Thursday, July 19, 2007

Dual Use


"The perpetual menacings of danger," warned Alexander Hamilton, create a political climate where "the military state becomes elevated above the civil."

On the other hand, he was writing with a quill pen by the light of a whale-oil lamp, so what the hell did he know? 9/11 changed everything!

In England, a network of surveillance cameras identifies motorists who venture into central London, and charges them a toll. The goal is to reduce congestion and pollution; it's a perfect example of how technology can lead us to a Bright Green Future.

It's also a means of identifying and tracking terrorists, possibly, which is why people with a "need to know" are now being given access to the system. This adaptation is not technological so much as procedural; it's a simple matter of exempting certain agencies from the Data Protection Act, which was passed at some point during the long September 10th that preceded our taut, elegant, alert modernity:

Under previous rules, police had to apply for access to the cameras on a case-by-case basis because of concerns that routine use of the information would be an invasion of privacy.

Under the new rules, anti-terror officers will be able to view pictures in "real time" from Transport for London's (Tfl) 1,500 cameras, which use Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology to link cars with owners' details.
It's interesting to note that the toll applies only on weekdays, during peak hours. The cameras are designed to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that London's surveillance system doesn't seem to pose much of obstacle to terrorists, although (because?) residents of that city appear on camera roughly 300 times per day. Terrorists want to give the impression that they're everywhere at once; mass surveillance techniques, whatever their virtues, arguably serve as a taxpayer-funded force multiplier: cameras remind passersby that the enemy could appear anywhere, at any time, without providing any real sense of comfort (save for the notion that "before" footage might help researchers to identify one's body parts).

Such systems - and their portrayal in the media - don't just reinforce the threat of terrorism, but also the fear of crime. Another BBC article discusses the use of online crime maps to communicate a more "accurate" picture of risk:
The 2006-07 figures show overall crime rate remains stable - but the government has also found 65% of people think crime is getting worse nationally.
Go figure! I seem to recall a study in which people were told about all the things that would have to go wrong simultaneously to cause a nuclear meltdown. If I remember correctly, the people who'd been exposed to this narrative were more likely to see it as frighteningly plausible, even though it was intended to have the opposite effect.

Safer-sex advocates urge us to incorporate condoms and latex gloves into our foreplay; perhaps we need to learn to enjoy "the perpetual menacings of danger" in a similar way. As I reported earlier, a British amusement park plans to take an important step in this direction by marketing "dual use" surveillance tapes based on RFID tracking, which can either serve as a God's-eye home movie of your perfect day, or as a means of identifying the rapist who dragged your youngest child into a disused scenic-railway tunnel.

Idle speculation aside (for a moment), Atrios links to an interesting LA Times op-ed on the Iraq War:
Osama bin Laden's plan was to get the U.S. to overreact and overreach itself. With the invasion of Iraq, Bush fell slap-bang into that trap....

The mightiest military in the world fails to achieve its strategic goals and is, in the end, politically defeated by an economically and technologically inferior adversary.
Very true. Except for the minor detail that Bush and his creatures have profited handsomely from this "trap," which they themselves baited and set long before 9/11.

I'd also question the idea that the United States is economically and technologically superior to its enemies. Look at it this way: if I have a garden spade, and you have a bulldozer, I'm going to do a better and faster job of transplanting daisies. That makes me "technologically superior," in terms of the job at hand. By the same token, if I can spend a small amount of money into order to make you spend a great deal of money that ultimately aids my cause, I'm economically superior to you by any measure that matters.

The simple fact is, the terrorists' technology and finances are fairly well suited to their goals; ours aren't, at least as far as "winning" TSAIEWDNBIFSWHTUTAAWTTTSTCOTFW is concerned.

But our goal isn't to win; it's to keep reacting to the perpetual menacings of danger. Our economics and technology are nicely suited to that strategy, which is not surprising given their vital role in creating it.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, soldiers are using leaf blowers as improvised IED detectors. Keep your eye out for Raytheon's $1.7 million prototype of a MIL-SPEC "accelerated airflow" system sometime in 2010.

(Photo: "A close-up of the Comedy/Tragedy masks on the front of the former 1932 Granada cinema in Dovecot, Liverpool" by philipgmayer.)

8 comments:

dan mcenroe said...

Given the sheer volume of footage and information those cameras must produce, I'm not at all sure how useful they are "in real time." Maybe as an investigative tool after the fact...I dunno. I'm not a cop.

Phila said...

Given the sheer volume of footage and information those cameras must produce, I'm not at all sure how useful they are "in real time."

Depends what you want 'em for, I suppose. If you're dealing with civil unrest, I guess they could come in handy. Suicide bombers? Probably not so much...

P. Drāno said...

I think there was a similar problem with the map of Argentina that was the same size as Argentina. Although it was very reliable.

Cervantes said...

There's a whole lot of stuff packed in there but I'll just pull one thread. There was a very amusing sci-fi story I read as a youth, and alas I can't remember the author's name or the title, but it's about the army invading some small country or going in to put down civil unrest or something, it's in the future -- actually the future is now, the story was written in the sci-fi golden age so it's like the 40s, but it predicts technology rather similar to today's -- and first they have to move in mobile hospitals, mess halls, shithouses, courtrooms, media centers, command centers and whatnot, barracks for the 2,000 personnel who operate all of the above, high tech sensors and targeting radar and perimeter defense machinery and what not, before the combat troops show up, of which there are about 10 which is the maximum that can be supported by all this backup. It takes them another day to set up there equipment and target their rifles and so on and so forth, and before they get it all done the bad guys come in with pitchforks and hunting rifles and you can imagine the rest . . .

Phila said...

There's a whole lot of stuff packed in there but I'll just pull one thread.

Yeah, I've been dallying with free association a bit too much lately...I'm looking for a new approach, but I don't think this is it.

Although it's kind of fascinating to see the varied responses it gets.

I'm very, very interested in this story you're talking about...if you ever remember the name of it, please let me know!

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