"The Last Enemy"
Surveillance Society--Science Fiction or Our Certain Future?
As I watched the new PBS movie The Last Enemy, I couldn't help but feel a certain uncomfortable mixture of resignation and dread. Not only does the movie depict a total surveillance society, but it does so quite convincingly. It makes you wonder. Are scenarios like those depicted in the film simply science fiction, or are they a glimpse into an inevitable future?
There is no doubt that surveillance tech is on the rise, and is starting to quickly infiltrate the planet. Earlier this year a small unmanned drone manufactured by Honeywell International, was announced that is capable of hovering and "seeing" using electro-optic or infrared sensor. If this drone "spy-in-the sky" wins Federal Aviation Administration approval, the Miami-Dade Police Department will start flying the 14-pound (6.3 kg) drone over urban areas with an eye toward full-fledged employment in crime fighting.
"There's been controversies all around about putting up surveillance cameras in public areas," said Howard Simon, Florida director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Technological developments can be used by law enforcement in a way that enhances public safety," he said. "But every enhanced technology also contains a threat of further erosion of privacy."
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is also funding research for stealth surveillance robots that can fly and are the size and appearance of a common housefly. They believe the robot's small size and fly-like appearance will be an invaluable tool in their eavesdropping arsenal.
"Nature makes the world's best fliers," says Robert Wood, leader of Harvard's robotic-fly project and a professor at the university's school of engineering and applied sciences. They chose the tiny housefly for the model because "you probably wouldn't notice a fly in the room, but you certainly would notice a hawk."
If you're paranoid about being spied on--get out your flyswatters. A life-size, robotic fly has already taken flight at Harvard University. Weighing only 60 milligrams, with a wingspan of three centimeters, the tiny robot's movements are modeled on those of a real fly. While work remains to be done on the mechanical insect, the researchers say that such small flying machines will likely eventually be used to spy.
The US National Security Agency has already been the topic of angry public debate after it was revealed that for years the agency had been reading emails and tapping phones without a warrant--actions explicitly forbidden by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This legislation was the result of the violations the last time a US president (Nixon) authorized the wiretapping of Americans citizens.
It makes you wonder what James Madison, the foremost architect of the U.S. Constitution would say about all this. After all, he did famously write in the Federalist Papers, "If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy."
Yet some say that we should willingly give up our privacy with the argument that "Why would you care unless you have something to hide?" But that argument presupposes that everyone who works within the government is always completely virtuous and honest. Indeed perhaps, it wouldn't be so worrisome if people felt that they could always rely on their government to make wise, judicial decisions in regards to what they do with the data gathered. However, increasingly people do not have that kind of faith and trust in government. Certainly politicians have not proven themselves to be beyond corruption, manipulation and deceit.
On the other hand, with the never-ending "War on Terror" and the accompanying culture of fear, increasing surveillance is no longer seen as an option, but as an imperative. While many people cringe at the thought of living in a world where their every move can be traced and monitored, many others welcome the thought of having "Big Brother" keep a closer eye on them. Individual humans are now the big threat. Since 9/11, some of the best scientific minds in the defense industry have switched their concentration from tracking nuclear missiles to tracking individuals who may be suicide bombers.
According to some opinion polls in both the US and Britain, a whopping 75% of those surveyed wanted more, not less, surveillance. For better or worse that wish is quickly being fulfilled.
It takes just a moment for a computer to capture an individual's image, calculate their exact height and their "Gait DNA". Gait DNA the code for how an individual walks. Eventually, the goal is to have a system whereby a facial image can be matched to your gait, your height, your weight and other elements, so a computer will be able to instantly identify whoever is being monitored.
Professor Rama Challapa of Maryland University and his team are busy inventing the next generation of citizen surveillance. He says tracking individuals shouldn't be a problem.
"We rely on just 30 frames - about one second - to get a picture we can work with," he explained. "As you walk through a crowd, we'll be able to track you," said Professor Challapa. "These are all things that don't need the cooperation of the individual."
But so far, there's no way for the government to actually peep inside our homes, right? Well, according to scientist Ian Kitajima says that's about to change too. He helped developed a new sense-through-the-wall technology that uses radio waves to give a fairly clear picture of what's going on inside of buildings.
"Each individual has a characteristic profile," explained Kitajima, holding a green rectangular box that looked like a TV remote control.
His company, Oceanit, will test the device with the Hawaiian National Guard in Iraq next year. The technology is so sensitive that it can even detect breathing and heart rates.
"First, you can tell whether someone is dead or alive on the battlefield," explained Kitajima. "But it will also show whether someone inside a house is looking to harm you, because if they are, their heart rate will be raised. And 10 years from now, the technology will be much smarter. We'll scan a person with one of these things and tell what they're actually thinking."
But what will privacy mean in a world where a computer can read your mind without your knowledge? What happens to freedom when those in power have access to even the most private information imaginable?
Those are questions that we may live to see the answers.<p>
Watch the first three episodes online here.