Over the years I have written quite a bit about government and corporate surveillance, and the ability of massive computing power to digest and process multitudes of data from that surveillance to produce individualized profiles of every single person on the planet — no matter how far off the grid you think you are. Here is an article from this month’s New Atlantis — All Activities Monitored by Jon Askonas — that tracks the history of, and warns of the implications of, the modern wave of surveillance and processing technologies.
He cites the US military’s “Gorgon State” operation in Iraq:
“Gorgon Stare and several other programs like it allowed American forces in Iraq to continuously surveil cities in their entirety, unblinkingly and without forgetting. After an IED attack, analysts could look back over the video to find the insurgents who had placed the bomb, and then further to find all of the places they had visited. Analysts could also cross-reference this data to other intelligence or surveillance, and build up lists of likely insurgent hideaways. Algorithms could trace individual cars or people over time, and even highlight suspicious driving activity for further investigation, like cars that did U-turns or followed other cars. Operators of the system could do this work in real time as well, coordinating with troops on the ground to pass on fresh intelligence or transmit the live images …
“Big data analytics, persistent surveillance, and massive increases in computing power enabled more sophisticated ways of … fusing intelligence from all kinds of sources. Social media, cell phone intercepts, captured documents, interrogations, and Gorgon Stare’s aerial surveillance could be used to build a nigh-inescapable net.”
Gorgon State was directly inspired by the 1998 movie Enemy Of The State, and its potential for use outside the military sphere was obvious.
“Programs like Gorgon Stare were, strikingly, inspired by a movie about government abuse of surveillance power. From the beginning, all involved understood exactly what they were trying to build, its power, and its potential for abuse. As a noted philosopher of science once warned: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should …
“Like so many other technologies created for war, this type of surveillance has come home, and early adopters have found many inventive uses.
Security companies have used it to protect events like NASCAR races — in one case, the surveillance system allowed a security team to quickly track back a hostile fan to his trailer to eject him from the event.
The Forest Service deploys wide-area surveillance to monitor potential forest fire zones.
And of course, a number of law enforcement agencies, ranging from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to local police departments, have experimented successfully, if controversially, with using the technology to fight crime …
Beginning in early 2016, … cameras were flying above crime-ridden Baltimore, with knowledge only of the police department — even the city government at first didn’t know about it…”
[I]nsurance companies will be, and in some cases already are, eager to use these systems to examine disaster areas and detect fraud, as aerial images can help them to compare claims against visible damage…
Other uses are still in the planning phase: Retail stores might want to track traffic around them to know where their customers come from and where they go; major utility companies might want to observe construction activities along underground pipelines.
These new abilities in the hands of the few have shifted
“the balance of power between citizen and state, between individual and corporation, and have eroded to the point of extinction what little remained of the natural rights of privacy, all around the world. For the masses, the feeling that technology develops along an inevitable path reflects their lack of agency — the fact that the crucial decisions about the technological conditions of society will be made by a largely self-regulating confraternity of elites. For engineers and scientists, technological development appears to be driven by a combination of what they can imagine, what is technically feasible, and what governments or markets demand.”
Well worth reading.
Fifty-six years ago today, my mother and father visited their closest friends, Ron and Betty, who lived a few miles from us in West London. I was in the backseat of the small black car. It smelled of leather and my parents’ cigarettes. I was sullen because I was just turned 14 years old and I had far better things to do than visit my parents’ old fogie friends to play cards.
I remember this all so clearly because, just as we pulled up outside Ron and Betty’s row house, the car radio broke off its normal programming and a solemn voice replaced the happy chatter. The voice announced that President John F. Kennedy of the United States had been shot and probably killed. I can still feel the goose-flesh that crawled over my skin. I remember the loud gasp as my father realized what had been said. John Kennedy was one of my father’s heroes, and he was mine too. He was our hope for the future, and now he was dead. Nothing else about that evening do I remember. I’m sure my folks and their friends discussed the assassination, but that has passed from recall.
Within two years of that day, though, JFK had — in my eyes at least — fallen from the pedestal upon which his charisma, his beautiful family, and his martyrdom had placed him. He was quickly revealed as just another centre-right US politician who was happy to send the boys to war, who was happy to squander the nation’s wealth on weapons and imperialism, who had no answer to segregation but brother Bobby’s federal agents. We also learned (perhaps we always knew) he wasn’t quite such a great family man, either; that Camelot was an expensive sham.
Kennedy and his people lived in the tuxedoed world of High Society that was soon to be swept away by the real world of Soul on Ice and Revolver. We might have hated that big Texas bully who followed Kennedy, but it was Kennedy not Johnson who pushed the US into South Vietnam, and it was Johnson not Kennedy who brought forward the Civil Rights Acts. Looking back, we can now see that both Kennedy and Johnson were equal participants in the cabaret that is America the Superpower. Unfortunately for the truth, Kennedy will always have the smile, the beautiful wife, the cute John-John and Caroline, while Johnson will always be pulling the ears off those damn beagles.