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Will future surveillance include global ‘pre-crime’ machine spying on everyone?

Mar 04, 20136 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

A future technology expert predicts that "the equivalent of a global PreCognition machine will be in operation with everyone a Person of Interest" by 2030.

What can we expect to see in the future of surveillance? Remember the “precogs” in Minority Report capable of seeing the future to stop crimes before they happened? Now imagine that on a global scale, capable of monitoring all people all the time…that will supposedly be our reality in the next 17 years or less. One expert on the future claims that by 2030 “the equivalent of a global PreCognition machine will be in operation with everyone a Person of Interest.”

In an interesting article, David Hunter Tow, Director of the Future Planet Research Center, wrote about the future of surveillance, going through a long list of what is a ‘surveillance’ reality now—embedded sensors, intelligent devices, satellite and drone ‘eyes in the sky’ and even cyber espionage—and where that will lead in the future. The Internet now connects billions of people and will eventually connect “trillions of computing devices, machines and sensors.” If “careful controls” are not put into place, then the consequences of such “pervasive and intrusive” surveillance will “likely to be catastrophic for humanity. The main technological and social components of the global surveillance trendline are already emerging; woven together into a dense matrix from which there will be no easy escape.”

Problem solving today already links all kinds of intelligent embedded sensors and artificial intelligence, but Tow said smart sensor networks must become even “smarter.” Examples of these smart sensors being used today include those embedded in infrastructure, healthcare, or even in CCTV to monitor “the security of communities and assets.” This reminded me of the NYPD/Microsoft marriage that produced the Big Brother Domain Awareness System. Eyes in the sky also use sensor systems with high-resolution cameras and GPS, such as satellites or drones like DARPA’s ARGUS. Tow wrote that satellites used by the military as spy networks “enable surveillance of the remotest areas on the planet.” Nextgen drones will be even smaller, such as insect drones, and also be smarter, autonomous and capable of making life and death decisions such as BAE Systems’ Taranis drone that is capable of choosing its own targets.

Tow said as the Internet of Things connects trillions of devices to the Web, it will issue in even more intelligent devices such as humanoid robots that “will eventually be capable of more sophisticated decision-making and autonomous operation equal to humans in every activity and finally acting in surveillance/supervisory mode.” Hello, Skynet!

Cyber espionage, Tow reminds us, is also a form of “intrusive surveillance. Current cyber malware such as Stuxnet, Flame, Duqu and Miniduke are all primarily surveillance and reconnaissance weapons capable of performing spy missions as well as crippling vital target infrastructure. This routinely involves copying critical screen images, websites, emails, documentation and network traffic in general, performing extensive data mining, copying, transmitting and deleting files for espionage purposes.”

There are about 4,000 federal, state and local groups working on domestic counterterrorism projects, and that is “obviously getting out of hand,” according to Tow. Indeed, that is easy to see with all the ridiculous you-might-be-a-terrorist -if lists full of innocent behaviors that are allegedly suspicious. Last year, wasn’t the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) accused of being a pre-crime squad?

The U.S. is “assembling a vast intelligence surveillance apparatus to collect information about its own citizens as well as those overseas actors perceived as terrorist risks, integrating the resources of the Department of Homeland Security, military, local police departments and FBI,” wrote Tow. “In the near future this will be expanded to encompass the whole range of U.S. and overseas allied security agencies. This machine will collate information about thousands of U.S. citizens and residents many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing, to assist the FBI initially in its ongoing eternal and surreal war against home grown terrorism.”

In the paranoid world of the spy/surveillance agencies, networks will become impossibly entangled – much more so than in the current geopolitical/security maze. If there are 4000 domestic agencies in the U.S. currently involved in covert surveillance, how many more are there internationally and how many will there be involved in the surveillance game when the cyberespionage paranoia really explodes?

Then there is the slippery slope of legislation like SOPA, PIPA and CISPA that will lead to the “inevitable erosion of citizen privacy and equitable access to the Internet in the name of security,” Tow warned. “In other words the beneficial potential of the Internet/Web is at risk of being subverted, emerging instead as a vast spying or surveillance machine.” All of the surveillance mechanisms that Tow mentioned are slowly eating away at human rights and “will inevitably lead to much greater personal freedoms restriction, which in turn will increase pressure for some form of predictive capacity to choke off dissent. This is likely to escalate no matter what legal safeguards are adopted.”

Tow concluded:

Autocratic and fascist states throughout history have applied such techniques to their people, punishing political enemies and dissidents in the process. The current surveillance technologies amplify this potential for misuse a thousand-fold, exploiting the Web as civilization’s greatest asset for potential benefit, turning it instead into a quasi Surveillance/Precog machine with the capacity to predict an individual’s movements and actions.

The Future is at a tipping point and the outcome does not look promising.

You should read Tow’s thought-provoking “Future Planet – Future of Surveillance” article in its entirety on The International News Magazine.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.