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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Willing architects of the emerging techno-police state

In an article from the St. Petersburg Times, police brag about increasingly using cell phone records to prosecute crimes, even relatively minor ones. Cell phones regularly report their locations in order to maintain service - even without a phone call being made.
"It's a sure bet that almost everybody is going to be carrying a cell phone," said Bruce Bartlett, the chief assistant in the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office. "It's just incredible, the information that it gives you."
At the same time, feeding off parents' fears, several companies have begun offering GPS services to track children. Some of them, like Wherifone (soon to be for sale at Wal-Mart), use an enhanced GPS system embedded in the phone, which they call "breadcrumbs," to track the movements of kids. The phone checks in with the system periodically so parents can log on and ascertain their child's whereabouts, including viewing a map of where he or she has been. Other systems use webcams and motion detection to spy on kids or property.

In order to justify large hi-tech surveillance networks, companies frighten parents with rare tragedies, such as unattended guns, abductions or drownings, most already preventable through low-tech means and commonsense. These personal systems have become quite affordable for middle class families thanks to capitalism and government subsidy (much of this technology has its origins in military research). In addition, companies over-hype the actual prevention applications of the technology, as Ken Fairbanks, director of product development for a kid-spying firm, did in the article "Remote Parenting" from the San Diego Union-Tribune:
"If the kids are supposed to stay away from the pool when Mom and Dad aren't home, a motion detector and camera in the back yard could send the parents an image at work, when the kids don't listen," Fairbanks said. "The parents could call home and tell the kids to stay away from the pool."
No phone call alone can stop a determined kid from hopping in the pool if he or she wants. So what we're left with is surveillance for the sake of surveillance. It's the threat of being caught that is expected to deter action. Surveillance is trotted out as the panacea for middle class white fear, a fear that can only be placated with the narrowing of private, hidden space and the expansion of the electronically viewable and recordable world.

This is also the case with a company called VeriChip, now headed by former Wisconsin Governor and U.S. secretary of health and human services Tommy Thompson. The company is currently pimping its Radio Frequency IDentification (RFID) technology as the remedy for everything from lost Alzheimer's patients to escaped convicts. Marcia Thurnbauer writes about the VeriChip in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel this week. Many hospitals have already begun utilizing VeriChip technology, which can be implanted under the skin. Frontline Solutions reports that with the technology "each facility will be able to scan patients [my emphasis] to obtain their VeriChip ID Number and use the associated database information." Currently, VeriChip has volunteered its services to "chip" corpses in New Orleans.

Aside from the case of the dead in New Orleans, the interesting thing about these networks is that many are not imposed from outside by a government or a corporation. Certainly, governments and corporations facilitate their development and use, and to some extent manipulate demand through the media and advertizing. But individuals who adopt the technologies generally participate in them relatively freely, thus squeezing many of us in a vice between the increasingly prolific application of these technologies by individuals at one end and the surveillance of the state and capitalism at the other, both of which have expanded exponentially over the last few years. In her article on VeriChip, Thurnbauer asks,
At what point does a technology that offers certain conveniences become so indoctrinated that we wake up one day only to realize that virtually every aspect of our lives can be tracked, traced, regenerated and scanned 24/7?
With worldwide cellphone use topping two billion subscribers (many of them with cameraphones), humanity seems headed towards a society that is much more watched and regulated than ever - and from more and more directions at once.

Unlike the Big Brother model of surveillance, the developing spy society involves - even demands - mass popular participation. And the regulating eye it casts over society is dispersed and mobile, and may soon become, for all intents and purposes, everywhere and all-seeing. Derrick Jensen has likened this to the idea of the Panopticon - a prison design in which the guard can potentially view the prisoner at all times, but the prisoner can never know when he or she is being watched. So the assumption every prisoner must make is that they are potentially being spied on at every moment.

But because of the limitations on government and corporate surveillance, such a level of spying ultimately becomes possible in capitalist democracies with mass participation in the spying infrastructure through decentralized consumer technologies like webcams and cellphones. This ought to be of concern not just to folks interested in preserving liberties and privacy, but it should be of special concern to revolutionaries, who often require a certain amount of shadow in which to operate for planning, direct actions and organizing. Once the light of the surveillance society shines everywhere, at least potentially, the opportunities for social transformation change, and may even disappear entirely.

Beyond that, if we seriously consider it, we may find the technologies themselves incompatible with the very premise of a free society. The generally prevailing view of technologies is that they are neutral and that negative applications result from bad intentions. We should begin considering the notion that the negative uses of such technologies flow logically from their very existence, and that any liberatory applications we can find for them stand as exceptions. A free society may have to be one without cell phones.

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