Posts filed under ‘Biometric identification’

The eye in ID

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:

“…… 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.

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

2020: not looking so good

Do you ever wonder what the world will be like in 2050? Frankly, I think we’ll all be stuffed and the planet frizzled up. But if the climate change scientists are wrong, then what do we have to look forward to?

I had a hissy fit over full-body scanners being installed in airports as a knee-jerk reaction to the underwear bomber – so that led me to thinking – why bother with the tardis-like machines that x-ray the heck out of you? Why not have machines that quickly read a passenger’s mind? Shove us in booths with flashing lights and zapping sounds (for special effects) and read our minds to see if we have evil intentions to blow up planes.

Mmmm…..seems there are some great minds out there thinking the same thing. Whilst the technology isn’t quite there yet to read what’s on my mind, an Israeli-based company called WeCU are developing “brain-fingerprinting“. It involves a combination of infra-red technology, remote sensors, and flashing subliminal images (such as symbols associated with a certain terrorist group), which will detect someone’s stress reactions. I don’t think you would get shoved into a tardis-like booth as it seems the sensors would be hidden and assess passengers as they mill around an airport. Perhaps, sensors will be hidden in walls and seats. And then there’s a suggestion that airport walls might be alive with the sound of….not music…but sophisticated sensors that will literally sniff out would-be terrorists.

Crikey, as we say in Australia! But what will the world of work be like? And what medical advances will there be? The Independent rounded up some futurist dudes and asked them to imagine the world in 2020 (mainly the UK). I think they should have imagined 2050 but they stuck to 2020. And here’s what futurists think our world might be like:

  • the 2010s will be called DOA – the Decade of Austerity. Frankly, this is in line with my thinking: we’ll still be feeling the effects of the GFC and there’ll be a crisis in public finance. Carbon taxes will make people think twice about purchasing new appliances or doing home improvements (gee: maybe we’ll return to a time when we mended things and kept items for years rather than tossing them out). Fair trade goods will be more popular.
  • there’s an increase in neighbourliness. Property prices never returned to the dizzy heights of the start of the millennium, so people stay in their homes longer and shun the excesses of pre-GFC times.
  • SADS or Shared Adult Dwellings are multi-occupancy homes that are popular with single people under 35 or over 65 who realise they can live more cheaply sharing costs whilst still maintaining independence.
  • at airports “naked x-ray machines” will be the norm and passengers will be required to use see-through suitcases or purses. One futurist is suggesting that every passenger will have to undergo an interview just to get on a plane (I don’t think he’s wrong about this actually). There’s even a suggestion that a budget airline has introduced a “standing room only” service on its planes (mmm….if this comes to fruition, I’d bet it’s Ryanair that first introduces this service).
  • because of rising fuel costs (oil will be over US$300 a barrel) people abandon cars and cities have car graveyards. Fast electric cars that you unlock via fingerprint scanners are the norm.
  • organs and tissues will be grown from stem cells making it possible to grow a replacement heart for example.
  • blogs, Facebook, Twitter, text messages and email are seen as middle-aged obsessions because people under 25 actually like to talk to people face-to-face.
  • there is a swing towards wanting leaders and politicians who are older and more experienced, rather than young, untested Presidents or Prime Ministers.
  • a decade of economic woes finally leads to the collapse of free admission to national museums and galleries.
  • by 2020, citizens have grown accustomed to the Nanny State. The State has made smoking and alcohol unacceptable social habits. Employees are forced to submit to mandatory urine testing to flush out anyone who has defied the smoking or alcohol bans.
  • work-life balance and flexible working hours has died out, replaced with more presenteeism and clock-watching. Because of the after-effects of the 2008/2009 recession and the need for Governments to pay off humongous public debt, a new generation of employees work harder.
  • CCTV cameras are everywhere, scanning faces in shopping centres and eavesdropping on conversations (heck, I think this is wrong: this won’t happen in 2020, it will be 2015 or sooner if you ask me. “Listening” CCTV cams are already being trialled in Scotland and artificial intelligence software is being used to “teach” CCTV cams to recognise aggressive sounds such as breaking glass). Personally, I think that biometrics will mean all CCTV cams will be loaded up with a scan of our faces and they’ll use this to monitor us in shopping centres and public spaces.
  • but most theft is now committed on the Internet, so the CCTV and biometrics paranoia is largely ineffective. Tasers, stun grenades, tranquillizer darts and hand-held computers are used by police to combat crime.
  • DNA of citizens will be stored in a central database and because of severe public spending cuts, there’s a large army of civilian investigators involved in police work.
  • climate change has been slower than predicted by scientists back in 2009 but marine life has migrated northwards, sea levels have risen, the UK is warmer and sharks are sighted off the UK coast. One futurist is even hedging his bets that the UK might experience 40℃/104℉ temperatures. Wild weather patterns will also be experienced.

