Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Flying to Atlanta?

Seat sensors can tell pilots if a passenger has a deadly blood clot or is planning to hijack the plane.

Pet dog missing?

Apple co-founder Stephen Wozniak knows where it is.

Skipping the car’s emission testing or registration, or canceling the insurance?

The Department of Motor Vehicles is watching.

It is reminiscent of George Orwell’s futuristic Big Brother in his book “1984” and it’s all possible now thanks to technology being developed or on the market in the United States and Europe.

“We’ve reached a point where a ‘1984’ surveillance society is technologically possible, and that trend was accelerated by the events of September 11,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of technology and liberty programs at the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The technology is developing at the speed of light, but the laws that protect us go back to the stone ages,” Mr. Steinhardt said.

Privacy advocates said traffic-light cameras and photo radar are intrusive, but the technological advancement of the Smart Tag will turn speed traps into high-tech traps.

The EZPass automated highway-toll system used by nine East Coast states, including Virginia, uses a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip attached to a transponder or Smart Tag on the vehicle’s windshield. The chip is read by a small machine posted at the toll booth and allows drivers to whiz past while the cost is deducted from a debit or credit card.

The RFIDs already are a part of electronic vehicle identification systems used for access to military bases, airports, gated communities, hospitals, state parks and country clubs.

That same technology now can be used to alert government agencies to a host of law-breaking activities.

Pennsylvania-based TransCore offers a windshield tamper-resistant transponder that notifies the DMV when insurance lapses, emissions tests are needed, or registration is not in compliance. The transponder can be read by roadside posts, and also will signal mechanical problems or unpaid traffic tickets.

“Government agencies lose millions of dollars each year due to an estimated 7 to 15 percent of vehicles not compliant with annual registration requirements,” TransCore says. “Thousands of unsafe, uninsured and/or excessively polluting vehicles in violation of government regulations are on our roads at any given point in time.”

Technology developed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory using the RFID chips can track personnel through company identification cards and casino gaming chips.

Overseas, the European Commission is conducting a feasibility study to require electronic vehicle identification in every car on the continent, “and later hopefully global” scale, according to its work plan posted online. The commission is the executive arm of the European Union, with 20 commissioners appointed by their national governments.

The British press says its government wants to make criminals of almost every driver by notifying authorities when the speed limit is exceeded, and for other traffic infractions, such as stopping on a yellow line or drifting into bus lanes. One British official called the plan “too Draconian.”

This month, 30 national and international privacy and civil liberties organizations called for a voluntary moratorium on the use of RFID transponders on consumer items until the effects of the technology are assessed.

A United Kingdom defense lab also is developing so-called intelligent airline seats to alert crews to passengers planning to take over a plane, or sick passengers developing deep-vein thrombosis from sitting still too long, the New Scientist reported.

Taiwan and Singapore are using the RFID chips to control severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreaks, by tracking everyone who comes into contact with patients.

Several companies declined to discuss their technology or applicable uses including Mr. Wozniak’s company, Wheels of Zeus (wOz). The secretive technology reportedly is being designed to help consumers track lost pets, children or property through global positioning satellites.

“We were excited to be out there a bit and share some of the wOz story. At this point, however, we’re not ready to talk in greater detail about our technology or strategy as we are still in development,” the company said in a written statement to The Washington Times.

Spy gadgets attached to mobile phones and watches already are being marketed to Australian parents to keep an eye on their children, as well as a clothing spray — dubbed TeenSpray — that detects if a girl is sexually active.

The growth of new technology, particularly since the September 11 terrorist attacks, has been tremendous and its effect on privacy “absolutely astounding,” said civil libertarian Bob Barr.

“It seems to have given the green light to every sort of privacy intrusive technology imaginable — it’s just an orgy of privacy invasive technology being developed by government and private industry,” Mr. Barr said.

The Republican former congressman from Georgia said the government and private industry are lax in safeguarding privacy and do not consider it a priority.

