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The Good, the Bad and the Well-Intentioned

The list of emerging technological wonders goes on and on, which is why many observers argue it’s no longer a question of whether ubiquitous surveillance will be applied, but under what guidelines it will operate-and to what end.

“Like most powerful technologies, total surveillance will almost certainly bring both good and bad things into life,” says James Wayman, a former National Security Agency contractor who now directs human identification research at San Jose State University in California. Specifically, he notes, it will combine laudable benefits in convenience and public safety with a potentially lamentable erosion of privacy.

These contradictory values often trigger vigorous debate over whether it will all be worth it. The glass-half-full crowd contends that the very infrastructure of surveillance that conjures fears of Big Brother will actually make life easier and safer for most people. Consider the benefits of the “computer-aided drowning detection and prevention” system that Boulogne, France-based Poseidon Technologies has installed in nine swimming pools in France, England, the Netherlands and Canada. In these systems, a collection of overhead and in-pool cameras relentlessly monitors pool activity. The video signals feed into a central processor running a machine perception algorithm that can effectively spot when active nonwater objects, such as swimmers, become still for more than a few seconds. When that happens, a red alarm light flashes at a poolside laptop workstation and lifeguards are alerted via waterproof pagers. Last November, a Poseidon system at the Jean Blanchet Aquatic Center in Ancenis, Loire-Atlantique, France, alerted lifeguards in time to rescue a swimmer on the verge of drowning. Pulled from the water unconscious, the swimmer walked away from a hospital the next day.

Similarly, when cell phones and other mobile gadgetry start coming embedded with Global Positioning System transponders, it will be possible to pinpoint the carrier and quickly come to his or her aid, if necessary. Such transponders are already built into many new cars (see “The Commuter Computer,” TR June 2001). A click of a button or the triggering of an air bag sends a call to a service center, where agents can then direct emergency personnel to the vehicle, even if the occupants are unconscious. A public ubiquitous surveillance system could also enhance safety by noticing, for example, if a car hits you or if large, unauthorized crowds start congregating around an accident or altercation. As with the car rescue systems, a person’s plight could be recognized and help dispatched almost instantly, sort of how air bags are now immediately deployed on impact.

And not many argue about surveillance’s ability to deter crime. Recent British government reports cite closed-circuit TV as a major reason for declining crime rates. After these systems were put in place, the town of Berwick reported that burglaries fell by 69 percent; in Northampton overall crime decreased by 57 percent; and in Glasgow, Scotland, crime slumped by 68 percent. Public reaction in England has been mixed, but many embrace the technology. “I am prepared to exchange a small/negligible amount of privacy loss so I don’t have to be caught up in yet another bomb blast/bomb scare,” wrote one London computer programmer in an online discussion of the technology.

Do the developers of this controversial technology weigh the pros and cons of their creations? Robert Collins of Carnegie Mellon concedes that much of the work that might fall into the surveillance category conjures an Orwellian quease, but he joins a veritable chorus of colleagues who say it’s not their station to be gatekeepers looking out for how the technology ultimately is used. “We who are working on this are not so interested in applying it to surveillance and Big Brother stuff,” Collins says. “We’re making computers that can interact with people better.” Indeed, Collins notes that he and his colleagues are motivated by the notion of “pervasive computing,” in which the techno-environment becomes aware of its human occupants so that computers and other gadgets can adjust to human needs. The way it is now, he says, humans have to accommodate the limitations of machines.

Jonathon Philips, manager of DARPA’s Human ID at a Distance program, puts it another way: “We develop the technology. The policy and how you implement them is not my province.”

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