The article is in two-parts but I’ve summarised the main stuff for you. I would add to these predictions by suggesting that the 5-bedroom McMansion homes everyone seems to be so keen on will be albatrosses around homeowner’s necks by 2020 if not before. You won’t be able to sell them because of rising electricity costs and a return (I believe) to a simpler life.

What do you think the world will be like in 2020 or beyond?

January 17, 2010 at 2:00 am 4 comments

Skip the chip

I’ve blogged about VeriChip before.  If you have no idea who or what VeriChip is, let me briefly tell you. VeriChip was (and I say was because VeriChip has a new name) a Florida, US-based company that had grand plans for inserting microchips under the skin of humans. Back in 2007, they announced plans to implant 200 Alzheimer’s patients in Palm Beach County. The microchip implanted is a radio-frequency identification chip that contains a 16-digit patient identification number and if someone with Alzheimer’s is lost, the chip will identify and track.

I suggested from chipping patients, it’s an easy jump to say the prison population, immigrants guest workers, then parolees or sex offenders, then perhaps to get through immigration – then the whole population. Always the argument would be – it’s to protect the population from criminals; it’s to protect military bases or nuclear power plants; we need to identify wandering Alzheimer’s patients blah blah. And then it’s a small jump from the chip carrying medical information to holding other information about you, for example, chip-based payment for groceries would require your credit card details be recorded on the chip. I see no reason why airline tickets couldn’t be disposed of in a future of microchipped humans – pay for your ticket and when you get to the airport a scanner verifies payment and processes you through immigration. One microchip in the human arm can hold an infinite number of potential uses to track and control humans albeit some uses might be beneficial or innocent. But well-meaning and innocent can often turn into exploited and abused.

And speaking of credit card details – guess what type of company VeriChip recently acquired? ooooh, shock: a credit monitoring and anti-identity theft company known as Steel Vault.  The combined company will now operate under a new name: PositiveID. Let’s pause for a sec and look at the name: PositiveID. I think that’s pretty clever actually. Any negative or Orwellian thoughts one might have had about a company called VeriChip is now replaced by a fairly innocuous, positive sounding name.

But let’s look at what this acquisition might mean. PositiveID will not only stick chips in patients and link the chips to personal  health records (through their HealthLink chip), there is the potential to cross-check patient health records to people’s credit scores (because Steel Vault is the company behind, which is a credit reporting, monitoring and scoring service. The company is also into identity theft products).

So what I hear you say? Well, here’s some scenarios for you:

  • it’s a no-brainer to suggest that the old VeriChip company would wish to integrate the two services – so the implant could determine your credit rating or worthiness;
  • using RFID technology to identify every human being in America, heck the whole planet (and they’d market this under the guise of protecting your identity because the chip would be embedded with all your personal details. Heck I can name the chip for them – call it RealID);
  • you wouldn’t need to worry about leaving your credit card at home, just scan your arm. Forgot your Driver’s License? no problem: wave your arm over a scanner;
  • potentially there will be one chip carrying two things: a link to your personal health record and your credit score or rating. No doubt they will prattle on about how the two types of information will be kept apart (so that for example, doctors treating you won’t be able to snoop into your financial health) – mind you, I can’t find any statements about how this security would be put into place;
  • I’m sure you’ve read about how so-called secured data has been lost. I don’t wish my private health or financial details being hacked or scanned by some portable scanner;
  • what’s to stop clever hackers from changing say the dosage of medication recorded on the chip?
  • basically you could end up being a walking credit or debit card. Eeeew.
  • VeriChip is the company that said back in 2004 that its chip would one day be used as a credit card.

And in this fear-driven age we live in, it will be relatively easy to make everyone think they should be chipped. In fact, if you’re not chipped, you’ll be suspect. The chip will be marketed under the name of safety and protection. If your kid has a microchip, they’re safe from abduction or getting lost. A school in Rhode Island is already busy chipping the kids. If your elderly parents are chipped, they’re safe from wandering off or forgetting their medicine dosage and history. If you have the chip, you don’t need to carry a wallet anymore or a Driver’s License. You can wave your arm and get into a nightclub. You won’t need a passport because the chip will carry all your personal details and travel history.

