Chilling New Technologies for Surveillance

Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, and author of the forthcoming Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.

Technologists are creating increasingly more sophisticated digital technologies capable of monitoring us. 

The most mature technology is that of RFID tags. Now as small as grains of rice, RFID tags typically track the location and movement of items through an assembly line, warehouse, store, or library. The tags can also be attached to personal possessions such as clothing, passports, or cash.  RFID tags can be and are implanted in animals in order to track them in the wild. This is not now done to humans, although people may be carrying items with RFIDs and be tracked without realizing it. 

Other location tracking uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) of satellites. It allows mobile devices to know where on earth they are located, and also allows location tracking on those devices, and hence to monitor the whereabouts of a person carrying the phone. A chilling example of this occurred in a political protest in Ukraine in January 2014, when individuals who were in the barricaded city centre of Kiev received text messages saying ‘Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance’. 

Another technology that can track locations is known as active badges. A modern example is the sociometric badge developed by the Human Dynamics Labs at the MIT Media lab, which records voice as well as movement. There are other smart devices that gather and make use of location and biometric data, and thereby pose risks to privacy if the data is misused. Common examples include fitness trackers and microprocessors in automobiles. As we move towards more and more implantable smart devices, there may be no way for many of us to avoid being monitored and recorded. 

All of this is part of progress towards having devices everywhere—on people, in objects, and in the walls. This idea is known as ubiquitous computing, or equally often pervasive computingThe concept was described by computer scientist Mark Weiser, who spoke glowingly of ‘integrating computers seamlessly into the world at large’, of rooms filled with a hundred invisible widgets, where even a dress had computational abilities and could communicate its price, designer, and availability. Privacy concerns arise because the proliferation of smart devices allows real-time tracking of the location and movements of individuals. Technical solutions incorporating ideas such as anonymity, obfuscation of one’s precise location, and mechanisms to establish trust have been proposed. Unfortunately, there is as of now no method that can guarantee privacy, given the inability to know if the devices one encounters can be trusted not to capture personal information that one does not want to disclose. 

Here are other recent chilling examples. Smart doorbells capture on video all that happens on your front doorstep. The huge increase in work from home caused by the pandemic has produced mandated work practices that enable employers to observe employees and monitor what they do with their computers. Smart appliances and displays in stores recognize you, and since they know everything about your past shopping, they can make recommendations to you as you move near them. Tech visionaries are busy planning smart cities with video surveillance and sensors everywhere, a topic for a future essay. 

These devices and environments will increase their surveillance potential as AI enhances their ability to identify people and track activities. For example, pervasive cameras throughout cities have growing abilities to recognize actions, emotions, and anomalies. 

FOR THINKING AND DISCUSSION 

Given that it is impossible to know, in a world of ubiquitous computing, what is watching and listening and recording you, how does society guarantee personal data privacy? 

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