They’re Watching (Part 2b)

Last time, I reviewed some (but certainly not all) of the surveillance tools available today to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. This time, I’ll talk about a few of the new wrinkles that have appeared in the 2032 of South. These aren’t sci-fi whizbangs; they already exist, just aren’t deployed in force yet. We’ll probably see them way sooner than 2032. Part 3 of the series will talk about countermeasures.

Tools Available in 2032 (or Much Sooner)

Drones. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, or drones) have been around since WWI, but truly came of age in the past decade. Already on their way to supplanting traditional aircraft in the military, drone makers and law-enforcement agencies are already pushing to regularize the use of drones within the U.S. With 1989’s Florida v. Riley establishing the legality of aerial surveillance of private property, the remaining barrier is procedural (FAA clearance of UAV operations in commercial airspace). Cheap drones with extended loiter times and high-quality cameras will allow surveillance that otherwise would require a search warrant, and essentially eliminate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search. Drones can take the place of on-the-ground surveillance teams and can follow vehicles without fear of the followees knowing, thus skipping even the search-warrant requirements for GPS tracking. Also, armed drones could take over patrol duties in remote or dangerous areas.

In South, Luis and Nora have a close encounter with a Border Patrol drone helicopter gunship. The Mexican drug cartels – such as the one Luis works for – operate their own armed and unarmed drones. (Also in South, a mention of the inevitable commercial offshoot of unlimited drone use: “drone porn,” mostly video of women sunbathing nude or couples getting frisky in the back yard.)

RFID tracking. RFID tags – very small devices that can be detected by sensors a few meters away – are already used for inventory control in stores and, apparently, employee tracking in some firms. An injectable RFID tag already exists and is in use. Washable tags can and have been embedded in clothing and linens. Pundits have predicted the explosion of RFID use and surveillance since the things became common. It’s not hard to see how this might come about, possibly through the Trojan horse of personalized marketing.

However, there’s a technical hitch in the use of RFID for surveillance: detection range. Depending on the type of chip, this range can vary from 10cm (~4”) to 200m. The longer distances require active tags (battery-powered tags that transmit their data autonomously), which can be detected and neutralized by the subject. Passive tags (no batteries, energized by a detector) may not show up in a “bug scan,” but current detection ranges are too short to be of much use in anything other than retail or industrial applications. Also, RFID tags use several different frequency bands depending on their purpose. None of these technical issues are insurmountable, and I’m sure we can rely on our defense and homeland-security industrial complexes to work them out.

“Smart” IDs. Standardized ID cards have come and gone as a topic of conversation in the U.S. for years. The REAL ID Act of 2005 came as close as any other attempt to create standardized “smart” ID cards across all fifty states, including a common machine-readable format and linking state ID databases. The most recent fictional representation of this is the “show me” in Walternate’s world in Fringe.

The most powerful idea here isn’t the ID card per se but the plumbing behind it. Included in REAL ID was the requirement for states to sign onto the Driver License Agreement, which calls for full reciprocity between states in enforcement of each other’s traffic citations and sharing of ID information. (Mexican states and Canadian provinces are also eligible to join without having to subscribe to the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act.) But why stop there? Once the mechanisms are in place, there’s no reason not to link IDs to NCIC and the various other law-enforcement and immigration databases, and there probably wouldn’t be a lot of controversy about that. More controversial but doable in the right circumstances (i.e. high levels of fear, uncertainty and doubt, such as October 2001) would be linking in voter registration data (the legal foundation for that is already being poured in places like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania), employment information, census data, and so on.

The REAL ID Act was attacked from all sides and the 2008 implementation date came and went, although several states began to issue compliant ID cards. But what if REAL ID had been proposed in, say, October 2001, when people were scared and didn’t care to think about the consequences? In South, that’s what happens in 2019 following a major terrorist attack in Chicago. The resulting standardized ID cards contain digital representations of the holder’s photo, right thumb print and retinal scan that can be read on a tablet-like device (called a Level 1 scan in this world). A slightly longer process displays all data associated with the person from a variety of Federal and state databases (a Level 2 scan, rumored to include data from the two surviving major credit agencies).

[Addition on 15 Aug]

Behavioral prediction. I wasn’t going to bring this up because it’s so Minority Report, but this Wired UK article on algorithmic location prediction forced me to acknowledge the concept. I suspect this will continue for some time to be workable only for people with regular schedules and not for people purposely trying to defeat it, but you never know.

[End addition]

Just because these tools are available doesn’t mean they’re in use all the time. Even the massive NSA effort to record most of the world’s communications doesn’t mean someone is listening to everything; it just means everything is stored, to be used later (or maybe not at all). Providing active, blanket Stasi-like surveillance is incredibly costly because it requires a huge number of people to sift through and use the resulting data, all of whom need to be paid in one way or another. Machine natural-language processing will likely be better in 2032 than the brain-dead versions we have now, but it’ll probably also still be expensive. The same lack of resources that drives cities in 2032 to contract out their police forces to private paramilitary firms will also put the kibosh on an always-on Big Brother. As our heroine Nora puts it, “The only thing keeping us from having a police state is that nobody wants to pay for it.”

Next: how do people get around all this surveillance?

I’m sure there are more cool toys waiting to move out of labs into the hands of the authorities to use for surveillance. If so, let me know.

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