Printed: 2020-06-03

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





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Future of surveillance: a world that anticipates our every move

Dick Pelletier


Ethical Technology




December 10, 2013

  What kind of privacy will be left for humans in a future world of ubiquitous computing, with sensors everywhere, and with algorithms that draw alarmingly reliable inferences about our intentions and plans?

      How will human psychology cope, with the "always-on" scrutiny of our every action?

    Can legislation keep pace with the challenges posed by cameras everywhere, ubiquitous computing and big data, to prevent the erosion of human values?

    World Future Society's Patrick Tucker asks these questions in an upcoming live discussion hosted on Google+, https://plus.google.com/+DavidWood_dw2/posts. The event focuses on facts from Tucker's book, "The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move?" scheduled for publication in March 2014.

    Intelligent cameras that can observe people and react to events are advancing exponentially. At a White House briefing, counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said, thanks to the U.S. military's latest facial recognition technology, he was "99 percent" certain that the commando team had killed bin Laden.

    Every face has landmarks called nodal points; distance between eyes, nose size, jaw line, cheekbone shape, eye sockets, skin folds, wrinkles and unique iris characteristics. Together these points create a one-of-a-kind "face print" that identifies people with nearly 100% accuracy.

    High-res cameras with voice recording, found on buses and other transportation systems; as well as cell phones, laptops, and tablets; are becoming commonplace, says writer Steve Lohr in, "Computers That See you and Keep Watch over you." New algorithms are creating novel applications, Lohr says.

    'Smart' cams in hospitals remind doctors and nurses to wash their hands; and mounted behind a mirror, these devices can read a patient's face and detect heart rate, stress, and blood pressure. Security cams installed in stores to prevent thefts create an enhanced sense of safety to our shopping experience.

    MIT Professor Rosalind W. Picard and her partner Rana el-Kaliouby recently started a company called Affectiva that provides facial-recognition software to marketers. Designed to improve advertising campaigns, the system enables cameras to identify emotional responses from prospective customers.

    Movie trailers and product videos are displayed in kiosks throughout shopping malls, while hidden cameras track consumer facial movements to capture like and dislike reactions. At the 2013 CES show, vendors highlight home security systems and the role of future cell phones.

    Granted, there are many positive applications for these 'Big Brother' technologies. Locating adventuring lost toddlers and wandering seniors with mental disorders is invaluable. And insurance companies could use this information to calculate risks more accurately, lowering insurance rates for most people.

    And the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently began research in the Mind's Eye, a 5-year effort to develop machines that can recognize, analyze and communicate what they see. Mounted on robots or drones, these smart machines could replace humans in many warfare activities.

    Now, enter the most hyped science of all time – nanotechnology. In a recent Foresight Nanotech Policy Brief, authors Jacob Heller and Christine Peterson discuss how "'Big Brother' may end up being very, very small." Nanosensors, already under development can detect minute amounts of chemicals in the air, which will make it difficult, if not impossible to sneak a bomb into airports and heavily populated areas.

    But nanosensors could also enable corporations to monitor their employees around the clock, recording where they visit, whom they talk with, and what they consume – an oppressive loss of privacy. Also, see 11 Body Parts Defense Researchers Will Use to Track You.

    However, some see a positive view of how surveillance might affect our future. As mind-enhancement technologies progress (by 2050?), a kinder, gentler humanity could morph into a peaceful 'Global Village', focused more on improving health and extending lifespans, than quarreling over cultural differences.

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Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.

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