Thursday, November 29, 2012

The upside of living in an omnipresent global surveillance state

The world is changing faster and faster each day. It is easy to get lost looking at the trees instead of the forest. Don't get me wrong, some of those trees are plenty interesting. Like the recent news that the world's fastest supercomputer went into operation. The Titan, as it is known, clocks in at 17.6 petaflops. What is a petaflop you ask? Well think of it this way: it would take 60,000 years for 1,000 people working at a rate of one calculation per second to complete the number of calculations that Titan can process in a single second.

Hard to wrap your head around that isn't it? Well get used to it.

All this computing power is increasingly being used to analyze the mountains of data our modern society creates (not to mention running the economy with high frequency trading algorithms). Everything from online shopping habits to political orientation is apparently fair game for the data miners.

People accuse me of exaggerating the severity of he situation (by the way, snazzy post title don't you think?) and I get some of their points. They argue that you can still choose to opt out and live as a data exile, perhaps in The Onion's Google opt-out village. But their argument breaks down with the intrusion of powerful new technologies into the public space that are creating a virtual Panopticon of surveillance that connects your physical and digital life.

Take this news about new privately available software that allows businesses to scan and track their customers with facial recognition. I can't help but think that dystopian stories like 1984 and Minority Report are being taken as instruction manuals rather than as warnings.

More troubling still is law enforcement's increasingly brazen use of technologies that violate the privacy of law abiding citizens. The Seattle Police recently demonstrated the new drones they plan on deploying in the skies above Seattle, only during emergency situations of course. They are also escalating the use of license plate scanning technologies at random throughout the city. California is going even further and creating a huge database of photos for its facial recognition crime solving program.

By now you should be asking, "didn't you say there is an upside to all of this?" Yes I did. The creators of these technologies would surely point to decreasing urban crime rates as proof that their inventions have decreased crime. But the only way to fight fire is with fire on the surveillance issue. Take my daily commute for example. On my ride home there is a stretch of "bus only" lane that many drivers (mostly in luxury SUVs, but I digress) disregard entirely. My solution? Take pictures of their license plates and send them to the police.

The SPD has actually responded asking me to send my tweets to their email address. It remains to be seen if my stand against traffic scofflaws will have any impact on the situation on Battery Street, but my solution portends a bigger and more important trend. San Francisco is taking this idea a step further and is actually encouraging its citizens to use their cameras to deter and report crime.

If the ability to record and upload video and photos in real time is available to everyone, doesn't that somewhat level the playing field? Probably not because of even more powerful cell phone signal blocking technology, but I think it is our only recourse. I was very happy to see this case get rejected by the Supreme Court since it is still illegal to use video and audio to record cops in a few states including Illinois.

So perhaps we are losing the civil liberties fight on issues like indefinite detention, warrant-less wiretapping and data mining, but at least we can still record and share the violations of our rights as they happen. It seems to be the only option we have left for fighting the steady encroachment of he omnipresent global surveillance state.

1 comment:

  1. Data is king... its artillery for the modern world