Surveillance devices get smaller… but it’s privacy that vanishes.
I’ve been blogging for a while about miniaturization and the ‘vanishing’ of surveillance devices. This disappearance occurs in many ways, one of which is the incorporation of high-tech surveillance features into objects and devices that we are already used to or their reduction to a size and form factor that is relatively familiar. Two examples coincidentally arrived in my inbox over the last week.
The first was the news that the US Navy has awarded a development contract for binoculars that incorporate three-dimensional face-recognition technology from StereoVision Inc (who may well be the bunch of California-based face recog people I met at a biometrics industry show a few years back). This supposedly gets round the problems that standard two-dimensional face recognition has dealing with unpredictably mobile crowds of people in natural light (AKA ‘the real world’). The issue I’m highlighting here however is that we don’t expect binoculars to be equipped with face recognition. Binoculars may not be entirely socially acceptable items, and already convey implications of creepy voyeurism when used in urban or domestic situations, however this is something else entirely.
The second is the extraordinarily rapid ongoing progress towards working handheld terahertz wave technology (a far more effective form of scanning technology than either the backscatter x-ray or millimeter wave systems used in the bulky bodyscanners currently in use at airports). Just four years ago, I noted the theoretical proof that this was possible, and last month, it was revealed that police in New York were testing handheld terahertz wave scanners, (Thruvision from Digital Barriers) which of course people were likening to Star Trek’s tricorders. The idea that the police could perform a virtual strip search on the street without even having to ask is again, a pretty major change, but it’s also the case that the basic technology can be incorporated into standard video camera systems – potentially everyone with a mobile phone camera could be doing this in a few years.
I’m not a technological determinist, but in the context of societies in which suspicion, publicity and exposure are becoming increasingly socially normative, I have to ask what these technologies and many others like them imply for conventional responses based on ‘privacy’. Privacy by design is pretty much a joke when the sole purpose of such devices is to breach privacy. And control by privacy regulators is based on the ability to know that one is actually under surveillance – when everything can potentially be performing some kind of highly advanced surveillance, how is one able to tell, let alone select which of the constant breaches of privacy is worth challenging? So, do we simply ban the use of certain forms of surveillance technology in public places? How, would this be enforced given that any conventional form factor might or might not contain such technology? And would this simply result in an even more intense asymmetry of the gaze, when the military and the police have such devices, but people are prevented from using them? Do we rely of camouflage, spoofing and disabling techniques and technologies against those who might be seeking to expose us? You can bet the state will not be happy if these become widespread – just look at the police reaction to existing sousveillance and cop-watching initiatives…