Chilling New Technologies for Surveillance

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’. 

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Unsafe software

Most of the recent attention about risks arising from the use of digital technologies has focused on security, including concerns over data breaches and Russian election hacking; privacy, as revelations about misuse of Facebook data have accelerated in number; and AI, because we have become aware of life-or-death decisions that are increasingly being placed in the hands of bots and robots, as, for example, in their roles in autonomous vehicles and weapons.

Yet there are risks with other technology that we regard as mature and benevolent.  Consider, for example, software that assists pilots in guiding, stabilizing, and landing airplanes.  Most recently, these risks have become apparent in the case of the Boeing 737 Max.  There were two crashes with many fatalities, one in Indonesia in October 2018, the other in Ethiopia in early March 2019.

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