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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Under the benevolent protection of the research scientist

And so the noose tightens. Today brings news from Citywatcher.com, a surveillance camera company (if you go to their website, you can watch videos of crimes caught by their cameras). The Palatka Daily News features an article on a presentation the company made to city officials and residents, pimping its cameras and its ability to turn your neighborhood into the kind of police state everyone can participate in (for a similar disturbing vision of America's future, see also, Priceline.com founder Jay Walker's fascist project USHomeGuard.org).
CityWatcher.com uses wireless cameras and Internet access to provide a video record of high crime areas. The citizens of that area are able to log on and observe their own streets. If a crime is taking place at that time, a 911 phone call can be made. The Police Department would have a central terminal that can access all cameras installed. Each camera would be linked to a volunteer trained to monitor the video feeds to computers in their houses and be able to report crime as it is happening.
Police can hardly contain their enthusiasm for the technology, or for the way it turns neighborhood residents into snitching Big Brothers.
“We have nearly 80 cams out there and we are making more drug arrests than we can ever imagine,” [Lt.] Byrd [public information officer for the Cincinnati Police Department] said. “We installed the system in 2003, but the benefit of the system really kicked in in 2004. We are getting ready to purchase even more cameras.”

Byrd said the technology has gotten much better since their 2003 demonstration. “We are able to watch as far away as 2,500 feet for potential criminal activity,” he said. “The neighborhoods we have them in show a marked decline in street crimes such as assault and drug trafficking. The cameras are able to zoom right in so we get a good face description of the perpetrators.”
Local business owners, generally an authoritarian bunch, share the cops' enthusiasm. One member of the petty bourgeoisie, owner of the ironically named "With A Little Love" consignment/gift shop, summed up the local capitalist consensus on the cameras this way: “If it helps, they can put them on my building." But there is hope:
“We have had just one camera in Cincinnati that was damaged,” said CityWatcher.com Chief Executive Officer Sean Darks “We put them on tall metal poles because we have had a pole burned down to get to the camera.”
Resistance springs eternal, apparently.

The Palm Beach Post reports that the West Palm Beach PD planned to install hundreds of hidden surveillance cameras in the city's "most violent neighborhoods" (read: non-white and poor), just like Cincinnati has.
“I was originally going to do it covertly,” Assistant Police Chief Guillermo Perez said.

The reason he didn’t? Perez said he learned that other large cities that use surveillance cameras extensively go out of their way to publicize the cameras’ presence.

The theory is that doing so will discourage criminals from committing crimes in the first place.
Will the cameras infringe on people's right to privacy? After all, they are "[a]ble to rotate 360 degrees and read a license plate a half-mile away, they will roll 24 hours a day and can be programmed to zoom in at the sound of gunfire."

The city's top cop dodges the question: “That’s not our intention. Our intention is to make a neighborhood safer.” Of course another way to make a neighborhood safer would involve withdrawing the police and addressing the massive disparities in wealth, power and opportunity that the poor face everyday. But then that solution doesn't have the added advantage of keeping the poor in line (read: prison, when not working), so the elites have little interest in it. Each camera costs around $17,000 dollars, a price elites deem worth paying as long as prison is involved. And who will pay for them? Why the poor will, of course. The cops plan to pay for them with "cash from drug seizures," among other things.

But still some dissent. They prefer the old fashioned way of keeping the poor in line: more cops.
"The more cameras you use, the more data you have and the more you have to pay to process it," said Kevin Watson, spokesman for the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, a Virginia-based law enforcement advocacy group. "If you use the same amount of money and put officers on the street, you're guaranteed to have arrests."
Unfortunately, and perhaps somewhat understandably, residents of high crime neighborhoods often demand the cameras themselves. Said 23-year-old mother Toya Barnes: "It's good in certain places. There's a lot of shooting going on." Barnes put a camera outside her house.

But, the problem with surveillance cameras isn't primarily a privacy issue - it's that they work! They successfully alter people's behavior and therefore a free society doesn't need them. Further, if we want to transform a not-so-free society like our own into a free one, every camera put on the street makes that a little bit harder. By definition social change requires illegal acts, both small and large scale.

Highlighting the problem, and police and capitalist zeal for the technology, is the case of Christopher Brian Shusta. Timberjay.com reports that Shusta was caught thanks to surveillance cameras for several break-ins at local businesses. Unconcerned with privacy issues, Ely Surf Shop owner Richard Gamble said, “We got the b——-d.” It was his camera, after all, that caught the suspect on tape. That wasn't the only thing on his mind, though. “I hope the retailers can relax a little now and have a bountiful holiday season,” he said. That's the real point. We shouldn't be surprised to see support for these technologies from the capitalist class. Their interests are by nature antagonistic to those of the working class and poor that they exploit and abuse.

On a parallel track, object and face recognition technology will be coming soon to your cell phone. Those cameras, which the industry projects will be embedded five out of every six phones sold in 2005 (with three billion cell phone users projected by 2010), have become ubiquitous in daily life, and so, naturally, advertisers and companies have begun to take advantage of them.
By early next year, cartons of milk sold by a European dairy manufacturer will have images of CD art printed on them. Accompanying each image will be a message urging people to take a picture of the art with a cell phone camera. Then, if the cell phone photographer sends the snapshot to a database operated by a marketing outfit, a free song will be sent to the phone from the band's sponsoring record label.

