Last October deadly snipers terrorized Washington, DC, and the surrounding suburbs, killing 10 people. For three long weeks, law enforcement agents seemed helpless to stop the murderers, who struck at random and then vanished into the area’s snarl of highways. Ultimately, two alleged killers were arrested, but only because their taunting messages to the authorities had inadvertently provided clues to their identification.
In the not-too-distant future, according to advocates of policing technologies, such unstoppable rampages may become next to impossible, at least in populous areas. By combining police cameras with private camera networks like that on Route 9, video coverage will become so complete that any snipers who waged an attack—and all the people near the crime scene—would be trackable from camera to camera until they could be stopped and interrogated.
Examples are legion. By 2006, for instance, law will require that every U.S. cell phone be designed to report its precise location during a 911 call; wireless carriers plan to use the same technology to offer 24-hour location-based services, including tracking of people and vehicles. To prevent children from wittingly or unwittingly calling up porn sites, the Seattle company N2H2 provides Web filtering and monitoring services for 2,500 schools serving 16 million students. More than a third of all large corporations electronically review the computer files used by their employees, according to a recent American Management Association survey. Seven of the 10 biggest supermarket chains use discount cards to monitor customers’ shopping habits: tailoring product offerings to customers’ wishes is key to survival in that brutally competitive business. And as part of a new, federally mandated tracking system, the three major U.S. automobile manufacturers plan to put special radio transponders known as radio frequency identification tags in every tire sold in the nation. Far exceeding congressional requirements, according to a leader of the Automotive Industry Action Group, an industry think tank, the tags can be read on vehicles going as fast as 160 kilometers per hour from a distance of 4.5 meters.
Many if not most of today’s surveillance networks were set up by government and big business, but in years to come individuals and small organizations will set the pace of growth.Future sales of Net-enabled surveillance cameras, in the view of Fredrik Nilsson, Axis Communications’ director of business development, will be driven by organizations that buy more than eight but fewer than 30 cameras—condo associations,church groups, convenience store owners, parent-teacher associations, and anyone else who might like to check what is happening in one place while he is sitting in another. A dozen companies already help working parents monitor their children’s nannies and day-care centers from the office; scores more let them watch backyards, school buses, playgrounds, and their own living rooms.Two new startups—Wherify Wire- less in Redwood Shores, CA, and Peace of Mind at Light Speed in Westport,CT—are introducing bracelets and other portable devices that continuously beam locating signals to satellites so that worried moms and dads can always find their children.
As thousands of ordinary people buy monitoring devices and services, the unplanned result will be an immense, overlapping grid of surveillance systems, created unintentionally by the same ad- hocracy that caused the Internet to explode. Meanwhile, the computer net- works on which monitoring data are stored and manipulated continue to grow faster, cheaper, smarter, and able to store information in greater volume for longer times. Ubiquitous digital surveillance will marry widespread computational power—with startling results.
The factors driving the growth of computing potential are well known. Moore’s law—which roughly equates to the doubling of processor speed every 18 months—seems likely to continue its famous march. Hard drive capacity is rising even faster. It has doubled every year for more than a decade, and this should go on “as far as the eye can see,”according to Robert M.Wise, director of product maketing for the desktop product group at Maxtor, a hard drive manufacturer. Similarly, according to a 2001 study by a pair of AT&T Labs researchers,network trans- mission capacity has more than doubled annually for the last dozen years, a tendency that should continue for at least another decade and will keep those powerful processors and hard drives well fed with fresh data.