Sky snoops and biometric identification

August 29, 2007 at 3:00 am 1 comment

p100.jpgI’m picking up some disturbing news from various sources (well, I think it’s disturbing – you can agree or not). I haven’t heard too much about these two separate pieces of news, but stitch the two together and you have a snapshot of a future world scenario.

First up is the fact that US domestic spy satellites are being turned on American citizens. In the Baltimore Sun, I picked up an article about the eye in the domestic skies. We already know that the Patriot Act in the US allows the US Government to check out your library reading list. And you probably heard that the new Protect America Act (rushed through by Congress in late July/early August) gives the Bush administration the power to order communication providers like mobile phone companies and ISPs to make their networks available to government eavesdroppers. So this would include services like Skype, Twitter, GMail, AOL, social networks and FedEx. The US Government likes to refer to this as ‘closing the surveillance gap’ – previously a court order would be required to snoop. If you want to learn more about this new legislation, check out Wired’s Threat Level blog.

But are you aware that the Department of Homeland Security is turning US military technology against its own citizens? After the Cold War suffered its meltdown, spy satellites were used for benign purposes such as cartography, snapping photos of damage caused by natural disasters, conducting environmental and scientific studies and so on. But the Bush administration has decided (under the usual veil of anti-terrorism) to expand satellite use to allow civilian agencies and law enforcement to enforce criminal and civil law within the US. This expanded use was authorised in a May 25 memo sent to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff by Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell.

Border security is the rallying cry behind this, as well as illegal immigrants and tracking down drug lords. But from all the documentation I’ve read to date on this initiative, there seems to be no legal limit to use of satellites on the domestic US population. It’s uncharted territory. Isn’t it against the US Constitution for the Government to spy on its own citizens? The Wall Street Journal was the first to go public with news about the satellites and what can only be rubber-stamping by Congress. Apart from abuse of privacy and legal issues, who exactly will have access to information and images collected by the satellites? (Apparently, the National Application Office will know what is being spied on from space). These are military satellites and are more powerful than civilian ones, so they can detect heat generated by people in a building and traces left by chemical weapons for example. The technology to be used is a closely guarded secret and you have to wonder if security concerns will override privacy issues.

Just as I was recovering from my attack of the vapours after learning about all this, I then stumbled on another article in Harper’s Magazine about the use of biometric identification in Iraq. Now, I know there are times when the military has to use high-tech stuff. What concerns me is whether anybody is thinking about how said stuff will be used once the “war on terror” is over and done with. The Pentagon is using biometric technology, which helps to create a database stuffed full of profiles and information about Iraqi adult males. So US troops and other American personnel are doing things like scanning fingerprints and iris patterns of people at home, in the workplace and at checkpoints.

All to make it easier to run background checks I’m sure but…let’s recall how identification cards and information were used in South Africa and other areas of the world. And let’s recall how this information was often used as the basis for ‘ethnic cleansing’. As the article pointed out, the biometric identification of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd populations vastly increases the possibility that this information may be misused at some future point. What are the guidelines for use of biometric data being collected and maintained by the US military? A future regime in Iraq could most certainly exploit this database, which is eventually to be handed over to the Iraqis (this is already under discussion).

The Electronic Privacy Information Centre has waded into the fray. If you go to their site, you will find a lot more info on biometric identification in Iraq and the potential abuse of fundamental human rights.

I think these two snippets of news (which didn’t receive a lot of attention around the world it seems to me) need to be viewed against the backdrop of the whole surveillance society we currently are living in. Once the satellites are pointed down on citizens, they’ll remain doing so; once fingerprinting and iris scanning becomes the norm in Iraq, it is easily transportable to any other population.


Entry filed under: Biometric identification, Iraq, Privacy, Surveillance society.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Josh  |  September 7, 2007 at 2:28 am

    Yes! Very frightening to have information on all of us in the hands of evil people who don’t respect human rights or privacy!

    What’s funny is that the Bible has predicted this – in Revelation it talks about a mark that the ‘beast’ will give everyone and that no one can buy or sell without it. COuld this be the identity chips/cards that you’re talking about?

    I personally, will refuse to take their ‘mark’ and in the bible it says that if you do, you will be killed for it. I think this is a metaphor – meaning that you’ll be a social outcast. You can’t buy food, you can’t get a job etc…



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