemed ‘enough’ for the pig. When the pig has eaten and left the feed stall, it cannot get back in for more because the system knows which collar has already been through the gate.

However, apparently pigs in several locations have independently learnt how to get round this surveillance system. Some pigs hate the collars so much that they rip them off. These pigs then don’t get to eat of course, but other pigs have learnt that if they pick up the collars they can go through the gate a second time – and they have even taught other pigs how to this…

Never mind ‘Big Brother’ and Nineteen Eighty-Four, it’s another Orwell phrase (from Animal Farm) that comes to mind here: “Four legs good, two legs bad”…!

(Thanks to Aaron Martin for this)

Locational Privacy

PDF file

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a very good little report on locational privacy, “the ability of an individual to move in public space with the expectation that under normal circumstances their location will not be systematically and secretly recorded for later use.”

As usual for EFF, it is written in clear, understandable language and is free-to-access and download.

* I’m going to be away up to the mountains for a couple of days, so there won’t be any more posts here until Sunday at the earliest… next week is a slow one here in Japan as it is O-bon, the Buddhist festival of the dead, and many people go back to their family home and offices are generally closed for some or all of the week. I won’t be doing much in the way of interviewing, but I still have quite a few interviews and visits from the last two weeks to write up.

Another US court says police GPS tracking does need a warrant

The complex landscape of the US judicial system has thrown up a ruling on the police use of GPS tracking devices completely at odds with the recent ruling handed down by the appeals court in Wisconsin. The New York appeals court ruled 4-3 that police GPS tracking should require a warrant. Judge Lipmann’s words on the case, quoted by the New York Times,  are particularly interesting as it appears that he wa taking a long view of potential harm in making his decision. He said:

“One need only consider what the police may learn, practically effortlessly, from planting a single device. The whole of a person’s progress through the world, into both public and private spatial spheres, can be charted and recorded over lengthy periods possibly limited only by the need to change the transmitting unit’s batteries. Disclosed in the data retrieved from the transmitting unit, nearly instantaneously with the press of a button on the highly portable receiving unit, will be trips the indisputably private nature of which takes little imagination to conjure: trips to the psychiatrist, the plastic surgeon, the abortion clinic, the AIDS treatment center, the strip club, the criminal defense attorney, the by-the-hour motel, the union meeting, the mosque, synagogue or church, the gay bar and on and on. What the technology yields and records with breathtaking quality and quantity, is a highly detailed profile, not simply of where we go, but by easy inference, of our associations — political, religious, amicable and amorous, to name only a few — and of the pattern of our professional and avocational pursuits. When multiple GPS devices are utilized, even more precisely resolved inferences about our activities are possible. And, with GPS becoming an increasingly routine feature in cars and cell phones, it will be possible to tell from the technology with ever increasing precision who we are and are not with, when we are and are not with them, and what we do and do not carry on our persons — to mention just a few of the highly feasible empirical configurations.”

This long term thinking has to be applauded. Sometimes imagination is necessary in the law, and particularly when the issue is one of socio-technical changes. The technological determinism of ‘if it exists, then it must be used’ is a way of thinking that has to be challenged. The question now for the USA is if either of these case or others will find their way to the federal courts. Until then, US citizens and police do not really know where they stand and the constitutional questions remain open.

Australian targeted surveillance convictions ‘appallingly low’

If mass surveillance (through CCTV and huge databases) is often ineffective, then surely targeted surveillance, through judicially-approved orders warranting the use of high-tech secret cameras, listening devices and tracking, must at least ‘work’. However, The Canberra Times reports that in Australia at least, this does not appear to be the case.

In fact out of 311 such warrants issued in 2007-8, just 86 individuals were prosecuted and only 10 criminal convictions resulted. Now we don’t know exactly why this was in each case, however it does suggest that Bill Rowlings, the Civil Liberties Australia chief executive is right to describe the conviction rates as “appallingly low” indicting that the many if the warrants for targeted surveillance are “fishing expeditions” by the police, rather than backed by serious evidence.

It would be interesting to see how the Australian figures compare to those available for similar countries, particularly the UK (if indeed the figures are available and comparable).