The Scorpion Stare

I have writ­ten over the years about the encroach­ing sur­veil­lance state, the spread of CCTV and the increas­ing use of drones in our skies.  When the North East of Eng­land intro­duced talk­ing CCTV cam­er­as that could bark orders at passing ped­es­tri­ans in 2008, I thought that we were fast approach­ing the reduc­tio ad absurdum point — and indeed this sub­ject has raised a wry laugh from audi­ences around the world ever since.

Recently I have been read­ing with dis­may a slew of art­icles about the increas­ing cor­por­at­isa­tion of the sur­veil­lance state.  First I stumbled across a piece describ­ing Facebook’s latest innov­a­tion, Facedeal: cam­er­as planted in shops and bars that will use the facial recog­ni­tion and tag­ging abil­it­ies of FB to recog­nise you as a val­ued cus­tom­er and offer you a dis­count, simply because you have signed up to this Big Broth­er app on Face­book.

Add this to the fact that Face­book is prob­ably, well, an open book for to the entire US secur­ity appar­at­us, and you can see the poten­tial abuse of this sys­tem.  We shall effect­ively be bribed to allow ourselves to be spied on.

Facedeal is being trialed in the US.  Some European coun­tries, most not­ably Ger­many, have already stated that data recog­ni­tion tech­no­logy used even just for photo “tag­ging” is or could be deemed illeg­al. Ger­many spe­cific­ally has reg­u­la­tions that allow Inter­net users con­trol over their data. They are not going to like Facedeal.

Secondly, it was repor­ted today that Google had pat­en­ted intel­li­gent image recog­ni­tion tech­no­logy.  Com­bine this cap­ab­il­ity with Googles Earth and Street, and we are poten­tially look­ing at a truly pan­op­ticon soci­ety.  The Ger­mans are really not going to like that. (Nor indeed will cer­tain of the French, includ­ing the man who earli­er this year tried to sue Google after being pho­to­graphed hav­ing a pee in his own front garden).

Thirdly, Boe­ing has tri­umphantly launched the concept of the drone swarm, oper­at­ing with a hive men­tal­ity and upping the cap­ab­il­it­ies of mil­it­ary sur­veil­lance expo­nen­tially, while tak­ing much of the risk out of any oper­a­tion.

And finally, the Wikileaks story about Trap­Wire. This first emerged as yet anoth­er bonkers Amer­ic­an scheme, where the foot­age from CCTV street cam­er­as was being main­lined into the secur­ity appar­at­us. Sub­sequently, it has emerged via Wikileaks that Trap­wire is also being used in oth­er west­ern coun­tries, includ­ing the UK.

Not only can the securo­crats watch you, they too are installing face recog­ni­tion soft­ware that can identi­fy you. While this may not yet be as accur­ate as the spies might wish, Trap­Wire has also installed pre­dict­ive soft­ware that appar­ently can assess wheth­er you are act­ing, loiter­ing or walk­ing in a sus­pi­cious man­ner.  So you could pre-empt­ively be assessed to be about to com­mit a crime or an act of ter­ror­ism and, no doubt, appro­pri­ately and pre-empt­ively “dealt with”.

All of which must be so reas­sur­ing to protest groups such as Occupy, which have been sub­ject to massive CCTV sur­veil­lance in NYC and which have been labelled a “terrorist/extremist threat” in the City of Lon­don.

At the risk of sound­ing alarm­ist, we now all know what “being dealt with” in this era of anti-act­iv­ist SWAT teams, drone strikes and kill lists can poten­tially entail.

So where does this leave us as con­cerned cit­izens?  It strikes me that we are being cata­pul­ted into some sci-fi dysto­pia bey­ond even Orwell’s wild­est ima­gin­ings.  Any fan of mod­ern thrillers and sci-fi will be famil­i­ar with the concept of integ­rated super-com­puters that can watch our every move via CCTV.

The lat­ter is what Trap­Wire et al are work­ing towards.  These new tech­no­lo­gies remind me of a story line from a won­der­ful series of books called the The Laun­dry Files by Charles Stross.  These nov­els are a per­fect of mer­ging of Len Deighton’s lac­on­ic spy fic­tion, à la Harry Palmer, with the geek uni­verse and bey­ond. And, at the risk of a spoil­er, one of the story lines envis­ages a cent­ral­ised and weapon­ised CCTV sys­tem, main­lin­ing into the secret ser­vices, that can be turned on UK cit­izens if the bal­loon goes up. This sys­tem is code­named the “Scor­pi­on Stare”.

Sounds far-fetched? Well The Laun­dry Files are a rol­lick­ing good read, but do bear in mind not only that our CCTV sys­tems may be cent­ral­ised cour­tesy of Trap­Wire, but also that vari­ous law enforce­ment agen­cies in the UK are using micro-drones to spy on pro­test­ers, and that they have reportedly enquired if these drones could be weapon­ised.….

So it all depends on how you define the bal­loon, I sup­pose.

Pub­lished in The Huff­ing­ton Post UK, 3 Septem­ber 2012

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