26 August 2010

Technology vs. Freedom

An article in the Calgary Herald reports that the city of Leon in Mexico has just embarked on a project that will use iris-scanning technology manufactured by Global Rainmakers, a US company, to identify citizens and make it possible to collect and store data about their activities. The data will be used by the local authorities for a variety of purposes, including, natch, policing and security. According to the company web site,
the partnership will utilize iris biometrics... as the base of the security for all aspects of day-to-day life for Leon’s 1.2 million citizens. Portoss will integrate iris capability across the city, install miles of fiber optic cable and construct the central iris database with power to enlarge the scale to include private sector corporations for a variety of applications.
The Herald article explains how it's done:
When the... residents of Leon go to the bank, get on a bus or walk into a medical clinic, their eyes will be scanned by machines that can handle up to 50 people per minute in motion, automatically entering the information (about where they've been and what they've done) into a central database monitored by the police.
 This sort of thing instantly evokes thoughts of Big Brother watching us. And of course, Big Brother, or someone with an internet link to him, is watching us already; consider the recent case of the British woman who got caught on a private security camera while stuffing a cat into a dustbin. The fact is, technology now makes it easy for those with an interest in keeping tabs on us to do so, and it's getting easier all the time. It's also getting cheaper, and the combination is going to make routine surveillance and data-gathering on members of the public more widespread.

I don't see how the trend can be halted. It isn't just biometric scanners and security cameras; the technologies of surveillance, data-gathering and data-mining are forging ahead on all fronts, and the infrastructure to support them is growing ever more pervasive. And most of it is happening with our explicit or tacit consent. We willingly give up the information in exchange for the goodies and conveniences we obtain thereby.

In all of this, the Great Enabler is, of course, the internet – to which, we are told, not only our computers and workplaces and mobile phones, but also our cars, homes, TVs, refrigerators, air conditioneers and even our clothes will soon be connected. Over five billion devices are already hooked up to the internet; by 2020, say the pundits, the internet of things will have over 22 billion active nodes, all busily uploading information about their owners.

And that's scary. It's bad enough in rich, sophisticated democraies, where concepts of civil society and civic freedom are embedded into the social fabric and governments (or corporations) have to get public approval before they can go ahead with things like this. But Mexico, where Global Rainmakers is wiring up a city with iris scanners, wasn't, last time I looked, a particularly rich country. If a city in Mexico can afford this kind of technology, a city in China probably can, too; and the Chinese authorities don't have to ask anyone's permission before introducing measures like this. Neither do the governments of places like Singapore, Syria, Myanmar and, of course, dear old Sri Lanka.

Of course, there are questions of capacity and competence that arise, too; the Burmese and the Sri Lankans may be able to instal the technology, but that doesn't mean they'll be able to use it effectively. Cerrtainly, the bungling efforts of the Sri Lankan authorities to 'regulate' mobile phones and the internet are no threat to anyone – not yet, anyway. But this is cold comfort for those of us who have seen at first hand how much damage incompetent but dictatorial governments can do by abusing the resources at their disposal.

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