Big Brother: now and forever!

Big Brother is watching us all
The US and UK governments are developing increasingly sophisticated gadgets to keep individuals under their surveillance. When it comes to technology, the US is determined to stay ahead of the game.
15 September 2007
By Humphrey Hawksley

“Five nine, five ten,” said the research student, pushing down a laptop button to seal the measurement. “That’s your height.”

“Spot on,” I said.

“OK, we’re freezing you now,” interjected another student, studying his computer screen. “So we have height and tracking and your gait DNA”.

“Gait DNA?” I interrupted, raising my head, so inadvertently my full face was caught on a video camera.

“Have we got that?” asked their teacher Professor Rama Challapa. “We rely on just 30 frames – about one second – to get a picture we can work with,” he explained.

Tracking individuals
I was at Maryland University just outside Washington DC, where Professor Challapa and his team are inventing the next generation of citizen surveillance.

They had pushed back furniture in the conference room for me to walk back and forth and set up cameras to feed my individual data back to their laptops.

Gait DNA, for example, is creating an individual code for the way I walk. Their goal is to invent a system whereby a facial image can be matched to your gait, your height, your weight and other elements, so a computer will be able to identify instantly who you are.

“As you walk through a crowd, we’ll be able to track you,” said Professor Challapa. “These are all things that don’t need the cooperation of the individual.”

Since 9/11, some of the best scientific minds in the defence industry have switched their concentration from tracking nuclear missiles to tracking individuals such as suicide bombers.

Surveillance society
My next stop was a Pentagon agency whose headquarters is a drab suburban building in Virginia. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) had one specific mission – to ensure that when it comes to technology America is always ahead of the game.

Its track record is impressive. Back in the 70s, while we were working with typewriters and carbon paper, Darpa was developing the internet. In the 90s, while we pored over maps, Darpa invented satellite navigation that many of us now have in our cars.

“We ask the top people what keeps them awake at night,” said its enthusiastic and forthright director Dr Tony Tether, “what problems they see long after they have left their posts.”

“And what are they?” I asked.

He paused, hand on chin. “I’d prefer not to say. It’s classified.”

“All right then, can you say what you’re actually working on now.”

“Oh, language,” he answered enthusiastically, clasping his fingers together. “Unless we’re going to train every American citizen and soldier in 16 different languages we have to develop a technology that allows them to understand – whatever country they are in – what’s going on around them.

“I hope in the future we’ll be able to have conversations, if say you’re speaking in French and I’m speaking in English, and it will be natural.”

“And the computer will do the translation?”

“Yep. All by computer,” he said.

“And this idea about a total surveillance society,” I asked. “Is that science fiction?”

“No, that’s not science fiction. We’re developing an unmanned airplane – a UAV – which may be able to stay up five years with cameras on it, constantly being cued to look here and there. This is done today to a limited amount in Baghdad. But it’s the way to go.”

Smarter technology
Interestingly, we, the public, don’t seem to mind. Opinion polls, both in the US and Britain, say that about 75% of us want more, not less, surveillance. Some American cities like New York and Chicago are thinking of taking a lead from Britain where our movements are monitored round the clock by four million CCTV cameras.

So far there is no gadget that can actually see inside our houses, but even that’s about to change.

Ian Kitajima flew to Washington from his laboratories in Hawaii to show me sense-through-the-wall technology.

“Each individual has a characteristic profile,” explained Ian, holding a green rectangular box that looked like a TV remote control.

Using radio waves, you point it a wall and it tells you if anyone is on the other side. His company, Oceanit, is due to test it with the Hawaiian National Guard in Iraq next year, and it turns out that the human body gives off such sensitive radio signals, that it can even pick up breathing and heart rates.

“First, you can tell whether someone is dead or alive on the battlefield,” said Ian.

“But it will also show whether someone inside a house is looking to harm you, because if they are, their heart rate will be raised. And 10 years from now, the technology will be much smarter. We’ll scan a person with one of these things and tell what they’re actually thinking.”

He glanced at me quizzically, noticing my apprehension.

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “It sounds very Star Trekkish, but that’s what’s ahead.”

Bush calls for expansion of spy law
September 19, 2007

FORT MEADE, Md. – President Bush said Wednesday that a law hastily passed in August to temporarily give the government more power to eavesdrop without warrants on foreign terror suspects must be made permanent and expanded.

If this doesn’t happen, Bush said, “Our national security professionals will lose critical tools they need to protect our country.”

“Without these tools, it will be harder to figure out what our enemies are doing to train, recruit and infiltrate operatives into America,” he said on a visit to the super-secret National Security Agency’s headquarters in suburban Fort Meade, Md. “Without these tools, our country will be much more vulnerable to attack.”

The 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act governs when warrants for eavesdropping must be obtained from a secret intelligence court. This year’s update — approved by the Senate and House just before Congress adjourned for an August break — allows more efficient interceptions of foreign communications.

