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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Perpetual Surveillance Society

By George Monbiot for AlterNet.

February 23, 2006.

It received just a few column inches in a couple of papers, but the story I read last week looks to me like a glimpse of the future. A company in Ohio called CityWatcher has implanted radio transmitters into the arms of two of its workers. The implants ensure that only they can enter the strongroom. Apparently it is "the first known case in which U.S. workers have been tagged electronically as a way of identifying them." The transmitters are tiny (about the size of a grain of rice), cheap ($150 and falling fast), safe and stable. Without being maintained or replaced, they can identify someone for many years. They are injected, with a local anesthetic, into the upper arm. They require no power source, as they become active only when scanned. There are no technical barriers to their wider deployment. The company that makes these "radio frequency identification tags," the VeriChip Corp., says they "combine access control with the location and protection of individuals." The chips can also be implanted in hospital patients, especially children and people who are mentally incapacitated. When doctors want to know who they are and what their medical history is, they simply scan them in. This, apparently, is "an empowering option to affected individuals." For a while a school in California toyed with the idea of implanting the chips in all its pupils.

A tag like this has a maximum range of a few meters. But another implantable device emits a signal that allows someone to be found or tracked by satellite. The patent notice says it can be used to locate the victims of kidnapping, or people lost in the wilderness. There are, in other words, plenty of legitimate uses for implanted chips. This is why they bother me. A technology whose widespread deployment, if attempted now, would be greeted with horror, will gradually become unremarkable. As this happens, its purpose will begin to creep.

At first the tags will be more widely used for workers with special security clearance. No one will be forced to wear one; no one will object. Then hospitals -- and a few in the United States are already doing this -- will start scanning their unconscious or incoherent patients to see whether or not they have a tag. Insurance companies might start to demand that vulnerable people are chipped. The armed forces will discover that they are more useful than dog tags for identifying injured soldiers or for tracking troops who are lost or have been captured by the enemy. Prisons will soon come to the same conclusion. Then sweatshops in developing countries will begin to catch on. Already the overseers seek to control their workers to the second, determining when they clock in, when they visit the toilet, even the number of hand movements they perform. A chip makes all this easier. The workers will not be forced to have them, any more than they are forced to have sex with their bosses, but if they don't accept the conditions, they don't get the job. After that, it surely won't be long before asylum seekers are confronted with a similar choice: You don't have to accept an implant, but if you refuse, you can't stay in the country.

I think it will probably stop there. I don't believe that you or I, or most comfortable, mentally competent people will be forced to wear a tag. But it will become an increasingly acceptable means of tracking and identifying people who could be a danger to themselves, or who could be at risk of sudden illness or disappearance, or who are otherwise hard for companies or governments to control. They will, on the whole, be people whose political voice is muted. As it is with all such intrusions on our privacy, it won't be easy to put your finger on exactly what's wrong with this technology. It won't really amount to a new form of control, as all the people who accept the implants will already be subject to monitoring or tracking of one kind or another. It will always be voluntary, at least to the extent that anything the state or our employers want us to do is voluntary. But there is something utterly revolting about it. It is another means by which the barriers between ourselves and the state, ourselves and the corporation, ourselves and the machine are broken down. In that tiny capsule we find the paradox of 21st century capitalism: A political system that celebrates choice, autonomy and individualism above all other virtues demands that choice, autonomy and individualism are perpetually suppressed.

While implanted chips will not lead to the mass scanning of the population, another use of the same technology quite possibly will. At the end of last month, a leaked letter from Andy Burnham, Britain's Home Office minister, revealed that the identity cards for which we will involuntarily volunteer will contain radio frequency identification chips. This will allow the authorities to read the cards with a scanner. I propose that as the technology improves, the police will be able to scan a crowd and (assuming everyone is carrying his voluntary-compulsory ID card) produce a list of people in it. I further propose that it will take only a year or two for this to seem reasonable. Already we have become used to the police filming demonstrations for the same purpose. When they started doing it, about 10 years ago, it caused outrage. It gave us the impression that by protesting we became suspects. But now we don't even notice them, not even to the extent of waving and shouting, "Hello, Mum." Like every other intrusion on our privacy, they have become normal.

I also propose that the mass scanning these identification chips will allow will be assisted by another kind of surveillance technology. Last week, campaigners in west Wales obtained a letter sent by the Welsh Development Agency to Ceredigion County Council. It revealed that the agency, with the help of the European Union, is setting up an industrial estate outside Aberystwyth. Its purpose is the "market acceleration" of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). With the help of companies such as Bae Systems, Rolls Royce and our new friend Qinetiq, the agency hopes to find the best way of encouraging the "routine operation of UAV systems UK-wide." Ceredigion council's website lists various functions of the UAVs, of which the first is "law enforcement."

