“Big Brother is watching you” jumped from the pages of George Orwell’s ground-breaking, dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four written at the beginning of the Cold War back in 1949. As a teenager compelled to read it for a summer assignment, I found it interesting, but I hardly thought it prophetic. Today, I have no doubts but that it is a visionary work.
One particular observation from the book stands out in my memory, which certainly seems to have been borne out by the pertinent facts on the ground: There will always be war. And the presence of war and its persistent drumbeat brings with it the diminution of personal liberties and privacy. It is, therefore, fitting that the type of surveillance-state which exists today is judged to be Orwellian. Another nail in the privacy coffin is a practice uncovered in an interesting piece appearing in print this week.
For the past few years, we have seen the rise of new and sophisticated (and secretive) tactics, emanating from the never-ending “War on Terror,” and which further erode our privacy. For many who thought the use of mobile cell tower simulators or Stingrays was odious , now have another thing to worry about, as that technology has morphed into an even greater danger to personal privacy. A recent article by Bloomberg unveils that the latest in surveillance technology now being employed by the city of Baltimore PD appears to be the next logical step in the evolution of the cell site simulators
This latest development is a new wrinkle in the ongoing coverage which we have done extensively in this space over the past years. But while Stingrays impact a small area – regardless of whether they are affixed to a car, truck or airplane, this new device offers continuous surveillance over a local community, or an area as large as 30 square miles. And as in the case of Stingray usage, it has been employed surreptitiously, and unknown to the general public.
Orwell’s notion that war is constant leaps into the consciousness with this new gizmo. This new technology, which can store images for later review by police, was like most such devices was born on the battlefields of the Middle East, and saw service in Iraq (Consistent with Orwell’s prediction, Syria is the latest long lasting theater of war. What will be next?).
It was indispensable in detecting the placing of roadside bombs (IEDs). The domestic version is attached to a single-engine Cessna aircraft which can stay aloft all day, if necessary. It has been modified for use by the Baltimore PD by a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS), based in Dayton, Ohio. Curiously its service is provided to the police thanks to funding from a private donor, and no public disclosure of the program has ever been made. This type of secrecy is perhaps what has kept the use of the device, which has seen action in Los Angeles CA and Dayton OH (PSS’s home-base) since 2012.
The PSS system may not yet be able to identify an individual person, and can’t magically read license plates numbers by simply magnifying a blurry image (like you see in the movies), but it’s easy to imagine that this will be the next step in its evolution. Instead, it’s able to track objects, and identify patterns. Analysts can tell police what a person did after he or she killed or robbed someone, for example. The full Bloomberg article extensively illustrates this. For example, it can track a getaway car to see where it stopped, and it can go back in time to see how it arrived at the crime scene in the first place.
You don’t have to be a sci-fi writer to see how potentially worrisome this technology can become, given that images can be stored – maybe forever – to be trotted out at some future time when it is most convenient for law enforcement, and most detrimental to personal liberty.
Law enforcement types push back against the anti-privacy advocates, and are quick to point out that the images obtained cannot clearly identify individuals, and are too grainy for citizens to worry that their liberties are being infringed upon. This is not very comforting, seeing how the technology has evolved and is likely to continue to mature, especially if shielded from the public’s eye.
It’s enough to make one shudder at the prospect, and validate another observation from Orwell’s work,
“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”
I hope the paranoia never comes to that but, at this moment, and with the recent past fresh in my mind, the prospect, however dire, is not impossible to contemplate.