Our armed forces and police will get the chip. There was a recent suggestion that every Metropolitan police officer in the UK would be microchipped so their movements could be tracked. The US Department of Defense has been studying how to develop a rice grain-sized chip in soldiers so if they are wounded on the battlefield, vital medical signs can be relayed back to their unit.

In fact, I can envision a time in the not too distant future when you will not be able to buy, sell or trade anything without a chip embedded in you. And many of you might say bring it on, who cares if I’m chipped. So if I can’t persuade you that chipping humans will lead to the total loss of human rights, then let me try the medical argument.

There are studies that suggest a causal link between implanted microchip transponders and cancer in laboratory rodents and dogs. We chip our pets for identification purposes. It would be pretty harrowing to think that malignant tumors, typically sarcomas, could arise at the site of the implant you have innocently agreed to have your dog chipped with. It’s suggested that tumors grow around the site of the implant to fully encase it.

Of course, results in animals do not necessarily apply to humans. Or do they? What could happen within your body if you get a glass-encased chip? At the very least, the animal tests should raise red flags and more research should be conducted into human cancers and microchips.

““There’s no way in the world, having read this information, that I would have one of those chips implanted in my skin, or in one of my family members,” says Dr. Robert Benezra, head of the Cancer Biology Genetics Program at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He’s a doctor, head of a Cancer Biology Genetics program – guess he might know what he’s talking about.

I read the other day that a South African inventor has incurable cancer. It’s a story out of the X-Files really. Earlier this year, he noticed a small, hard lump had appeared under the skin of his right shoulder but ignored it until he found that a weak signal was picked up by an EMF meter on the bench in his lab. No equipment or devices were running at the time and he tracked the signal back to his shoulder – where a doctor found a microchip and…a rare form of cancer was found in the site from where the microchip was removed (the surgery apparently disturbed the cancer cells and were then released into the man’s bloodstream). I haven’t been able to find out why on earth a microchip was implanted in his shoulder. The man was not aware of its presence. So it all sounds very mysterious.

So until studies can prove otherwise, I’d be skipping the chip.

December 13, 2009 at 2:27 am Leave a comment

Half-baked cat fight

flying-cat-fight.jpg image by dankfern

Dear reader..imagine my shock, horror, FEEEEAAAR even when confronted with……

Well, let me take a step back. I had to shoot across the Tasman for a few days last week to visit my (literally) last remaining relative on the planet. My elderly uncle, who is in his 80s. Now, I realise this makes me seem incredibly ancient if you think about it – my last remaining next-of-kin who is in his 80s. But….I was born to an older mother and father and my nearest cousin is 18 years older than me. This might help you to visualise me as less than 80 years old (I hope).

I digress. So…I had to apply for a new NZ passport as the old one was just about to expire. Prior to 2005, the writing on the front of the passport (which I think was in silver) would completely rub off. When I handed in my old passport, the consulate people here in Sydney laughed because literally nothing was left on that passport cover to say what country I belonged to. But now I’m the owner of a very shiny new passport with gold writing on the cover. I was NOT happy to see that it is an E-passport with the dreaded micro chip. I searched for secretive ways to get rid of the chip but to no avail.

Regular ThinkingShift readers will know that I am often hauled aside at immigration for bomb-testing. So I was poised, ready, waiting. But this time, something more exciting happened to me. I was going through passport control, outward bound to NZ, when…my shiny new passport was confiscated and I was hauled off for questioning. No explanation. Just “come over here please and wait here”.

Had my many posts about biometrics and surveillance finally caught up with me I wondered? (I recently declined an invite to China because I thought my posts on China might get me hauled off). I sat like a young school kid outside the mirror-walled office, just behind passport control.  I had visions of ASIO types behind that mirrored window sussing me out – did I look nervous, suspicious?

After about 5 mins, a dude walked out and handed me my passport and said “have a nice flight”. What??? No grilling? No good cop/bad cop routine? I was disappointed. I asked what’s up? All he’d say was “your passport caused a red flag to go up on our system, but it’s fine now”.

What the? What does this mean? I scurried through the dreaded x-ray stuff and off I flew to NZ.  I returned a few days later….oblivious to changes at Sydney airport.