So the police won't even have to be there. Someone sitting in a control room could fly a tiny drone (some of them are just a few inches across) equipped with a receiver over the heads of a crowd and, with the help of our new identity cards, determine who's there. It sounds quite mad, just as the idea of biometric identity cards in the United Kingdom once did. All these new technologies somehow contrive to seem both wildly implausible and entirely likely. There will be no dramatic developments. We will not step out of our homes one morning to discover that the state, or our boss, or our insurance company, knows everything about us. But, if the muted response to the ID card is anything to go by, we will gradually submit, in the name of our own protection, to the demands of the machine. And it will not then require a tyrannical new government to deprive us of our freedom. Step by voluntary step, we will have given it up already.

25 comments:

actual truthseeker said...

Come, come now.

The secret you have been keeping from your readership is that you work beside people who buy these things. You patently know this isn't true, but are still prepared to repeat things which you are fully aware are absolute rubbish. Why?

I'm sorry, were you keeping it a secret that you worked for the government in the defence industry?

CyberKitten said...

Are we (presumably the UK Government) or are we not buying these things? - I have no idea if we are. As far as I am aware they are still pretty much in their infancy. It wouldn't surprise me if we were at least investigating the idea.

How can I *know* these things are not true? Do YOU know they aren't? Especially as most of the comments in the article are speculations regarding possible future events....

As an 'actual' truthseeker (presumably implying that I am nothing of the sort) have you in fact discovered the 'truth'.? If so I'm sure we'd all love to hear it...

actual truthseeker said...

It's stated in the blogs of your friends you work for the Ministry Of Defence at the place where a quick googling of the department reveals they are built.

I think it's quite clear from your denial to acknowledge this - much less admit what goes on - which one of us is actually closer to the 'truth', as you have it.

Unless you're calling Craziequeen, Aginoth and Sleepypete liars for linking you to their workplace, which seems a curious thing to do with people on your links list.

Or is there something wrong with admitting it?

CyberKitten said...

AT said: It's stated in the blogs of your friends you work for the Ministry Of Defence at the place where a quick googling of the department reveals they are built.

'They' being what exactly? RFID's? UAV's ID cards? According to the article: the company that makes these "radio frequency identification tags," is the VeriChip Corp - not the MoD.

I'm curious as to what relationship you think there is between how I earn a crust and the things I post on my Blog.

Also I actually offer very little personal information here as you can see from my rather sparse profile. So what?

craziequeen said...

I'm puzzled - where on my blog does it mention I work in the Ministry of Defence.....?

And who is this person taking my name in vain? I have no idea who he/she is but I object to their tone.

Add to this the fact that I have not yet made public my opinion of ID cards (and am unlikely to), and the inclusion of my name in this debate by 'actual truthseeker' is even more insulting....

cq

actual truthseeker said...

You offer very little personal information, but your friends do not.

I'm more curious as to why you won't admit your linkage to the things you claim to know nothing about than you are of any relationship between them, I'm sure, but I'm not sure I want to waste any more time with someone who is such a stranger to the truth - or so actively denies it. Will you deny it thrice?

Be seeing you.

craziequeen said...

well, 'actual truthseeker' - I can see you're a big one for denial yourself...

blank profile?

non-existent blog URL?

and magically you appear here to heckle cyberkitten.

I have no time for 'invisible' people.

cq

CyberKitten said...

Strange isn't it.... Always the anonymous ones............

Sleepypete said...

Anyone know a good lawyer ?

Drop the anonymity Mr "Actual" Truthseeker, give some truth of your own. Put up or shut up.

(Goes off to look at Hit Counter logs to get a better idea of Mr Nobody is)

dbackdad said...

That has to be one of the most bizarre exchanges I have ever read.

CK, why don't you just admit you work for the Ministry of Defence? --- ha, ha, ha. Hilarious. Someone forgot to take their meds this morning.

CyberKitten said...

Weird eh................?

I think I may have annoyed someone... somewhere.... Not like me at all... [grin].

I suppose that I *could* admit it... but then I'd have to kill anyone who reads this Blog. [rotflmao].

Sleepypete said...

Muahaha - I refuse to listen to allegations that I could be associated with such an outfit ;-).

Unless you mean the Mercenaries MoD of course ... Proud to be a member. I pay a subscription ...

uberchap said...

Interesting exchanges.

I haven't started developing my own blog so I don't know how my virtual personality may end up in comparison with my real one.

But, it would be interesting to compare virtual personalities with real ones to see if people project anything different about themselves online as opposed to in the flesh.

Would you say to friends what you say here, subject matter permitting ?

Are blogs our compensation for percieved inadequacies or are they our pictures of Dorian Gray. Are they what we could be if we tried or are they what we really are without the makeup.

Sadie Lou said...

