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The State Of Surveillance

January 22, 2011

Lost in the recent London bombings, along with innocent lives, was any illusion that today’s surveillance technology can save us from evildoers. Britain has 4 million video cameras monitoring streets, parks, and government buildings, more than any other country. London alone has 500,000 cameras watching for signs of illicit activity. Studying camera footage helped link the July 7 bombings with four men — but only after the fact. The disaster drove home some painful reminders: Fanatics bent on suicide aren’t fazed by cameras. And even if they are known terrorists, most video surveillance software won’t pick them out anyway.

Tomorrow’s surveillance technology may be considerably more effective. But each uptick in protection will typically come at the cost of more intrusion into the privacy of ordinary people. For now, the public seems to find that trade-off acceptable, so scientists around the world have intensified efforts to perfect the art of surveillance, hoping to catch villains before they strike.

Research laboratories envision tools that could identify and track just about every person, anywhere — and sound alarms when the systems encounter hazardous objects or chemical compounds. Many such ideas seem to leap from the pages of science fiction: An artificial nose in doorways and corridors sniffs out faint traces of explosives on someone’s hair. Tiny sensors floating in reservoirs detect a deadly microbe and radio a warning. Smart cameras ID people at a distance by the way they walk or the shape of their ears. And a little chemical lab analyzes the sweat, body odor, and skin flakes in the human thermal plume — the halo of heat that surrounds each person.

All of these projects are on a fast track since September 11. Meanwhile, consumer demand is speeding their development by lowering the cost of the underlying technologies. Camera phones, nanny cams, and even satellite photos are commonplace. Biological sensors are flooding into households in the form of tests for HIV, pregnancy, and diabetes — some of which can relay data to a doctor — and soon there will be far more sensitive DNA-based tests. Next up are radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags. They’re showing up in stores to help track inventory, and 50 people in the U.S. have had them planted under their skin to broadcast their ID and medical data, in case of an emergency.

Together these developments herald a high-tech surveillance society that not even George Orwell could have imagined — one in which virtually every advance brings benefits as well as intrusions. Rapid DNA-based probes, for example, could help protect us from bioweapons and diagnose diseases, but they might also reveal far too much about us to health insurers or prospective employers. The trade-offs are uncomfortable, in part, because corporations and governments will continue to wield the most advanced surveillance systems. But ordinary citizens will also gain capabilities to monitor their surroundings with consumer technologies, from Web cams to Net search and tracking tools, allowing the watched to observe other watchers.

One great worry is that those who stand out from the norm or express unpopular views, minorities, the poor, or just the ill-mannered, may get stomped in new and surprising ways. A recent incident in South Korea shows how this can play out. A subway commuter posted on the Internet some cell-phone photos he took of a passenger who had refused to clean up after her dog relieved itself during the ride. In no time, a vigilante mob on the Web identified her by her face and the purse she was carrying, and she became the object of national vilification. “You can move into a surveillance society one tiny camera at a time,” says Deirdre Mulligan, director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley.

If terrorism becomes endemic in Europe and America, emerging surveillance tools may be abused in even more egregious ways. At the same time, the overhead burdens of a police state, from the dossier-building to the endless security checkpoints, could impose crippling costs on a free-market economy. Witness the U.S. clampdown on foreign student visas, which could end up crimping universities’ ability to do advanced research. “We could bankrupt ourselves, much like the Soviet Union did,” notes Kim Taipale, executive director of Manhattan’s Center for Advanced Studies in Science & Technology Policy.

Experts disagree about when the most visionary tools to thwart terrorist acts will arrive on the market — and whether they will deliver on their promise. Sensors that can detect bombs, radiation, and toxins exist today, and will be far more sophisticated a decade from now. But strewing them across every city in America would cost untold billions of dollars. High-tech electronic eavesdropping on communications networks can be effective, but only if terrorists use telecom systems. And even with improvements in cameras, biometric devices such as iris scans, bomb sniffers, and tracking software, it will be years before they can pick a terrorist out of a crowd. In short, the march toward a surveillance society may be inevitable, but no simple cost-benefit equation can assure us that the sacrifices will be worth it. We’ll be debating the point for decades to come.

Gin or Tequila?
In the quest to sort bad guys from good, scientists are poking ever more intimately at the core of each person’s identity — right down to the DNA. One day people’s distinctive body odor, breath, or saliva could serve as an identifier, based on the subtle composite of chemicals that make up a person’s scent or spit. One’s smell “is a cocktail of hundreds of molecules,” says Frank V. Bright, a chemistry professor at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York. “The question is whether it’s a gin and tonic or a margarita.” While some of these sensors perform well in the lab, he adds, the real world may be different: “The technology is still in its infancy.”

Science today is hard put to identify smells a beagle could nail in an instant. “We want to show there is a set of underlying odors in people independent of perfume and what they ate that day,” says Gary K. Beauchamp, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a pioneer of odor prints. But for Beauchamp, Bright, and others, surveillance is just one objective. The more immediate goal is to use their biochemical understanding of human odor to diagnose diseases. Specific chemicals are associated with certain illnesses — carbon disulfide with some forms of mental illness, for instance, and nitric oxide with cancer.

