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Welcome to the Surveillance Society

By Steve Christ
Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

Out of the smoking ruins of 9/11, a new world emerged. Part scared and part determined, governments around the world are increasingly turning to surveillance of anyone and everyone in hopes of preventing the next attack. And while you may not realize it, your movements are being watched, tracked, and catalogued every day because of it.

It is a place where digital technology careens down a path of both intrusion and scrutiny, and it's being built on the notion that we'll all be safer because of it.

Because of this trend, video surveillance has now become the security industry's fastest-growing segment-with nearly one in four major cities in America investing in the new technology, according to industry analysts.

In fact, demand for these products has more than doubled in the last five years, and is expected to grow into a $21 billion market by 2010.

Part of that market is abroad. In London alone some two million surveillance cameras now keep watch. During the last decade the British government has spent nearly $1 billion dollars on these devices, installing one for every 14 citizens.

Other cities of the world have followed suit, and this has led to a world where anyone can be videotaped literally hundreds of times a day in any of the world's major cities.

But unlike the tape-based machines that have been used to keep tabs on us in the past, these new systems are digital-which means that every bit of data can be not just stored, but analyzed. "Intelligent video" can now do things that older cameras could not.

For instance, because all of the information is digitized in the new format, it can be combined with software packages that can interpret and evaluate information without constantly being watched by a set of human eyes.

This "video analytic" software can be programmed to spot dangerous patterns within the data, allowing its users more freedom to monitor other activities. Loitering and leaving unattended packages, for instance, are two things easily picked up by the software in ways that a person watching a bank of monitors cannot.

Also, because all of the files are digitized, the majority of these systems are Internet-based, so that thousand of cameras can be fed to single platform and accessed from anywhere in the world.

By combining these features with new biometric facial recognition technology, these cameras have the ability not just to watch you, but to identify you.

One of these new systems was introduced just last fall. Ominously called the Tetragate, it's straight out of Orwell's 1984. It combines facial recognition software with the RFID technology that is commonly used on identification cards. Its makers claim that it can track "any asset," including possessions, on one network.

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Developed and produced by American Barcode and RFID with technology from Infinova, Fulcrum Biometrics, Symbol Technologies, epcSolutions, and Zebra Technologies, the new system was introduced in September. It has the ability to recognize someone's identity based on the biometric facial recognition information stored in their employee ID card-from 60 feet away. And, amazingly, its software can read up to 60,000 faces in a single second.

In practice, because each face is matched to its accompanying ID card, it can monitor, track, and identify individuals and their areas, making sure that no one is where they are not supposed to be. Any exception to the match-ups, of course, triggers a security situation based on rules in place.

But these new systems are still just the tip of iceberg. New X-ray technology even gives some of these cameras the ability to peer beneath your clothing, in effect strip-searching you without your knowledge.

Recently leaked reports from the British Government exposed just such a scheme. It involved secret cameras that would be installed in lamp posts and snap "naked" pictures of passersby to uncover both criminals and terror suspects.

Where all of this ends, of course, is another matter entirely. But given the fearful world situation, the markets are surely ready to provide the type of government surveillance and intrusion envisioned by George Orwell some 60 years ago.

In fact, to a large degree it has already arrived. That's because, besides being captured by cameras everyday, our every interaction with nearly any piece of electronics, identifies us, discloses our location, and reveals our actions. Every single swipe, purchase, and keystroke is neatly recorded and duly noted.

Even our own personal conversations are not as private as we think they are. The NSA is always listening, and their supercomputers spend countless hours sniffing around for suspicious language within an untold millions of dialogues.

And so it all happens everyday, quietly, and just behind the curtains with a digital efficiency that only a government bureaucrat could love. Just remember, though, that same electronic leviathan that keeps safe collectively can turn on us individually in the blink of an eye.

So welcome to the surveillance society. It is safer here and we all sleep better because of it. Unless, of course, all of that hardware and software somehow manages to kick out your name. That's when your nightmares will really begin.

Wishing you, happiness, health, and wealth,

 

Steve Christ, Editor


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