Whilst waiting in the passport control queue, a female official came up to me and said I could use the SmartGate line and sail through. Smart idea I thought; beat the queue. Dumb ass move on my part because… you scan your E-passport in a machine and then….you go off to…..the facial recognition technology area…and have your face scanned by these dreaded looking machines. I practically hyper-ventilated.

Despite the early hour of the morning and my foggy brain, I scanned for legal signs to tell me my rights. Typical. No signs. In the absence of these, I said to the grim looking woman “I decline to undergo facial recognition. Where are the signs to tell me what I can or can’t do?”.

I thought she was about to drop dead – either from laughter or shock at my hissy fit. After all, a few sheep incoming passengers were lining up for the facial business, so what’s my problem?  She barked: “well then join that long queue over there and wait your turn”.

Fine with me. Off I trotted. The irony is that I beat the facial recognition suckers to the passport control desk (seems the technology was still asleep in the early hours of the morning). And then my half-baked cat fight went something like this:

Passport control dude (with no smile): “You have an NZ E-passport. Why didn’t you go through the SmartGate?” (I’m thinking: unfortunately, Smart Gate is nowhere near as kick-ass exciting as Star Gate, otherwise I would have gone through it!).

Me: “I didn’t see any sign that said it was compulsory, so I prefer to join this queue”.

Dude: “Well, you have an E-passport”.

Me: silence (declining to state the obvious – duh!)

Dude: “Are you declining facial recognition?”.

Me: “Yes. Seems that it’s not compulsory, so until it is, I don’t wish to have it”.

Dude (with a slight smirk) “Do you have something to hide?” (and proceeds to look more closely at my passport).

Me: “Not at all. I just don’t like the intrusiveness of it and I don’t think the technology is foolproof enough yet” (dumb ass move on my part as I got a mini-lecture on the wonders and accuracy of facial recognition software).

Me: “Well, if it’s not compulsory, then I’d rather not have it. Seems you are using the SmartGate “beat the immigration queue” concept as a way to trap people into having facial recognition. Where are the signs and announcement about what is scanned; why it is scanned; and in what databases the scans are held; and who has access to them?”.

Dude: glare….raised eyebrows….narrowing of eyes.

Me:  return glare but realising I might now get myself hauled off.

Dude: “have a nice day” and hands over my passport.

Me: “you too”, grabbing passport and scurrying off faster than a cheetah running over the African landscape, chasing prey.

Soooooo….I have obviously missed any news about facial recognition technology being introduced to Sydney airport! I do remember something about facial recognition trials some years back but I thought that had bitten the dust. I decided to do a spot of research and found an announcement about SmartGate in a dreary Ministerial press release in July 2009. It’s being rather cleverly described as a “self-processing option for travellers” and a “long-term business solution” (what the?).

It says that SmartGate is proving popular. Yes…well…there were hundreds of people in the loooooooong queues for passport control and about 10 at the SmartGate. Not sure that’s too popular. The couple ahead of me (in their 20s) were clutching NZ E-passports. They were glancing at SmartGate. They turned to me and asked what it was.

Me: “That’s SmartGate. You put the photo page of your E-passport in that machine over there. Then you go get facial recognition”.

Young dude: “What? They scan your face? No way in hell”.

Young girl: “You gotta be kidding. I’m not having that”.

Ah, so Gen Y clearly are very astute and they renewed my belief that not all of us are sheep about to meekly walk into surveillance hell. But I’m wondering when SmartGate will become CompulsoryGate.

September 19, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

Finger goes in, Coke comes out

Downwards by you.Talk about putting your hand in the cookie jar – now, you can just put your finger in a vending machine and buy a Mars bar or packet of crisps. Forget money – cash is just sooooooooooo 20th Century.

Hitachi has a new vending machine. I’m sure they’re very proud of it. You might get all lathered up with excitement over this. But I just shake my head as I ponder the increasing rate of biometric identification that’s being pushed on us all.  In the future, you will be able to purchase a Coke or Mars Bar by jabbing your finger into Hitachi’s vending machine. This machine “uses light to scan and read the number and orientation of veins in your finger tip without directly touching a sensor”.

Presumably, your eyeballs and fingerprints will be scanned beforehand and linked to your credit card number, giving the vending machine access to your account and swipe money.

