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Minority Report

Nov 04, 20084 mins
Identity Management SolutionsPhysical SecurityPrivacy

World View columnist Paul Raines is concerned about the possible implications of combining networked surveillance and behavioral observation

In 1956 Philip K. Dick published a short story called Minority Report which was subsequently made into a moderately successful film starring Tom Cruise. If you saw the film or read the story you may remember that the plot revolves around a system designed to predict crimes and then arresting people in advance for crimes which they hadn’t yet committed. Chilling thought, that.

Perhaps even more disconcerting is that with the latest generation of security surveillance technology, reality is now hovering dangerously close to fiction. According to a recent article in the weekly news magazine, The Economist, surveillance technology has now advanced to the point where cameras can monitor a person’s behaviour (e.g. their gait, posture and how long they’ve been at a certain location) and using computer models correlate that behaviour with likely subsequent action (e.g. the detonation of a explosive device). Not only that, but some intelligent systems have even gotten to the point of predicting behaviour based on a person’s micro-expressions (e.g. the lifting of the eyebrows or a downward gaze) or the sensing of their body metrics (e.g. heart rate, perspiration, breathing rates, etc).

Taking this a step further, one can imagine that if such intelligent surveillance systems were networked, it would be possible to monitor a person’s behaviour and tendency to commit a crime throughout the day. According to the British newspaper, The Evening Standard, there are 10,524 crime fighting CCTV cameras in 32 London boroughs. The 7/7 London subway bombings in 2005 were famous (or infamous depending on one’s point of view) for being able to demonstrate how the movements of the culprits of the crime could be traced during the day of the bombings by using a combination of public and private CCTVs to capture their movements. Using current technology their actions were merely recorded; however, with the use of intelligent surveillance technology, the terrorist acts could have been predicted, the suspects apprehended and lives potentially saved.

The problem with such technology is that inferring actions based on observed behaviour is often in the cultural eye of the beholder. Travelling throughout Europe I find that the personal “comfort zone” of cultures in Southern Europe are much closer to the body than in Northern Europe. Thus, if a Southern European were queuing up in Oslo, using this technology he might be pulled aside for questioning as a potential pickpocket simply because he was standing too close to the person next in the queue. In most cultures, a curling lip and gyrating hips might to some signify an angry person getting ready to give you a good belt on the noggin. However, having grown up close to Memphis, Tennessee, I would recognize that the person was merely warming up for what could be a really fantastic Elvis impersonation. One person’s heart-stopping threat is another’s Heartbreak Hotel.

But seriously, since facial expressions, posture and body movements are often the product of a person’s cultural background, intelligent surveillance technology has the potential of degenerating into the next generation of racial and cultural profiling. If you don’t come from a white Anglo-Saxon background then you might face a lifetime of being pulled aside for questioning by security personnel. It’s possible that the technology might eventually be refined to ascertain a person’s cultural background based on appearance and then match it with the appropriate behavioural profile for that culture. Given the increasing number of inter-cultural marriages and people with multiple ethic backgrounds I doubt this could ever be done effectively.

What scares me more, though, is the potential of this technology for behavioural modification. Once the word gets out as to what body and facial movements are considered suspect, would everyone then start conforming to a single standard of what is considered acceptable’ human behaviour? We have already started down that path now. If you don’t believe me, just try taking a one way flight without luggage and pay for the ticket in cash. I’m willing to wager that that series of actions will win you long and friendly conversation with an airport security professional.

Thus, intelligent surveillance technology could very well lead to the elimination of eccentricity and distinct cultural behaviours—indeed the very quirkiness that makes us special as human beings. When we reach that point, the fictional scenario to worry about isn’t so much Minority Report but rather the much more sinister 1984 by George Orwell.


Paul Raines is the Chief Information Security Officer for the United Nations Development Programme. In that capacity he is responsible for the information security and disaster recovery planning for the Organisation’s 177 locations around the world. Previously, he worked for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and, like all current and former members of the organization, shared in the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. Prior to working for the United Nations he was the Chief Information Security Officer for Bloomberg LP and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. For relaxation he enjoys opera, Shakespeare, French wine and sometimes just sitting in a cafe with an espresso and croissant reading a good book on Roman history.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Paul Raines and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.

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