I love it! I used to think I was the only blogger in our circle of "friends" that got anonymous people stirring up crap. I have had to become somewhat of a Blog-Nazi when it comes to anonymous comments. I hold to the concept that people who want to have a voice should be bold enough to include a name--especially if what they are saying is inflammatory.

uberchap--
My blog is just a creative expression or exstension of myself. I don't discuss anything that I wouldn't feel comfortable discussing in 'real time' conversations. I get the feeling most of my blog friends are the same...

dbackdad said...

Ubershap and Sadie,

Agreed. I try to be completely honest on my blog and I don't say anything that I don't (or won't) say to my friends in person. If anything, my blog has helped me be more honest in real life. I certainly understand those people that use a blog experimentally to test out a persona or something, but that's not me.

CyberKitten said...

uberchap asked: Would you say to friends what you say here, subject matter permitting ?

Yes, of course. Quite a few of my friends read my Blog anyway and are fully aware of my various opinions on things - though there's some things that they still don't know about me.

As far as I know I don't have a 'virtual' persona. What you see here is me... or at least the bits of me I choose to present in this public forum...

Sleepypete said...

I use my blog as a kind of therapy. It let me talk or at least think through some things I needed to think about. I found that easier to do out in the open than what I'd usually do - think about it just in my own head.

Maybe that's why I've not been updating my Blog so much lately - maybe I've gone beyond needing that therapy ? (chuckle) Will have to do a report on the cricket season so far ;-) It won't take long !

dbackdad said...

Sleepypete -- He-he. Heaven knows most of us could use some therapy.

Vancouver Voyeur said...

I remember discussing these tags not too long ago. I think it was either on Sadie's or Tshsmom's site when we were discussing tagging pedophiles. This is very scary and I think your pathway is correct on how they will come to be used in one area and spread to another. But I do see everyone using them eventually. It will start with children being tagged, keeping the tags through adulthood and then tagging the next generation. *shudder*

Juggling Mother said...

I agree with the post that the tags will slowly become commonplace.

As you know, i don't really have a problem with this. It's called progress. technology can be used in many ways, but it doesn't mean it always will, or that the technology is bad.

I won't be tagging my husband & kids right now - no real point. But when the tags contain your ID, emergency contact details, medical info, act as credit cards, a direct link to the www, and whatever else they think up, I am sure we'll all be fighting for them.

ummm, you know they can trace you to within three metres using your mobile phone - even when it's off, don't you?

And that you are never more than 300? 500? (I can't quite remember) metres from a CCTV camera in the UK?

And that all garages have numberplate recognition camera's now to check where your car is going?

And that dozens of companies have tons of personal data about you kept on file, and correlated with other details they buy/collect/aquire?

Sadie Lou said...

People are using microchips to tag their pets in case they run away. My fear is that if we started using this technology on our kids, the predators will search our children's bodies for the tag so that they could remove it.
Not a good idea.

CyberKitten said...

What concerns me most of all is that we seem particularly careless regarding developing new methods and technologies that can be so easily abused. Sure technological advancement has always been a two (or more) edged sword, but do we *really* want to make things easier for possible or - by the looks of things - probable future totalitarian Governments?

Are we going to (seriously) regret making this technology available to anyone with the money and the will to use it?

Juggling Mother said...

"do we *really* want to make things easier for possible or - by the looks of things - probable future totalitarian Governments?
"


see, thats where we differ: I don't belive it is probable that we will see more totalitarian gov's in the future. I tend to believe thatideas, once learned, are difficult to unlearn, and the people (at home & abroad) will not accept totalitarian rule for long - we will see less of them in the future, not more.

the benefits of the technology invariably outweigh the possible abusives. this has been true throughout history - even when the technology was specific ally designed for war-fare, other, peaceful uses have appeared once the technology is available. What we need to ensure is that the technology IS in the the public domain & not restricted to a few governments!

CyberKitten said...

Mrs A said: I don't belive it is probable that we will see more totalitarian gov's in the future. I tend to believe that ideas, once learned, are difficult to unlearn, and the people (at home & abroad) will not accept totalitarian rule for long - we will see less of them in the future, not more.

I do hope that you're right.. but I fear that you are wrong. It seems that humanity only learns lessons slowly, often needing 'refeshers' along the way. I see an unfortunate drift towards totalitarian style governments on both sides of the Big Pond without much sense of any kind of opposition. But I guess that only time will tell.

uberchap said...

CyberKitten said...
What concerns me most of all is that we seem particularly careless regarding developing new methods and technologies that can be so easily abused. Sure technological advancement has always been a two (or more) edged sword, but do we *really* want to make things easier for possible or - by the looks of things - probable future totalitarian Governments?

Are we going to (seriously) regret making this technology available to anyone with the money and the will to use it?

7:31 PM

Technology itself is morally neutral. Splitting the atom, the invention of dynamite, bows and arrows or even holding a rock in your fist to magnify the force of a blow can be used to good effect or bad effect.

We should not halt scientific progress because of fear of misuse.