All pretty sinister if you ask me. And it’s a recipe for budgeting disaster. We have wallets and bank accounts with money in them. If you’re like me, you draw out a certain amount of cash each week and stick to that budget. But if wallets and money become quaint relics of the past, then all you’ll need to do is swipe your finger or have your eyeball scanned and voila! you can party up on the credit-card. No doubt many of you are cautious with credit card purchases but many of us are not – we think, okay gotta have that. Yep, put it on the card and worry about paying it later.

Apparently, the biometrics industry is even considering turning your ear into your password and running security checks by scanning your brain stem.

Well, just as I asked you the other day to think about Google, I’m going to ask you to think of biometric identification. Yep, it’s quick and easy. Scan, swipe, breeze through immigration. Scan, swipe, get the Mars Bar.  But:

  • do you realise that biometrics is prone to recognition errors?
  • your eyeballs and fingerprints are unique. But what if your biometric data becomes compromised. How do you then prove you are who you are?
  • there are 7 main areas where attacks may occur in a biometric system.
  • I would suggest that determined hackers and cyber-crims will find ways to access your biometric data. The crims steal your biometric data; you can’t access your house or your car or buy food. You go to the police and after bringing up your biometric data they find you are a wanted criminal because your data has been altered by the crims. Welcome to your very own Kafkaesque nightmare.

You can read more about the flaws of biometrics here.

August 31, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Observations for American friends

EarlyI have quite a number of American readers. I guess because a lot of issues that occupy my mind happen in the US and I blog on this stuff.  So I thought today it  might be interesting for my American readers to hear what three Australians have to say about the state of the US. All three have privately communicated with me and asked not to be named. I shall respect that.

The first Australian reader sent me a private communication the other day re observations from a trip to the US, six months after 9/11.

“I went to NY exactly 6 months after 9/11, before the finger printing etc.
Even at that time from the moment I joined the UA queue onto the plane in Sydney I noted in my note book about 70 things that were security/9/11 related. And all this in just 6 months. What has been added since? I came home and felt relieved that I didn’t see soldiers with guns in Sydney or even at the airport.

The things in the US were generally non invasive but “there”. eg the
prominent temporary (at that time) ballards in front of key buildings, the fact that the curtains were left open between economy and first class. Local women started wondering why there were so many emergency vehicles passing. Wall St blocked off,  checks on bridge traffic etc.

All minor things on their own, but together demonstrating a seige
mentality and lack of trust. An atmosphere of fear and an understated
sense of warning.  The difference between what I see as normal and what I see as restrictions and statements of some other condition for a city. Not at all the brave and free US I always thought it was. It was cringing and fearful. And as for the soldiers with guns. Some of those guys are huge. I had always hoped to go to [an annual conference]. When they asked this year why members didn’t attend, I told them.  I wonder what they thought when they read my response

Okay, you say: this was just after 9/11, so of course there was a climate of fear. But the second private communication comes from a TS reader who has just spent a month in the US. Her first experience was with US immigration. She was using a new passport and left her old passport back home in Oz. For whatever reason, the immigration dude felt she had overstayed her visa following her entry to the US a year or two ago (her old passport had the exit stamp in it). Despite explaining the situation, she was hauled off and spent about 2 hours with a US official, who (as she put it) was the rudest individual she had ever met.

She was on the verge of saying, look I’ll turn around and fly back to Australia, when a second official came in and told her they would let her go. This is a professional woman in her 30s and she felt the whole experience was shattering and a bad start to her holiday.

The third person (a guy) emailed me saying he’d been to the States about 6 months ago and was alarmed by a number of things:  a visible increase in homeless people; visible presence of CCTV cams and security measures; he was met with biometric identification equipment at the airport and felt it was very intrusive. He has decided not to go back to the States again.

Now, regular readers would know that despite extensive travel in the US (a country I very much like),  I will never step foot in it again because of the circus that is US immigration, biometrics and a general climate of mistrust.

American readers: how do you react to these observations? Agree? Disagree? Couldn’t care less?

August 6, 2009 at 2:25 am 2 comments

Before you go

lolcat4386201e7bf4f934b6f736de950b49f391e1dbe7I love the United States. Visited many times. But….what the heck is up with your immigration service? Does it suddenly suspect Australians of being in league with Osama Bin Laden? What is the explanation for this piece of news? From 2010, when Aussies exit the United States, they will be required to leave a parting gift – a photograph and fingerprints. This is under the bizarre new exit policy of the US and will apply to all non-US citizens as well as Aussies.

