Can We Have Electronic Privacy, Security and Freedom, All in the Same Time?

I was scanning absent-mindedly the public transport vehicles parading in front of me when I noticed a new bus model. That happened not because it was dramatically different, but because it was red and it stopped in a place usually visited by blue buses. That gets my attention! While my unconscious was busy observing colours, my conscious-self stopped to examine an unusual video-camera. How cute! Protruding from the exterior top-edge of the bus, just above the mid-doors, the device was almost unnoticeable. Just like a little rounded soft bump, the camera had its own electronic eye looking down towards the door and the back of the bus. It reminded me of the chameleon.

At that moment the image of the bus, people waiting and moving slowly through the mid section to take their seats, the cameras and the monitor hanging on the ceiling with its images silently switching at regular intervals from one view to another, the whole picture stroke me as how much our urban environment has changed, almost by stealth. The bus – the symbol of slow pace and simplicity- has become such a sophisticated electronic beast.  Video sensors are all over it communicating continuously with a central base. The entire vehicle has become a data collector, not just a record keeper to be used only in case of public disorder. Think about how quickly the quality of the monitors has improved in the past decade. The video frames were a joke. Who could identify anyone that committed a crime from a trail of rough pixels smudged over a screen with dubious colours? We now have HD. Faces are easily identifiable; everyone’s face.

Notice how this is a two-edged sword: it is easier to catch a few trouble makers, but it is also easier to monitor everyone else. This system could be used to track your normal citizens who are blissfully unaware that someone is watching them. We do have the technology now to raise the surveillance bar to dangerous levels, and no one knows for sure how this is going to end-up. Face recognition technology means that someone with access to public data could trace your movements during the day by simply running a process that identifies your face and re-constructs your day. A commercial firm in UK used facial images of people who ‘like’ a retailer’s Facebook page to identify those who visit the shop in person with video cameras installed on the premises. This works great for targeted advertising.

So what?  This is better service, isn’t it? It is true, well,  at least not dangerous. But what if something or someone wants to get something by influencing the public to agree with an idea, which is not necessarily good for the people, but certainly for the benefit of the few? They could target all those individuals that have similar patterns to inoculate message with deep emotional impact, in a way that doesn’t involve obvious advertising, but personal and ‘natural’ communication. This entity could be anything. Anything that is able to conceive a goal that can be described in broad terms: patterns, data, large scale behaviours. Such a goal has no room for personal considerations of the many of us.

The bus I chose to pick on is chicken feed. You want something scarier? Meet ARGUS: the world’s highest resolution video surveillance platform.

With its 1.8 gigapixel video camera, ARGUS can create contextual movements of individual, vehicles, or anything sizeable that moves, for the duration of any day, in the area in which this device was ordered to scan.

I am not a fan of conspiracy theories at all. I am even sceptical that any individual or group of individual would be able to exploit this vast network of sensors and data in which we are enmeshed and destined to become smaller (even though smart!) nodes stripped of any major significance as individuals. But I wonder if the sheer size of this nervous system isn’t bound to create a consciousness that may set goals beyond our grasp. The internet of things will definitely make this more interesting over the next decade.

I recall the day when I bought a Gateway PC (this was about 17 years ago, I think) that came with a Kodak camera (DC25) equipped with a 256k pixels sensor. A few months ago I got a 36M pixels camera. This is an increase of over 1,000 times in resolution. Imagine what kind of world we will live in twenty years from now, with software that will be able to sift through mountains of data and find you wherever you are no matter what you do. What is the meaning of privacy, security and individual freedom in a world like that?