Under the new law — the Protect America Act — the government can eavesdrop, without a court order, on communications conducted by a person reasonably believed to be outside the United States, even if an American is on one end of the conversation — so long as that American is not the intended focus or target of the surveillance.

That change was urgently requested by the Bush administration, which said that the modernization of communications technology had created a dire gap in the nation’s terrorism intelligence collection capabilities.

Such surveillance was generally prohibited under the original FISA law if the wiretap was conducted inside the United States, unless a court approved it. Because of changes in telecommunications technology, many more foreign communications now flow through the United States. The new law allows those to be tapped without a court order.

But civil liberties groups and many Democrats say the new changes go too far. Congress’ Democratic leaders set it to expire in six months so that it could be fine-tuned, and that process is beginning on Capitol Hill now.

Democrats hope to change the law to provide additional oversight when the government eavesdrops on U.S. residents communicating with overseas parties.

Bush timed his visit to the NSA facility to press his case.

“The threat from al Qaida is not going to expire in 135 days,” he said, “so I call on Congress to make the Protect America Act permanent.”

He also pleaded with lawmakers to expand the law, not restrict it. One provision particularly important to the administration, but opposed by many Democrats, would grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies which may have helped the government conduct surveillance prior to January 2007 without a court order.

Bush was joined at the podium in an NSA hallway by Vice President Dick Cheney, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell and others.

The president received private briefings from intelligence officials and mingled with employees in the National Threat Operations Center. While cameras and reporters were in the room, the large video screens that lined the walls displayed unclassified information on computer crime and signal intelligence.

Along one wall at NSA is a sign that says, “We won’t back down. We never have. We never will.”

Facebook, MySpace users will trade privacy for features
Research finds that users know security is lacking, but they still like social networks
September 18, 2007
By Heather Havenstein

Facebook and MySpace users are willing to let the sites sell their personal data in return for access to the sites’ social networking features, according to new research from Pace University.

Researchers at the university queried users of Facebook and MySpace in August, asking for their views of the privacy protections offered by the sites and their feelings about how much personal information they are willing to post on social networking sites.

Catherine Dwyer, a professor at Pace who worked on the study, noted that most Facebook and MySpace users said that they’re willing to develop online relationships even though they believe that trust and privacy safeguards are weak.

Users seem to view the social networking sites as a way to get online profiles, photos and the like for free while the sites “can take all their data and do whatever they want with it,” she noted.

“Both sites are really interested in monetizing this information as much as possible,” she said. “They don’t exist to give people ways to upload photos.”

Less than 5% of MySpace users surveyed and slightly more than 5% of Facebook users surveyed said they believe that the personal information they put on the sites is strongly protected.

Still, the respondents told researchers that are willing to share personal details with others on the sites. More than 85% of respondents in both groups reported that they would share a photo of themselves on a social networking sites, and 91% of Facebook users and 62% of MySpace users said they use their real name on such sites, according to the study.

In addition, 87% of Facebook users and 41% of MySpace users post their personal e-mail addresses on the sites.

And even though 32% of MySpace users strongly agree that other users exaggerate information in their profiles, nearly half of them said that they are willing to get together in person with people they meet online, Dwyer noted.

“Here is this site where they express …a high level of distrust in other people, yet 44% said they have met someone through the site,” she said. “People have this bullet-proof notion about their own ability to manage themselves online. They don’t really depend on the site to filter any of this stuff.”

Dwyer also noted that users at both sites may be naive when it comes to their notions of how the sites may be using the data they provide about themselves. She pointed to a report in The New York Times on Tuesday about MySpace’s plans to use data-mining techniques to gather information for advertisers seeking to market products to users of its site.

In the study, only 18% of Facebook users and 21% of MySpace users said that they strongly agreed that the site would not use their personal information for any other purpose than as part of their profile.

“There is a real disconnect between [the beliefs of] people using these sites and the way the privacy management is set,” she said. “You transfer privacy to this digital realm and there are only two states – it is private…or it is public, and there is potential for every single person in the world to know about it.”

2 thoughts on “Big Brother: now and forever!”

  1. when the part of me that says “it’s not really that bad, is it?” comes around, i tell him this:

    When they took the Fourth Amendment,
        I was quiet because I didn’t deal drugs.
    When they took the Sixth Amendment,
        I was quiet because I was innocent.
    When they took the Second Amendment,
        I was quiet because I didn’t own a gun.
    Now they’ve taken the First Amendment,
        and I can say nothing about it.

    they’ve already effectively eliminated the first, fourth, and sixth amendments… i get the impression that they’re not going near the second because the supporters have them out-gunned, but then again, the people with guns, are, for the most part, perfectly happy with no first, fourth and sixth amendments anyway…

  2. Some part of me wants them to drop the premise and say point-blank what they’re really doing, so that we can get about the business of knocking over those institutions, and some part wants to say “It’s not really that bad, is it?”

    But all told, I’d rather have the honesty and go out and buy a pair of steel-toed arse-kickers.

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