New Internationalist

They are watching you

Issue 376

THE PENTAGON CALLS IT TOTAL INFORMATION AWARENESS and it’s coming to your neighbourhood soon. Information is being gathered about you and stored in an easily searchable database. There are now over five million people on the US MASTER TERROR WATCHLIST. You say you haven’t done anything wrong. But can you prove it?

Illustration Mike Moran
Illustration Mike Moran

Closed circuit TV

Britain leads the way here with an estimated million cameras already in place. But other industrial countries are quick to follow. It’s hard to go anywhere (at least anywhere urban) without being caught on video. It used to be just banks, police stations and sensitive government buildings. But now you get to ‘star’ in your own life in all kinds of places. Airports, train stations, shopping malls: you are on candid camera! Since 9/11 there have been attempts to link up CCTV with other identification technologies. The Visionics FaceIt technology being deployed in Boston’s Logan Airport, for example, compares facial characteristics of travellers, airport employees and flight crews with those of known terrorists. The 100,000-plus crowd at the 2001 Superbowl in Tampa, Florida, was scanned and 19 petty criminals were recognized. But the idea of adapting CCTV to biometrics to discover identities has real limits – it is projected that to find one terrorist there would need to be 9,999 false alarms.

Biometrics

This is a relatively recent ‘identification’ technology which figures out who you are by using unique physical attributes such as fingerprints, irises, retinas, hand geometry, vein patterns or voices. Some testing of biometric indicators is taking place at airports from Amsterdam to Sydney. Biometrics are at the heart of schemes by various governments to introduce a national ID ‘smart’ card to make sure you are who you say you are – as well as a legitimate reason for being where you are. They are also being advanced as a way of protecting passports against forgery. Biometrics are sometimes combined with something called Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) – little tags that can give off a signal to identify either products or people at a distance. These are already used to keep track of prisoners and are currently under consideration for passports and driving licences.

National identity cards

Any totalitarian state worth its salt insists that you carry ‘papers’ at all times. The Twin Towers attack has added new fuel to the push for national identity cards in democratic countries. Smart card schemes are already in development in Britain, Germany, Spain and Malaysia. Partisans of the identity card envisage it merging commercial and security functions so that without it you cannot get a job, board a plane, check into a hotel, cash a cheque or even log on to the internet. But cards are more effective in identifying whole classes of people through ‘social sorting’ (immigrants, a particular ethnic group, those receiving state benefit) than in exposing individual terrorists. In Nazi-occupied Europe subjugated peoples were forced to carry papers proving their racial status.

Your PC is no longer personal

It used to be that private communication could be breached only by steaming open your letters or wiretapping your phone. These measures were (at least in theory) restricted by judicial oversight. But since 9/11 the authorities have a lot more scope to intercept private communication. The email you send and the websites you visit can be monitored via your service provider. This is a point where commercial and government tracking meet. The former wants to keep track of your consumer preferences for marketing purposes while the latter desires to know your movements, contacts and ideas. A series of interlocking technologies vacuums up a huge amount of personal and commercial information from all over the globe. Among them is a system of linked satellite tracking stations called Echelon that sifts through the world’s phone conversations for key words. Such technologies are in danger of data overload and in any case are more effective in proving guilt than in stopping terrorist or criminal acts before they occur.

Eye in the sky

Another form of highly secretive surveillance involves remote-sensing satellites. Geospatial intelligence is the science of combining imagery, such as satellite pictures, to depict physically features or activities happening anywhere on the planet. Such satellite systems evolved during the Cold War primarily to provide military intelligence. But particularly since 9/11 they have been used for much broader purposes. In 2003 they were used to target and kill suspected members of al-Qaeda in a remote part of Yemen. Most such surveillance takes place over ‘hostile’ territory. But a little-known branch of the US Defense Department – the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency – is involved in surveillance of US domestic events such as political conventions as well as sensitive potential targets like nuclear power stations. The technology is spreading fast. China is planning to have 100 such satellites in the air by 2020 to keep track of ‘various activities of society’. But if these systems are so effective, why haven’t they found Osama bin Laden?

Are you on the ‘no fly’ list?

Airports have become the meeting point of the new techniques in surveillance. They combine the commercial observation carried out by airlines (from credit cards to passenger histories) with the state surveillance connected to border controls and airport security. Several schemes for an overall international passenger database are being developed that would maintain searchable data on millions of people. In the US a couple of versions of CAPPS (The Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening Index) have proved too controversial but a new one benignly entitled Secure Flight is in the works. A ‘passenger threat index’ evaluates the threat each passenger poses. Already ‘no fly lists’ have led to the holding and questioning of US antiwar activists on domestic flights. Increasingly airports are connected to global networks of security information-sharing. This globalization of surveillance information can lead to some very nasty surprises, as Canadians of Syrian and Egyptian origin found out when they were held and tortured in their respective countries of birth due to information provided by Western security services.

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