“The only oversight or limitation is what they have been absolutely forced to do by congressional action, and that’s been very spotty to say the least,” Mr. Barr said.

One of the federal government’s solutions to tracking terrorists after September 11 was to create the Total Information Awareness program inside the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Led by retired Vice Adm. John Poindexter, the office was created to research innovative technological tools including massive computer data searches and pattern-recognition tools to prevent terrorist attacks.

The troubled program called a “supersnoop” computer by its critics primarily was designed to create a supercomputer system to mine data and pinpoint terrorists or terrorist activity through a pattern.

The program was created in 2002 and soon came under fire from lawmakers on Capitol Hill and privacy advocates. Changing the name to Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) in May did not alleviate criticism, but it was the revelation of a terrorist market program to place bets on future terrorist attacks that signaled the end of the office.

The market program was called “grotesque” by lawmakers who shut down the TIA office in September, one month after Adm. Poindexter’s resignation.

“This was over the line,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who serves on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and is the most vocal Capitol Hill critic. “It’s tempting to use all of these technologies, no matter the privacy implications, in order to protect our country. But when you look at ideas that encourage people to bet on assassinations. … I think that’s what really struck people.”

Technology is key to fighting terrorists and must always be upgraded, but the temptation to cross the line and invade individual privacy is a constant threat, Mr. Wyden said.

“It might make you feel better at first to use all of these powerful technologies to pick everyone apart and look for evidence on a handful of people, but if you do that you are weakening what America is all about, which is freedom,” Mr. Wyden said.

Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow and professor of law at George Mason University, was one of a few public defenders of TIA and argued that Congress should regulate terrorist-identifying technology rather than scrap the entire effort for fear of violating Americans’ civil liberties.

“It’s like sweeping back the tide, the development of technology can’t really be stopped,” Mr. Rosenzweig said.

Computer secretaries are being developed by the Pentagon to replace humans and handle scheduling and correspondence, with a futuristic use of battlefield direction and combat assistance.

The Pentagon also is financing programs that use radar to identify potential terrorists by the way they walk. The technology sparked a “Gaitgate” among civil libertarians who say the “surveillance monster” is growing every day.

“We all have to ask ourselves do we want to live in a surveillance society where every action or utterance or every thought can be monitored or recorded and we’re going to be held accountable for the real or imagined sins of our past,” Mr. Steinhardt said.

Mr. Wyden said that proposal caused “a lot of eyeballs to roll” on Capitol Hill and across the country.

“I don’t want John Poindexter watching me walk,” Mr. Wyden said.

Perhaps the ultimate in privacy invasion is a new airport scanner being tested by the government that X-rays the human body and displays it in detail. The “backscatter” technology shows the naked body, plus any bombs or guns hidden underneath clothing.

“It does basically make you look fat and naked, but you see all this stuff,” Susan Hallowell, director of the Transportation Security Administration’s security laboratory told Wired News.

The government is working to create an electronic fig leaf to distort body parts or move screeners and the screen out of public view.

Facial-recognition technology to identify humans using biometrics as they pass by a camera was the first to go into use by a government agency after the terrorist attacks and the first to be scrapped.

The Tampa police department in Florida eliminated the cameras after it failed to produce a single arrest of a wanted criminal. The only other U.S. city where the technology is used is Virginia Beach.

“We’re not Luddites, we don’t say smash the machine, nor are we innocents who believe technology will disappear and never be developed,” Mr. Steinhardt said.

“But we need to get a handle on how we are using this technology, we need to have some laws to govern how these technologies are employed before it’s too late and it runs away with our lives,” Mr. Steinhardt said.

Mr. Wyden is pushing legislation that would require intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to submit detailed reports to Congress on the different data-mining programs and what is being done to protect the privacy of American citizens.

“There are scores of federal databases doing data-mining and little is known about it,” Mr. Wyden said. “We’re not trying to ban it or abolish it this afternoon, but there has got to be some rules, some oversight.”

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