Messengers in your Mouth
In Bright’s lab at the University at Buffalo, scientists are creating super-sensors to pick up myriad molecules released at low concentrations that constitute human scents, including carbon dioxide, acetone, ethanol, and sulfur. To capture them, they poke tiny pores into glass — as many as 10,000 on a chip the width of a pencil eraser — each tailored to the size of the molecule. Excited by a laser, the chemicals trapped in the pores emit different colors, and computers can then analyze the resulting pattern.

Dental researchers are attacking the challenges of identification and diagnosis from another vantage point — the mouth. They’re studying whether saliva contains markers for various diseases. If the technology works, it has additional potential for biometric applications, too. Spit contains many of the proteins, nucleic acids, and other substances that are found in blood. While they are present in fainter quantities, they can also be sampled less intrusively.

Scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles have found that they can detect in human saliva some 3,000 messenger RNAs, molecules that carry genetic information within a human cell. These molecules perhaps can serve as markers for disease, or perhaps for identity, just like DNA. And they are often easier to detect. About 180 RNA markers are common across all individuals, but the remainder can differ. “We don’t know how constant these are to the individual on a Monday vs. a Friday, but they could possibly serve as fingerprints for that individual,” says David T. Wong, associate dean of research at the UCLA School of Dentistry. Last December his team identified four RNA markers in saliva that may indicate the presence of oral cancer.

The use of bodily scents and secretions as biometrics presents an intriguing anti-terrorism weapon. But if the science isn’t rock-solid, it can lead to a nightmare of mistaken identities. That’s a problem even with mature biometrics, such as fingerprints. The fingerprints of Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield were erroneously matched to those of a suspect in the Madrid train bombing last year. This cast a cloud over the innocent man for weeks.

Biometrics bring a host of other troubles. As they become used more and more in office access, ATM passwords, passports, and ID cards, their value increases, and so do efforts to steal or spoof them. And because biometrics are cloaked in science, matches may acquire an unearned aura of dependability. Recently, cryptographers in Japan showed that common fingerprint-based systems can be easily duped using simple molds of melted Gummi Bear candies. In hopes of precluding such scams, Albuquerque’s Lumidigm Inc. captures images of not only the fingerprint itself but also the terrain beneath the skin. This includes the swirling patterns of active capillaries, which help indicate that the finger is alive. Fujitsu Ltd. has just installed palm scanners that read vein patterns at Mitsubishi bank ATMs.

Despite the many failings of biometrics, the federal government is encouraging scientists to fashion them into covert surveillance tools. Face recognition — the most obvious way to track people because it’s how humans do it — is still dogged by problems matching images that may be distorted by a smile or ill-placed shadow. While scientists work out those glitches, others are improving iris-based technology for surveillance at a distance. Though computers can easily find eyes on a face, today’s systems can’t scan irises from afar as people rush through a crowd. Sarnoff Corp., a contract research outfit in Princeton, N.J., hopes to unveil a solution to that later this year.

Another hope is that certain characteristic movements may be recognizable at a distance. Taking a page from Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research body credited with inventing the Internet, funds work on software that could identify individuals by their strides. Researchers measure the silhouette of the torso, the swinging of the shoulders and legs, and the time it takes to move through a single step, says Mark Nixon, a professor in computer vision at Britain’s University of Southampton. Right now, people can still trick the system by wearing Manolo Blahniks, but there may be signature rhythms that are harder to disguise. Such “gait recognition” systems may be 5 to 10 five years from commercialization.

Many people in building security welcome advances in surveillance. In New York, two-thirds of Class A residential and commercial buildings use some combination of biometrics and surveillance for access control or checking time and attendance, says Robert Tucker, CEO of security consulting firm T&M Protection Resources. Incidents of mistaken identity are rare, he says. Biometrics can also vindicate an innocent person by establishing a correct ID, notes Raul J. Fernandez, CEO of Object Video Inc., which makes software for intelligent camera surveillance: “Highly accurate technology is a friend to privacy.”

The most serious privacy breaches are almost all linked to the proliferation of fast and inexpensive data processing and storage systems. The worst problems arise when each bit of information an individual gives up over the course of a day — from the E-ZPass scans on the morning commute to the credit card purchase at Starbucks (SBUX ) to the logging of PC keystrokes at work — get tied across various databases to create a detailed dossier of an innocent Joe’s daily activity. “We’re a couple generations away from the technology that makes it possible for a computer to save everything you do,” says Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer at Counterpane Internet Security Inc.

But in info tech, the generations can fly by at superhuman speeds. Ever since September 11, the U.S. government has been striving through the power of software to extend its investigatory net over an elusive enemy lurking among the populace. The idea is to rifle through multiple databases using algorithms that categorize and rank documents — ranging from airline manifests, car rental records, and hotel guest lists to credit, court, and housing records compiled and sold by private companies such as ChoicePoint. In this way, machines might recognize relationships among human beings that humans themselves can miss.

