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Life in Technology's Invisible Panopticon

By Richard Adhikari
Aug 27, 2010 5:00 AM PT

Technology is a wonderful thing. It has given us many good things, including the pacemaker, the radio, TV, prosthetic limbs and eyes that help the lame and the blind, instant communications by way of the Internet and mobile phones. Proponents of technology point to all this as evidence that technology gives us freedom.

Life in Technology's Invisible Panopticon

But technology has also made it easier to limit our freedom in ways few realize.

For example, Apple was recently awarded a patent for technology that could identify users of iPod touches, iPads or iPhones by their heartbeats, voiceprints and mug shots. It would compare these to the biometric data of the authorized owner stored in a database. If the two sets of data don't match, the operating system could restrict access to some applications or shut down the device and send a warning to the authorized owner.

The technology would geotag the device's location by automatically taking several photographs of its surroundings and identifying distinguishing landmarks in the photos.

Apple's rationale is that this would help protect authorized users from the theft of their identities and devices, in addition to protecting their online bank accounts and other sensitive data.

Eye in the Sky

Not mentioned in this pie-in-the-sky picture is the question of how the device (or Apple, for that matter) would get the authorized owner's biometric data and whether or not the authorized owner's permission would be sought for obtaining that data.

The bigger problem, however, is that this technology can be used for far more sinister purposes by any government to spy on its citizens to an unprecedented degree. How much would any government, including ours, resist the temptation to monitor citizens it considers suspect? And how reliable would the decisions of those who deem citizens suspect be?

It wasn't so very long ago that the FBI instituted warrantless phone taps on people's phone lines; the major phone carriers have since been given immunity for their cooperation with Washington's unwarranted spying on citizens.

Every Step You Take

The U.S. government continues to collect data about American citizens, often in secret, and sometimes in contradiction of its own stated policies.

Apparently, law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have been deploying vans equipped with x-ray scanners that can see through clothes and walls in our streets, Forbes Magazine reported.

These are being used to search for car bombs.

What is to prevent the operators from peeking at people to see what they look like under their clothes? Already the U.S. Marshals Service has admitted to storing more than 35,000 images of body scans in response to a query from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

The Department of Homeland Security plans to install body scanners like the one used by the U.S. Marshals Service at all airports. These scanners register enough detail that Transportation Security Administration employee Rolando Negrin allegedly beat up a coworker at Miami International Airport in May for making fun of his physical endowments after the colleague saw an image of Negrin's body scan.

Freedom's Just Another Word

In May, the House of Representatives approved legislation that allows the collection of DNA from people aged 18 and above who are arrested for, charged with, or indicted for crimes ranging from aggravated assault to murder. Their DNA will be included in CODIS, the FBI's combined DNA Index System.

This is Bill H.R. 4614, titled the "Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Collection Act of 2010." It has been read twice in the Senate and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.

In other words, it lets the police collect DNA from a suspect for inclusion in CODIS prior to conviction, in direct contravention of the presumption of innocence which lies at the very heart of our justice system. What was that again about it being better that 10 guilty men escape than one innocent man suffer?

Even if the charges against a suspect are later dropped or thrown out of court because the suspect was wrongfully accused, that person's DNA is on file. Add that to the footprinting of newborns in hospital to prevent kidnapping or accidental baby swapping (even though that occurs less than one time in 10,000), the monitoring of our phone calls and Internet access, and now the possibility that our own mobile devices can be used to spy on us, and you have a surveillance Web over Americans that Uncle Joe Stalin would have been proud of.

Perhaps we should recall what Martin Luther King said about freedom never being voluntarily given by the oppressor but having to be demanded by the oppressed. When you don't have a say in what data is collected about you by anyone on legally shaky grounds, then you are oppressed indeed, even if you don't realize it.


TechNewsWorld columnist and reporter Richard Adhikari has been writing about high-tech since the mid-1980s, when he was editor of Computerworld Hong Kong. He was editor of Direct Access (now Computerworld Canada) and InfoCanada. He was senior writer at Planet IT and wrote extensively for Information Week, the IW 500, Software Magazine, Client-Server Computing, and Application Development Trends, among other publications. He wonders where high-tech is going but loves it anyhow.


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