Contributing Author Dickson Igwe

A story about the increasing intrusiveness of digital surveillance, reviews important articles

In a story in the Economist Magazine of April 7, 2012: ‘’ spies, lies, and the internet,’’ the British Government was described as possessing, ‘’ some big ideas about electronic surveillance and an appetite for what critics are calling secret justice, ’’

The global news media alluded to, ‘’ proposed measures giving the authorities access in real time to more data on public communications, including not only mobile phones and email, but also skype, facebook, and online games.’’

The British Home Secretary, the Minister in charge of internal security in the United Kingdom, The Right Honorable Theresa May, stated that, ‘’ extending surveillance was crucial to keeping the public safe against terrorists and criminals in a high tech age.’’

The British Government has insisted that, ‘’ it can gain valuable intelligence by simply monitoring who is talking to whom, and where and when.’’

In other words, for the security and intelligence establishment, it is a good thing that personal mobile phone calls, internet activity, and public movement, are monitored by, and accessible to, certain persons, without the knowledge of residents and citizens of a country. The public good is deemed to be better served by intruding into the private affairs of the citizenry!

Now, and against this idea of increased surveillance was one ‘’ Shami Chakarabarti of Liberty: a civil rights group, who asserted that, ‘’ scanning the sites people access and identifying their contacts increases the amount of surveillance without adding safeguards.’’ Apparently this civil rights activist was concerned about intrusion into the personal lives of people by Government and the abuse of that privilege! Too much knowledge of the private affairs of a country’s peoples is ally to the abuse of power, and even to tyranny!

On that same note, Britain’s experience with closed circuit television or surveillance cameras, another tool in the state’s  policing and internal intelligence armoury is this: ‘’ it often emerges that cameras were either not monitored, or the images produced were not accurate enough to yield useful evidence.’’ This tells of some of the limitations with CCTV.

On the other hand, internet and mobile phone surveillance focuses: ‘’ on existing suspects rather than random tracking.’’  So this may be a more effective method for fighting crime. Depending on which side one finds one’s self.

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Now, in the USA, a seriously powerful organization called the NSA, or National Security Agency is building a data center in the state of Utah which, according to Threat Travel, an online news media, in an article of March 12, 2012, will when completed, ‘’ intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swathes of the world’s communications, as they zap down from satellites, and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks.

The heavily fortified 2 billion dollar center should be up and running in September 2013.

Flowing through its servers and routers, and stored in near bottomless databases, will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails, parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and digital pocket litter.’’

Another thing this data center will be used for is the breaking of codes. ‘’ Code breaking is crucial because much of the data the center will handle: financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications, will be heavily encrypted. ‘’

According to a top US official involved with the programme, ‘’ the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world, but also average computer users in the US.’’ Everyone is targeted these days, in the interests of ‘national security.’

Furthermore, the NSA has apparently ‘’ created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed, to look for patterns and unscramble codes.’’ It has also started a project that can ‘’ store trillions of words, thoughts, and whispers, captured,’’ in an electronic type net.’’

Now, in another story in the Economist, this time of April 28, 2012, headed, ‘’ video surveillance: I spy with my big eye,’’ and the narrative asserted that, ‘’ face recognition is good news for the police, but bad news for privacy.’’

This article described how, ‘’ in many democracies, surveillance cameras are multiplying, and face recognition technology is proving a wonder tool for both governments and marketers.’’

The Economist gave examples: ‘’ a jail in Alabama uses face recognition to check prisoners leaving, against prisoner records; Mexican prisons use face recognition to identify visitors; Heathrow airport is installing face recognition systems to track passengers through lounges and on to planes; Brazil has plans to equip police with camera spectacles, using face recognition technology that can identify troublemakers at the 2014 World Cup.

Quividi, a French marketer, uses face recognition to measure the age and gender of passersby who linger at an advert, with a hidden camera implanted in the bill board; smiles of employees at Keihin Electric Express Railway in Japan are assessed by computer, using face recognition; Facebook recognizes uploaded photos of its users; the latest smart phones use face recognition to spot their users.’’ The list gets longer as face recognition technology evolves and, ‘’ the error rate halves every two years.’’

The United States,‘’places little restriction on the use of face recognition, as legal precedent denies the reasonable expectation of privacy in public.’’ Harley Geiger of the Center for Democracy and Technology says the technology goes beyond normal public scrutiny, and could create a world where everyone, in effect, becomes a public figure.’’

There are skeptics: these are countries, persons and organizations, weary of this new higher level of personal intrusion.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s Chairman, ‘’ has said that Google will limit its face recognition services to avoid crossing the line; last year, Digital Signage Federation, a trade group, adopted a strong set of face recognition privacy standards; privacy loving European countries usually require cameras to be matched with signs to tell people they are being watched; and the US Supreme court is uneasy with technology that enables the persistent tracking of individuals in public.’’

George Orwell’s book, written decades before, ‘’1984,’’ spoke of the year 1984, a year when an all powerful establishment was able to monitor every activity of a country’s citizenry.  Well, 1984 came and went, and the evolution of technology toward a dynamic that is capable of watching and controlling human activity in every parameter possible is here. Yes, George Orwell’s world has finally arrived, 1984 might have been a couple of decades early, but today BIG BROTHER is indeed watching us all!