This is just one of many measures that trigger a Big Brother alert. One of the hot buttons is eavesdropping. An emerging wireless technology called software-defined radio has the power to make cellular phones compatible with any network standard, but also opens new frontiers of snooping. The commercial merits of the technology are self-evident: Say good-bye to dead zones and lack of interoperability between police and firefighter radios. But the technology also enables superscanners that can be tuned to pick up the images on your neighbor’s computer. That’s possible because all computers emit stray radiation. With software-defined radio even amateurs could probably design equipment that could spot somebody porn-surfing in the next apartment. The technology can also make it easier to turn the cell phone of a spouse into a bug when it’s not in normal use.

Pores and Wrinkles
Advances in many surveillance technologies piggyback on progress in fields such as wireless signal processing, nanotechnology, and genomics. Even plain old digital cameras are hotbeds of innovation. The imaging sensors in consumer cameras have been achieving ever-higher resolutions, while plunging in price. Because the gadgets are so engaging, crowds end up participating in surveillance efforts. Witness spectators holding cameras and phones aloft whenever news breaks — an act that may aid investigations, or hold police misbehavior in check. And in biometrics, today’s high-res imaging chips “are an answer to our prayers,” says Mohamed Lazzouni, chief technology officer of Viisage Technology Inc., (VISG ) a Billerica (Mass.) maker of face-recognition software. “Now we are able to do things that we couldn’t do three years ago.”

Improved picture quality has given a boost to Viisage rival Identix Inc., allowing it to add in minute details of the skin to increase the accuracy of facial recognition. It divides a small area on the face into a 400-block grid, and then inspects each block for the size of skin pores, wrinkles, and spots. And using an infrared camera, researchers at A4Vision Inc., a Sunnyvale (Calif.) startup funded in part by In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture fund, cooked up a 3D approach. Its system creates a topographical map by projecting a grid pattern of infrared light onto a face, and matching the features.

Strides in wireless signal processing are bringing the power of astronomical instruments to homeland security. Giant radio telescopes today listen to the faint energy waves emanating from stars billions of light years away. The first earthbound applications of this electronic wizardry will be airport scanners that scrutinize passengers’ bags. The principle is simple: All matter gives off so-called background radiation, or millimeter-wave heat, whether it’s a supernova or a switchblade. Brijot Imaging Systems Inc. recently unveiled a $60,000 system that, Brijot claims, can distinguish between the heat coming from a human body and that from a metal or plastic object — and can pull this off from distances of up to 45 feet. (The company says its system doesn’t capture anatomical details.)

A kindred technology can “see” the molecular composition of matter using extremely short wavelengths of energy. When a machine made by Picometrix Inc. shines these terahertz waves on a target, its molecules resonate at a telltale frequency. One plastic explosive, for instance, vibrates at 800 gigahertz. T-rays pose no radiation hazard because they don’t penetrate human skin. But people being scanned will appear naked on the monitor unless the system is programmed to cover up private parts.

Airport safety is just a small facet of the security challenge that lies ahead. Biological and chemical attacks can be ignited in any location, and spread with alarming speed. “If we could put sensing devices everywhere, maybe we could stop such attacks,” says Thomas Thundat, a senior scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. But the cost is now prohibitive.

Elusive Goals
The Holy Grail is a universal sensor, small and cheap enough to scatter in public places, and smart enough to sniff out anything that comes its way, without being preprogrammed to find specific molecules. Nobody is close to that goal yet, but Sandia National Laboratories has designed a lab-on-a-chip that detects a variety of both chemical and biological agents. It has skinny microchannels etched in its surface. When a gas or liquid moves through the tiny pipes, it collides with special material, and how much that slows the flow betrays the identity of the fluid. Sandia is now developing this technology to monitor the Contra Costa County (Calif.) water supply.

U.S. Genomics Inc. in Woburn, Mass., claims that it is hot on the heels of a universal sensor. Its prototype uses particular molecules to tag important DNA sequences in the genes of lethal pathogens, such as anthrax. Then, primed with a fluorescent dye, those sequences light up, and a photo detector compares the pattern of illumination with a library of known bioagents.

These systems may not be in place in time for the next attack in a Western country — let alone in Egypt or Iraq. And if terrorists hit the U.S. again, the authorities are bound to strike back. Among other things, today’s restraints on racial profiling are likely to crumble. Then what? In the arms race against suicide bombers, will surveillance technologies prove their worth?

Some already have. Electronic monitoring has foiled some terrorist plots, and portals that spot guns and explosives make airports safer. Unfortunately, many of the most powerful technologies are simply too green. It may take a decade or more before networks of biochemical sensors are ready to blanket a whole city. And it could take as long before camera systems can pick a known face — terrorist or otherwise — out of the throngs. For now, only a combination of electronic monitoring and human intelligence stands a chance of holding radicals at bay.

In the meantime, scientists who labor on surveillance prototypes are encouraged that their innovations can bring benefits in health care and food safety. Over time, people may get smarter about how to live with threats and make use of technology without undermining their most basic values. They must. A country that sacrifices its citizens’ freedom in the fight to protect them is no victor.

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