Reconsidering Total Information Awareness

Following the example of the United Kingdom, San Francisco officials have installed two surveillance cameras in a high-crime area. This popular trend is perhaps only the beginning of an “always on” surveillance society.

Compared with the 4.2 million cameras installed in the UK, San Francisco’s two are perhaps laughable. Even so, they made mayor Gavin Newsom squeamish.

“It took me a year to be convinced that cameras were the right thing and I’m still not convinced,” he said. In his worries about civil liberties and the potential abuse of surveillance power, the mayor is far from alone.

Raging Against the Machine

Left-leaning privacy watchdogs continue to rage against the machines and high-profile individuals like former Republican Congressman Bob Barr argue that American liberty is on an “endangered list.” Is it?

Liberty has not degraded in either the UK or the United States, but monitoring technologies continue to spread quickly. At the same time, the ability to catch terrorists and criminals has accelerated. Does this mean that concerns are overblown and that freedom-lovers can sit back and relax?

No, the adage that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom remains true today. However, there’s now proof that surveillance technologies can be deployed without harming liberty. But for it to work in the long term, conditions must be right.

Government must maintain transparency and hold no monopoly on technology tools. At least one of these conditions has been met and the other, perhaps ironically, can be achieved through more technology, not less. Already, because of innovation and capabilities driven by Moore’s Law, citizens in many countries enjoy access to small cameras and videophones that can record everything that government cameras can capture.

Changing Mindsets

Indeed, after the 7/7 London bombings, it was footage from commuter’s videophones that the major television networks relied upon. Literally within minutes people were blogging and uploading images to the Internet. But technology deployment is often an easier task than changing bureaucratic institutions that have an incentive to stay out of the spotlight.

Creating government transparency so that tech-savvy populations can watch the watchers will be tough, but could be bolstered by programs that monitor when and what data government employees access. Artificial intelligence could also be used to monitor connections between various actors in government to predict who might be misbehaving.

Does that sound a lot like a controversial program associated with a figure from the Iran-Contra scandal days? It should, and that’s ironically the type of plan that could help protect civil liberties. In the fight for freedom, technology is not the enemy. It is a tool that can be used by all sides.

Yet ever since DARPA announced plans for a Total Information Awareness (TIA) program to use Americans’ personal data in predicting terrorist behavior, privacy advocates have been fruitlessly trying to stop the technology. Sure, it’s true that TIA was officially shut down, but there are reports that work is still being done and of course there have been similar developments like the MATRIX and others.

Accept the Inevitable

The point is that the growth of technology can’t be stopped, and if the system works to find terrorists, it can be used to find bad government actors as well. This is what those who are eternally vigilant should be working towards.

A recent poll by privacy certification group TRUSTe showed that most Americans like the idea of adding biometric data to identification like drivers licenses (74 percent), social security cards (75 percent), and passports (79 percent). These figures tell a story of a population sick of ID theft, but they also reveal that the American public feels confident enough that technology can be implemented in a liberty-abiding fashion.

It’s time to accept the ideas behind TIA-type systems and use them to catch both terrorists and keep a watchful eye on those who would erode liberty.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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