...It's possible, thanks to sophisticated object and facial recognition software that can match images with those scanned into an Internet-connected database. A match can trigger a range of possible results, including promotions, ring tones, pricing, maps and search results.
The technology's security applications have not been overlooked (I will quote at length):
Docomo, Japan's largest mobile operator, and Vodafone, whose Japan unit also is a big player in that market, licensed Neven's software for their winter phone models, which will include facial recognition software designed to allow secure payment transactions. Right now, some Docomo phones with integrated cash-card functionality allow users to pay for items by passing their phone over a radio-frequency payment point. The Neven-embedded phones will store pictures of their owners that serve as network passwords.

Neven Vision is developing a similar application for mobile security. The company has built a "ruggedized" handheld device for police forces and military use. The device can store as many as 2 gigabytes of data, or 200,000 images, with biographical information such as name, license number and crime history.

Once a photo is taken with the device, its embedded software will launch a search for a match in its database. Because such information is regularly updated, the device can be synchronized to and brought current with a network database whenever it's being charged or connected to the computer.

The Los Angeles Police Department has been testing the device for the last year to aid in the capture of wanted gang members. It has made arrests with the device every day, according to Neven.

He expects the police department to eventually get cameras with resolution high enough to analyze the iris of a suspect's eye. "As image resolution increases, we can squeeze more and more information out of a facial picture, such as skin analysis and iris analysis," he said.
Even more creepy, the technology's proponents talk about it in terms of hyperlinking reality, as if now the web will reach out into the real world, embedding itself into the very objects and people that surround us, like it or not.

But, as I said before, resistance springs eternal. And so an interesting dichotomy is emerging as people, for a variety of reasons, embrace cell phone technology, but at the same time regularly report dissatisfaction with the devices and their service providers. Some of the unhappiness stems from the failure of the technology itself to live up to performance expectations (something all cell phone users can sympathize with). But steadily, other kinds of resistance, based on privacy, health and political concerns has been building.

In perhaps the most outrageous case, one cell phone salesman reported a well-known, recent encounter that didn't go as planned: “I offered him a free cell phone, and he pulled out an AK-47. Every step he took he was pulling the trigger.” News stories don't support the notion that it was cell phones that set off the mall gunman, but those of us with cell phones or who have been pestered by the salesman at the mall can perhaps understand why it was that particular moment that the shooter chose to go off.

Meanwhile, communist rebels in the Philipines have staged a series of attacks against cell phone towers. So far, 20 towers have been attacked, some of which have been blown up. The rebels appear to be angry about Globe Communications failure to pay the revolutionary tax the revolutionaries demand.

Most encouraging, however, angry residents of Brooklyn marched against Sprint/Nextel's plan to place a cell tower across the street from a local school. Chanting, "Cell no, you must go," residents demanded a halt to the scheme.
"Why do they think it's okay to submit our children to this radiation, without knowing if, 50 years down the line, our children might have cancer because of it?" one protesting parent said.

"It's a grass roots effort that has a lot of backing," said another parent. "There are many people in the school, many parents, that are fed up. And they're not going to let this settle unless we get what we want here."
To which the companies responded: "The scientific community in the United States, Canada and internationally overwhelmingly agrees that power from wireless sites is far too low to produce adverse health effects."

Speaking of being experimented on without your consent - and the scientific consensus perhaps being wrong about a technology - PhysOrg.com reports that "a nanoparticle commonly used in industry could have a damaging effect on plant life, according to a report by an environmental scientist at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT)." But what about all that time up until now when the nanoparticles were being so "commonly used?"
"Before this study there was an assumption that nanoparticles had no effect on plants," said [Dr. Daniel J.] Watts, executive director of the York Center for Environmental Engineering and Science and Panasonic Chair in Sustainability at NJIT.
The study revealed that at least five species of plants, including corn, cucumbers, carrots, cabbage and soybeans, suffered retarded growth when exposed to the particles, which are common in "scratch-resistant transparent coatings, sunscreen lotions that provide transparent-UV protection and environmental catalysts that reduce pollution." And there's reason to think that plants may not be the only ones being exposed.
Nanoparticles can be deposited into air by exhaust systems, chimneys or smoke stacks, said Watts. The particles can also mix with rainwater and snow and gradually work their way into soil.
Don't you feel better? Science is a self-correcting process - it just may not correct itself in time to save you from what it has already subjected you to.

Meanwhile, there's more cause for concern. BikeBiz.com reports, in an article entitled, "Are Carbon Nanotubes the Next Asbestos?" that
[b]ike makers may be gushing about carbon nanotubes but experts at the recent International Congress of Nanotechnology in San Francisco said few toxicology tests have been carried out on nanotech products. The Nanoethics Group, a US research organisation, said nanomaterials may be amazingly strong but they are not biodegradable and there could be many other unforeseen future problems with nanotech products.
Summarized from an article in the Independent, the piece quotes: "Carbon nanotubes, which are vastly stronger than steel, have a similar profile to asbestos fibre, and might have an equally devastating effect if released into the environment and absorbed by our bodies."

To be safe, of course, until now researchers have opted on the side of unbridled optimism, widespread use and the enthusiastic exposure of all of humanity to nanotech's generally unknown effects (just like they have done with GMO). I guess that's what you get when you put the people with the worst social skills in charge of the technology you develop.

Consider the following dichotomy:
(1) China is applying the brakes to its plan to produce the world's first genetically modified rice for human consumption as concerns mount over safety, especially with reports that illegal transgenic rice is already being sold in some provinces.

(2) Opposition to genetically modified (GMO) rice in Asia is likely to dissipate in the next 5 to 7 years as the region struggles to feed its growing population, a senior scientist said.
The scientists may hate any democratic meddling in their research, but, at least there's some resistance. The question is, will it be large enough and soon enough?

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