Tech Industry

George Orwell, here we come

CNET News.com's Washington watcher Declan McCullagh says the problem with criticism of Adm. John Poindexter's massive spy proposal is that it's focusing on the system's creepiness--and not looking at the bigger picture.

WASHINGTON--The biggest problem with criticism of Adm. John Poindexter's massive spy proposal is not in the argument over the system being so darn creepy.

Of course it's creepy. This new federal agency deliberately chose the motto "knowledge is power," crafted a logo certain to inspire conspiracy theories, and is itching to assemble a detailed computerized dossier on every American. And that a figure such as Poindexter--disgraced in the Iran-Contra scandal and with a database addiction dating back to at least 1987--is running the show is a detail worthy of a Jonathan Swift satire.

No, the biggest problem with the criticism of the system is that it's too shortsighted. It's focused on what the Poindexters of the world can do with current database and information-mining technology. That includes weaving together strands of data from various sources--such as travel, credit card, bank, electronic toll and driver's license databases--with the stated purpose of identifying terrorists before they strike.

But what could Poindexter and the Bush administration devise in five or 10 years, if they had the money, the power and the will?

That's the real question, and therein lies the true threat. Even if all of our current elected representatives, appointed officials and unappointed bureaucrats are entirely trustworthy--and that's a pretty big assumption--what could a corrupt FBI, Secret Service or Homeland Security police force do with advanced technology by the end of the decade? What if there was another terrorist attack that prompted Congress to delete whatever remaining privacy laws shield Americans from surveillance?

For a hint at what the future might bring, it's worth reviewing some of the projects already under way at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is the parent agency for Poindexter's Information Awareness Office. Combine that information with the technology trends toward smaller sensors, cheaper hardware and ubiquitous wireless networks, and the possibilities are immensely disquieting. We could face the emergence of unblinking electronic eyes that record where we are and what we do, whenever we interact.

Poindexter's office has an entire project area called Human ID at a Distance that's spending millions on researching biometric technologies, including face recognition and "gait performance" detection.
Imagine a world where every street corner is dotted with disposable microcameras, equipped with face-recognition software that identifies pedestrians and constantly updates their individual files with up-to-the-minute location information. (Wearing masks won't help: Many states already have antimask laws, and the rest would follow suit if masks became sufficiently popular.) The microcameras are linked through a network modeled on existing 802.11 wireless technology. The wireless mesh also includes cameras devoted to spotting and recording license plates and a third type that identifies people by the way they walk.

It's not that far from reality. Poindexter's office has an entire project area called Human ID at a Distance that's spending millions on researching biometric technologies, including face recognition and "gait performance" detection. Facecams already are in use in airports, city centers and casinos. And license plate recognition, by comparison, is a snap.

Or how about locations out of the range of this fixed surveillance mesh? In 1998, DARPA a project to create spybots that can fly day and night and that use infrared and video sensors. These spybots, being designed by Lockheed Martin and code-named MicroStar, will have a six-inch wingspan, weigh only 86 grams and cost about $10,000--an affordable price point for surveilling Americans from above.

And what of the spybots' larger cousins, capable of hovering higher and seeing more for a longer duration? Last week The Washington Post reported that the federal government may permit unmanned aircraft to fly above the United States. "I believe that the potential applications for this technology in the area of homeland defense are quite compelling," said , R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, who added that the drones could be used by domestic police agencies.

Location tracking
GPS devices that record a vehicle's position and transmit it to police are an exciting growth area for the eavesdrop establishment. Jim Bell, an Internet essayist convicted of stalking federal agents, said before his arrest that he was sure the federal agencies were tailing him electronically. During Bell's trial, it emerged that he was right: The police arm of the IRS was tracking him on their laptops with a legally implanted GPS bug inside Bell's Nissan Maxima.

Last week, The Associated Press reported that an Oregon state task force wants a law requiring all cars to sport GPS receivers and recorders. The stated purpose: To measure how far you drive and calculate how much you owe in road taxes. The Nov. 15, 2002 report from the task force envisions some privacy protections--but those could be eliminated if homeland security worries become more acute, possibly leaving all Oregonians tracked whenever they're on the road.

Criminals already may be finding less desirable uses for GPS trackers. Last week, the Smoking Gun Web archive of documents owned by Court TV posted a criminal complaint against a 42-year-old Wisconsin man accused of stalking an ex-girlfriend using a GPS bug hidden in her car.

"We continue to see problems with stalkers (using databases)," says Peter Wayner, author of Translucent Databases. "I think there are many more sleazeballs who will use this stuff than there are cops who will use it to catch people. It's a lot easier to abuse this technology than to use it successfully."

Some of your congressional representatives may soon be asked why there has never been even one hearing investigating DARPA, Poindexter and his Total Information Awareness plans.
Then there's Applied Digital Systems (ADS) of Palm Beach, Fla., which received FDA approval last fall for a microchip to be implanted in humans for tracking and identification purposes. (Company spokesman Matthew Cossolotto told me in June 2001 that ADS had no such plans. "We are not now developing, nor do we have any plans to develop, anything other than an external, wearable device," he said in an e-mail message.)

It's difficult to imagine a more ruthlessly effective way to track every American. I doubt it's likely, but it's possible to imagine a future where "getting chipped" starts as a way to speed your way through lines at ATMs and airports--and ends up being mandatory.

There's some precedent. In October, police in one Colorado county started pressuring businesses to require fingerprints when customers make purchases with checks or credit cards. Police in Arlington, Texas, are asking businesses to participate in a similar program.

Things get stranger still. The obtain government documents that talked about reading air travelers' minds and identifying suspicious thoughts. The NASA briefing materials referred to "non-invasive neuro-electric sensors" to be used in aviation security.

In a bizarre , NASA claimed it has not approved any research in the area of "mind reading" and that "because of the sensitivity of such research," the agency will seek independent review of future projects. Yikes.

There are some bright areas in this generally dismal outlook. Avi Rubin, an associate professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University, predicts growing interest in antisurveillance measures. "I expect there will be a whole industry popping up in counter-surveillance--at least, I hope," Rubin said. "Nowadays, it's not like someone drops a camera and comes back and retrieves the data. You attack the transmission."

Short of fleeing to the wilderness or living our lives entirely online, our only option is to fight the Poindexterization of modern life before it becomes too late. Congress returns this week. Some of your congressional representatives may soon be asked why there has never been even one hearing investigating DARPA, Poindexter and his Total Information Awareness plans.