The eye in ID

February 14, 2010 at 5:07 am Leave a comment

So you know that I think the future will be full of iris scanners, full-body scanners, CCTV cams, micro-chips – basically a future full of us being surveilled, tracked, monitored and profiled. And so to news this week that iris scanning technology is starting to make its way into law enforcement. If you live in Arapahoe County, Colorado USA – well, you might be asked to undergo an iris scan. Police in the county will become the first law enforcement agency in Colorado to begin identifying criminals, missing children and seniors using biometric analysis of the human iris.

Check out this video:

Iris scanning technology is still fairly rudimentary and can be fooled. The individual undergoing a scan must remain still so that the scanner can do its thing. But there is a research project afoot to develop the ability to obtain facial and eye data when the subject is moving or when the lighting is not good. And I think the future will be full of us being surveilled and scanned without our knowledge. As we move through the streets of our cities, go down into the subways, travel the trains and buses, I suspect that unobtrusive, public iris scanning will be taking place, perhaps linked to online advertising. So you’re walking into the subway, pass a scanner and beep beep goes your iPhone with the latest glam ad for a product that matches your profile. Very Minority Report.

The issue I believe is that there will be a lot of scanning, surveilling and monitoring going on but no SEEING.  The social contract of a city is that which is woven by its citizens. Anyone who has read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, knows that the city is a living organism with a delicate balance between watching and being seen. We’ve all learnt to live in cities and with our neighbours by being watchful of others – taking care not to smash into someone as we walk down a busy street or keeping a respectful distance from others and not invading their “space”. You learn to pick up subtle cues from people and you know not to walk down a deserted, unlit street.

Security cameras, iris and body scanners – sure they can all watch and monitor but they can’t see. And do you think for one moment that crazies and whackos are deterred by surveillance? Nope, they ignore it or find a way around it.

If we allow surveillance technology to take over then we lose the ability to really see. We become watched. And because we allow the Government to introduce CCTV cams, airport scanners and so on, we come to believe that watching is acceptable and so we watch our neighbours, we watch for terrorists, we watch for suspicious behaviour, but we don’t see. And the result? I think it’s a step towards the ultimate destination of knowing someone’s intentions before they act.

Don’t laugh just yet – read this piece from The Guardian. Scientists and researchers are already imagining a scanner that would be like shining a torch onto the human brain, revealing intentions and thoughts. Right now, the technology doesn’t exist to scan a brain and judge whether a person is likely to commit a crime. But the surveillance technology we are currently surrounded by assumes we have evil intentions of blowing up planes. So how short is the step to a brain scanner? A very short one I’d say.

The ethical debate about how brain scanning technology should be used or if indeed it should be used at all will never take place. Because we are becoming inured to surveillance technologies scanning the heck out of us, we will just say yeah, bring it on, I’ve got nothing to hide. It will be such a hassle to get through security at airports and just get onto a plane (remember when flying used to be fun?) that we will all be broken mentally and just accept the surveillance and monitoring. This makes it so much easier to introduce more intrusive surveillance and take us from the Sleeping Society to the Controlled Society.

The neuroscientist, Jean-Pierre Changeux, has warned of a dark future when neuroscience becomes entangled with imaging and scanning technologies:

“……..at the annual public meeting of the French national bioethics committee held last week in Paris… Jean-Pierre Changeux, the chairman of the committee and a neuroscientist at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, told the meeting that understanding the working of the human brain is likely to become one of the most ambitious and rich disciplines of the future. But neuroscience also poses potential risks, he said, arguing that advances in cerebral imaging make the scope for invasion of privacy immense. Although the equipment needed is still highly specialized, it will become commonplace and capable of being used at a distance, he predicted. That will open the way for abuses such as invasion of personal liberty, control of behaviour and brainwashing. These are far from being science-fiction concerns, said Changeux, and constitute “a serious risk to society”. Nature (Vol 391, Jan 22 1998 p 316).

And Japanese scientists are said to already be there – they’ve developed a machine that can take images directly from the human brain. Scary.


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

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