Not content with taking your mug shot on arrival and fingerprinting your ten digits, US immigration wants to subject you to the same process when exiting the country. I have refused to visit the US ever since the introduction of their biometric programme. But I did have to land in Miami in transit to Europe a couple of years ago. Although I was in transit, I had to suffer in a LONG immigration queue, only to met with the most surly, unfriendly immigration official I have ever met. Fortunately, biometrics was not waved in my face because there would have been a huge cat fight  between me and US immigration otherwise. I had my passport stamped and was graciously allowed to wander the (pretty boring) airport for awhile.

The Department of Homeland Security is beginning trials of this annoying new exit programme in Atlanta (Hartsfield-Jackson airport) and Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County airport and it is obviously aimed at ensuring people don’t overstay their visa. Congress has been demanding a visa-enforcement programme since 9/11. But more security means less privacy and intrusive surveillance, tired and frustrated travellers stuck in snaking queues, and travellers like me who consider it’s best to just bypass the United States.

My experience was just in transit. Can you imagine the LONG queues of ‘non-resident aliens’ lining up for mug shots and fingerprint zapping whilst US citizens breeze on past. Welcome to America!

But I have cunning plans afoot to thwart US immigration:

  • never set foot in the US again so they can’t nab my fingerprints and mug shot – shame as I really like the US and in a heartbeat would live in Boston or Chicago
  • wait until I’m really, really, really old. Surely US immigration wouldn’t suspect a 90 year old woman of being a terrorist or wanting to overstay their US visa.
  • follow these step-by-step instructions on how to make fake fingerprints
  • dye my hair pitch black, get an orange fake tan, pop in brown-coloured contact lenses, and wear a prosthetic nose a’la Nicole Kidman when she portrayed Virginia Woolf in The Hours. That would make me look sufficiently different from my current red-hair, pale skin, blue-eyes and average size nose. Coupled with my fake fingerprints and a false passport, I might be able to sneak into the US.

June 10, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Yep, you’re really being watched

I’m really pleased to see a number of articles over the last week or so discussing how surveillance is running rampant in contemporary society. I often feel like I’m some raving paranoid person going on about intrusion on our privacy by CCTV cameras, biometrics, ID cards and so on.

But The Huffington Post and The Times are now raising questions around facial recognition and video surveillance. Thank goodness, finally. But firstly, let’s remind ourselves how the surveillance society abuses our civil rights and privacy, often leading to some horror stories:

  • a 22 year old man committed suicide in the lobby of a Bronx housing project. The CCTV cameras filmed this sad event. Somehow the surveillance footage ended up on the internet – on a pornographic website.  The family who requested the tape were denied. Imagine their shock when they saw the footage on the internet.
  • A US business man filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against a leading hotel chain after finding a hidden camera in a bathroom light fixture (thought you were safe in the privacy of your hotel room? think again!).
  • Police officers zoomed CCTV cams in on nude models involved in an artist’s photo shoot and try to sell the footage. The artist assembled some 1700 volunteers on the banks of the River Tyne in the UK for one of those artistic large group nude shots. CCTV cams installed in the area were allegedly used by two police employees to take close-ups of people and tout the photos in pubs in the Tyneside area.

I could give you many more examples but you get the idea – surveillance systems that are supposed to be used for protection and security are abused.

But now it’s getting a bit more serious. Apple has just released iPhoto09. This is what iPhoto can do:

“... a new feature that allows you to organize your photos based on who’s in them. iPhoto uses face detection to identify faces of people in your photos and face recognition to match faces that look like the same person. That makes it easy for you to add names to your photos. And it helps you find the people you’re looking for — even in the largest photo libraries“.

Sounds innocent. You can find every photo of your cute kids instead of trawling through thousands of photos in your photo library.  Even better, you can upload your tagged photos to Facebook.  As Blogdial points out, what a bonus for the surveillance state – why spend millions on centralised databases when we will do all the work by uploading photos of named faces that are linked to our social connections and their named faces as well. And Lenovo’s new PC will log on users by monitoring their facial patterns. With shades of Minority Report, NEC’s new Eye Flavor is a digital signage system that can determine a person’s age and gender and help advertisers deliver targetted content on the fly.

Because of this enhanced technology, The Huffington Post says quite rightly we are moving into a entirely different era of surveillance. To quote:

We have moved from periodic installation of hard-to-search analog video cameras to the vision of a pervasive, unified system that uses a variety of technologies to track individuals and their movements. These systems reflect the power of the convergence of technologies“.

