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Friday, December 17, 2010

Beyond '1984'

New Frontiers of Mass Surveillance

by Elliot D Cohen

Truthdig (November 18 2010)

Does the notion of remote-controlled soldiers - the fully human kind - seem only a sci-fi vision or the product of someone's paranoid imagination? Guess again: There's a project in the works as the military and big business join forces to make privacy a thing of the past, according to Elliot D Cohen, whose new book, Mass Surveillance and State Control: The Total Information Awareness Project (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), is excerpted below with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.

Surveillance cameras have finite ranges within which they can track a person. However, there are currently other technologies that can be used to track people in real time, which are not constrained by location.

Radio Frequency ID Technologies and Government Surveillance

One such technology is Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) microchips, which can be smaller than a grain of sand. These devices have the capacity to store data, which can be read at a distance by an RFID reader. Like our cell phones, the emerging technology also has GPS capacity and can thus be used to locate and track a person or object carrying the device ...

Now RFID chips are also being implanted in human beings, not just human artifacts. In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of RFID chips for subcutaneous implantation in patients in hospitals, which could be used by medical staff to access computerized patient information such as the patient's medical history. The maker of this chip, Verichip, has also lobbied the Department of Defense to embed RFID chips in soldiers to replace the standard "dog tags". Other human applications include implanting them in children, and even in prisoners.

... In fact, the London justice department has begun to explore the idea of using a hypodermic needle to inject such devices into the back of the arms of certain inmates, such as sex offenders, then releasing them from prison, thereby freeing up space in overcrowded British prisons. The prisoners would be tracked by satellite and barred from entering certain "safe" zones such as schools, playgrounds, and former victims' homes.

An Emerging Internet of Humans

One wave of research concerns the creation of "an internet of things" whereby RFID interfaces are constructed between cyberspace and physical objects, thereby permitting two-way exchanges between online software technologies and databases, on the one end, and objects in the material world, on the other end. Thereby, these objects can be identified, tracked, traced, monitored, and controlled.

The "internet of things" project began as a research project by Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Auto-ID Labs to help the Department of Defense precisely track and control billions of dollars of military inventory; but there is already concern by prominent technology watchdog organizations, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that the government may also have designs on using such systems for purposes of monitoring and collecting information on peoples' interests, habits, and activities through the things that they purchase.

... Further, since RFID chips have already begun to be embedded in human beings, the progressive development of such a project may come to embrace human beings along with physical objects. Thus, with the advance of an "internet of things", human beings, like physical inventory, might be "tagged" with an RFID chip and systematically tracked, traced, monitored, and controlled ...

Are such possibilities speculative? Yes, but the potential of RFID technologies to become an incredibly oppressive kind of surveillance is not speculative. As was discussed in the preceding chapters, there is now a trend for government to override privacy for the sake of "winning the war on terror". Viewed in this light, it would be presumptuous to think that such technology would not be so used - at least if government does not depart from its current tendency to abridge the right to privacy in the name of national security ...

The DARPA/IBM Global Brain Surveillance Initiative

Going beyond monitoring such aspects of human life as behavior, electronic messaging, and geographical location is the direct monitoring of people's mental aspects, such as their thoughts, perceptions, and emotions. In December 2008, IBM and collaborators from several major universities were awarded US$4.9 million from DARPA to launch the first phase of its "Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) initiative". Under this grant, IBM has launched its "cognitive computing initiative" to develop a (literal) "global brain" ...

The enormity of this project is glaring. Nonetheless, its intentions seem clear, and they include, among other things, the global monitoring of human beings' most intimate and personal space: what is going on inside their minds; and then what is going on inside their organizations, their homes, and even their cars ...

... In 2004, DARPA funded a US$19 million program led by a Duke University neurobiologist, Miguel Nicolelis, in which a monkey was able to control a remote robotic arm hundreds of miles away, through a two-way wireless interaction between the monkey's cerebral cortex and the robotic arm. DARPA's military goals for this project included giving combat soldiers the power to remotely control military equipment and weapons at a distance through such brain machine interfaces (BMI). As was mentioned in Chapter 1, another goal of DARPA is to remotely control the soldiers themselves through the use of peripheral devices wirelessly interfacing with their brains, including remotely controlling natural emotions, such as fear, and feelings, such as that of fatigue, in combat situations ...

Here, there are profound implications for DARPA/IBM's cognitive computing initiative to build a "global brain". If sensors that monitor and control soldiers' motor and sensory brain activities were "plugged into" a global brain through BMI interfaces, the possibility would emerge of remotely controlling and coordinating an entire army of soldiers by networking their individual brains ... The stored data and supercomputing capabilities could then ... give an army a marked, logistical advantage over a nonnetworked opponent. Of course, this advantage would be purchased at the expense of turning human soldiers into military robots plugged into a literal network of remotely controlled fighting machines. There would be little left that would make them distinctively human ...

... But why limit BMI technology when it could also be used to improve parenting skills; exponentially expand individual intellects and knowledge bases; and eliminate or greatly reduce accidents on the highways, criminal activities, and, of course, "win the war on terror". In other words, why not make BMI/global brain technologies mainstream? ...


A Progressive Journal of News and Opinion. Editor, Robert Scheer. Publisher, Zuade Kaufman.

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Bill Totten


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