With sophisticated facial recognition it becomes easier to track the occupants of a car and link the images to the car’s license plate, vehicle registration and GPS technology. A ring of surveillance is our future.

For those of you who continue to bleat “if you have nothing to hide…” consider this situation. You are eating your lunch quietly. A public facial recognition camera, without your knowledge, zooms in on your face and takes a snap. Your image is compared to those of wanted felons and child sex offenders. The police pass your image to the press despite the image not being an exact match (called a false positive). The press swing into action and publish your photo alongside the caption “You can’t hide those lying eyes…”. A woman sees the photo and calls the cops, saying that the photo is that of her ex-husband, wanted on child-neglect charges.  But you are not married and have no children. The cops surround you a few days later. This actually happened to Rob Milliron, a construction worker in Tampa, Florida who was wrongly accused because of a video surveillance system.

Facial recognition software will be less unreliable as techology becomes more sophisticated. We then face the prospect of being monitored in real time. The Times says it better than me:

So let’s understand this: governments and police are planning to implement increasingly accurate surveillance technologies that are unnoticeable, cheap, pervasive, ubiquitous, and searchable in real time. And private businesses, from bars to workplaces, will also operate such systems, whose data trail may well be sold on or leaked to third parties – let’s say, insurance companies that have an interest in knowing about your unhealthy lifestyle, or your ex-spouse who wants evidence that you can afford higher maintenance payments“.

If you are in the US, a new ACLU website will inform you of the location of video surveillance cameras. I continue to be alarmed by all this – it is not the business of Government to spy on its citizens. I fear though that too many of you will say well, what’s the harm? If an intelligent surveillance system can nab child molesters or track down men refusing to pay child support, then that’s a good thing you might say to me.

But you know, consider this: surveillance fosters suspicion. Employers not trusting employees, so they monitor keystrokes and install webcams to ensure staff are not spiriting away with pens and stationery; we use GPS to monitor our spouses to make sure they’re not having an affair and so on. And consider the abuse of video surveillance I started this post off with – what’s to stop police and the Government from racial or behaviourial profiling? What’s to stop insurance companies from monitoring you in real time to ensure you are not smoking, drinking and that you’re exercising? What’s to prevent the people behind surveillance systems from being prone to corruption?

Image source:

January 19, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments


I blogged recently about biometric systems at Japan’s airports and the issues I have with it. On entering Japan, immigration officials ask you to plonk the index fingers of both hands onto a fingerprint scanner, which scans your fingerprints and instantly cross-checks them with an international database of fugitives, terrorists and foreigners with deportation records. Well, I’ve said before that fingerprinting systems can be fooled and it seems poor old Japan’s $AU 64 million screening system can be well and truly fooled – by a piece of tape!

A South Korean woman was turned away by immigration authorities in 2008 because of a deportation order after illegally staying in Japan. Because of her record, she was not allowed to enter Japan again for 5 years. But she decided to have another crack at it. And here’s something the Japanese dudes need to think about because apparently a South Korean broker supplied her with a fake passport and special tapes she used to cover her fingerprints.

Seems the special fingerprint altering tape had someone else’s fingerprints and the woman simply held the tape over her own index fingers and tricked the system. Now, I don’t think you need to be Einstein here – if you can fool a sophisticated, multi-million dollar biometric system so easily – with tape stuck onto your own fingers – IMHO this calls into serious question biometrics and their reliability. And Japan, if there are South Korean brokers like this, just think of how many people might have slipped by your fancy system! Japanese authorities will now review the current immigration screening system (smart idea).

I always go back to the movie, Minority Report. Remember when the Tom Cruise character, John Anderton, had an eyeball replacement? I could barely watch that scene: dodgy doctors, unsanitary conditions and so on. But I thought then, yep, this is the future – a black market geared towards evading so-called sophisticated biometric systems. I imagined a Dystopian future filled with unsavoury criminals cutting off people’s fingers so they could steal fingerprints or kidnapping people to steal eyeballs. But who would have imagined it could be so simple to fool a biometric guardian – using tape!

I thought I might help out Japanese immigration as they review their biometric system by doing some research on how exactly you could fool a fingerprint identification system. So Japanese dudes, you might wish to watch this short but informative video. Or you could read these helpful step-by-step instructions on using gelatine and water to fake fingerprints.

Even better, they could contact a Japanese cryptographer, Tsutomu Matsumoto, who wrote a scholarly article on the use of artificial fingers (or gummy fingers made from Gummi Bears, which consist of gelatine) and how there was a high rate of acceptance by fingerprint scanners of the fake prints. And a really good collection of articles and links on faking fingerprints and fooling scanners is here. Apparently even good old Play-Doh can foil a fingerprint scanning system. Really, if society is being asked to accept more intrusive security in the name of the War on Terror or whatever other flimsy excuse, you would like to think that the security measure being used is robust.

One would hope that Japanese authorities did some of this basic research before throwing $64 million at a system that can be duped by a Gummi Bear. We have Jelly Babies here in Australia – wonder what I could do with them?!

Image source: Wikipedia

January 7, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Intrusive airport technology

A while ago, I told you about the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) making life more difficult for weary travellers by installing 3D body scanners in 10 airports across America. Travellers are whacked into glass booths and subjected to a 3D body scan, which reveals intimate body parts. This of course would reveal people who have concealed objects but also people who have colostomy bags or women who have breast implants. Stuff they may wish to keep private and not have revealed. Maybe people don’t care about this but then again, maybe they do – because there’s now a backlash against this intrusive technology.

I read recently that Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney airports were trialling this technology. A friend of mine was worried about going to Melbourne – that she’d be hauled aside and shoved into a glass booth. But so far, the trial is voluntary. Breezing through Melbourne airport, my friend was in fact asked to participate and she flatly refused (yeah, I have some sensible friends). She thought it was all pretty “sinister” (in her words).

But apparently reports that the European Union may ban such intrusive technology is not deterring the Office of Transport Security from subjecting people to body scanning. A spokesperson said: “The faces are automatically blurred and … it’s only a chalk-style outline, it’s not as invasive as some of the other equipment that we’ve got”. And what would that technology be, I might ask?

So you enter some booth, you get scanned, the image isn’t saved because the person screening hits a button to zap the image. Sounds innocent of course but it’s just another intrusion we’re expected to put up with in the name of the “war on terrorists”. And in a clever twist, the body scanners are said to be reasonably quick, so passengers won’t have to queue up in long lines – the average sheep amongst us would consider this a bonus and therefore not object to the scanning.

European Union lawmakers are describing this body scanning business as “virtual strip searches” (smart dudes if you ask me) and are calling for a detailed study of the technology before it is implemented throughout the EU. The lawmakers have adopted a non-binding resolution calling for the European Commission to carry out an economic, medical and human rights assessment of the impact of body scanning technology. An EU parliamentarian says: “I think this is an offence against human dignity. Using this technology does not make us safer. These are machines that allow for you to be seen totally naked”.

I would ask whether here in Australia there was a public consultation process or whether a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) on the impact of the trial was carried out.  So I checked out the Australian Privacy Foundation to see what they had to say and yep, looks like a PIA has never been done and the AFP are loudly calling for one in a Policy Statement.  The AFP makes the following (extremely sensible) observations that I hope will raise serious questions about body scanning technology:

  1. Any scheme that has significant potential to intrude into privacy, in any of its forms, needs to be the subject of a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA). A preliminary PIA is necessary even before trials of such a nature are undertaken.
  2. The Office claims that privacy is protected because “the officer examining the images is located away from the screening lane and cannot see [the person concerned]”. This suggests a serious lack of appreciation of the nature of privacy. Many people regard the appearance of their naked bodies as being private, and are concerned about a breach of this expectation whether or not the person looking at the image knows who they are.
  3. Any privacy-intrusive measure requires justification, and exposure of the justification to review. It is far from clear what the problem is that this technology is meant to address, and far from clear that it is any more effective or efficient in addressing that problem than are other, less privacy-intrusive alternatives.
  4. The trials should be halted, and a PIA conducted.
  5. This technology exposes the serious limitations on current privacy laws. They are limited to protection of ‘personal information’ and do not apply to the intrusion involved in depersonalised body-scanning.

UPDATE: I might just move to Germany. Apparently, the Interior Ministry has announced that no matter what the decision of the EU, Germany will NOT adopt the body scanning technology. Interior Minister Gabriele Hermani told the Associated Press, “We won’t join in with this nonsense.” Smart dude. Love your work.

UPDATE: The European Commission has shelved controversial plans to introduce full body scanners. Yeah!!!

October 25, 2008 at 10:37 pm Leave a comment

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