Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Future of Surveillance

The Director of the Future Planet Research Centre- David Hunter Tow, predicts that by 2030 the equivalent of a global PreCognition machine will be in operation with everyone  a Person of Interest as portrayed in The Minority Report film.
The state of surveillance and reconnaissance technology and its multiple applications  is now evolving at warp speed creating unprecedented Future Shock to civilisation’s social fabric.
Surveillance is already big business- very big business and is likely to continue to expand exponentially into the foreseeable future, attracting the good, the bad and the ugliest elements of society.

The problem is that without careful controls,  the runaway consequences of such a pervasive and intrusive phenomenom is likely to be catastrophic for humanity.
The main technological and social components of the  global surveillance trendline are already emerging; woven together into a dense matrix from which there will be no easy escape.

They include-

 The Knowledge Web
The most important component is the Web/Internet itself- the core asset and artefact of our civilisation, leveraging the knowledge of our society.  

This massive information network is already evolving into something beyond society’s capacity to control- the means of generating and accessing all civilisation’s knowledge content and application. It now connects over 3 billion humans and in the near future trillions of computing devices, machines and sensors. It already allows  a dense interchange of information, expertise and ideas relating to the sciences, arts and social experience that support all aspects of human existence on planet earth.
All knowledge advances, including not just basic data, but the algorithms, processes and techniques used to processs information, are being funnelled at hyperspeed into its heart, like a giant black hole swallowing the energy of billions of suns.

And emerging from the other side just like a white hole is a whole new universe- the promise of a cornucopia of untold intellectual riches and wisdom. Giant science and social observatories are now being constructed- models containing trillions of variables to assist in forecasting the future; reducing the risks that could wipe out our world in the blink of an eye- catastrophic economic, environmental or existential collapse.

The Web itself is rapidly moving to the next level- becoming more intelligent and self-determining; adapting and learning with the computational intelligence of billions of human and cyberagent minds; rapidly taking on the characteristics of a living superorganism.

 Once encapsulated, content can be mixed and matched, processed and recycled ad infinitum just like matter, until it finally emerges in a form that in  the best scenario will benefit humanity and allow it survive and achieve its potential in the future.

But there is an alter ego- a dark side to the Internet/Web. In order to achieve this magical transformation, this perpetual knowledge generator at the heart and soul of our civilisation,  it must also become a superb surveillance machine, with intelligent sensors to act as its eyes and ears- everywhere.
The following categories of sensors are now commonly used  to support the Internet/Web

Embedded Sensors-
Sensors are incredibly important, because without them to monitor the processes and systems of our planet, including our own bodies, our wonderful chocolate factory would quickly die. It  can only operate as a supersystem if it is fed a continuous diet of up to date, relevant and reliable information.

By linking to a variety of intelligent sensors, some incorporating the distributed  ability to process signals using artificial intelligence, the Web can capture the raw material it requires to weave our social matrix and is already doing so in increasing volumes, as its appetite for problem solving expands.
Sensors therefore must therefore also evolve  to become smarter- becoming more like multi-component systems, which can now be constructed in a vast variety of forms. For example- as force and field detectors embedded in the limbs of autonomous robots, capable of working on complex tasks with humans; as clouds of tiny artificial insects or smart dust that can automatically cooperate to monitor deadly environments without risking human lives; as nano-biosensors small enough to enter and navigate human cells to keep us alive; as the instrumentation of unmanned drones capable of locking on to a target and activating a kill switch against human beings; and as road location catseyes, continuously  communicating with driverless cars to avoid accidents and gridlock.

But rapidly changing climate and social change triggered by global warming will be the main driver for this technology in the future,  requiring intelligent sensors embedded in every form of natural and man made ecosystem; allowing for constant adaptation and maintenance, utilising closed feedback loops linked to the Intelligent Web for its solutions.
Such smart sensor networks are already operating in every sphere of work and social activity including-

Maintaining engineered Infrastructure- embedded in roads, bridges, dams, pipelines, grids and power stations.
Monitoring ecosystems-  natural systems  such as-forests, rivers, water, soil,  air and energy resources providing feedback to regulatory authorities to protect their integrity and survival.

Coordinating manufacturing and logistical facilities-  factories, plants,  container centres, warehouses, ports. airports, railways, traffic systems etc to efficiently manage the manufacture and delivery of products and services.
Personalising Health - advances in smart phones  and mobile technology equipped with biosensors have opened up unlimited  opportunities to monitor and support an individual’s health needs on an unprecedented personal basis- delivering just in time interventions linked to the latest diagnostic and treatment algorithms on the Web. Also using nanosensors to track disease pathways at the cellular and molecular level.

Managing Disasters and Conflict -  protecting the security  of those living in war and conflict zones – including law enforcement precincts in cities and urban areas; using a  range of sensors to protect and monitor the security of communities and public assets. These are increasingly delivered by smartphones as well as pervasive CCTV cameras, mobile robots and in the future small agile drones.

 Satellites / Probes – Eyes in  the Sky-

Ssensor systems, involving high resolution cameras and global positioning devices attached to space based telescopes, aircraft, balloons, unmanned drones, explorers  and probes of all types are now widely used to detect the electromagnetic spectrum of the planet’s resources in most wavelengths- optical, infrared, ultra violet, radio etc. The results are used to feed data to web based or smartphone apps for analysis covering-  weather forecasts, disaster interventions, animal distribution, ecosystem health, 24 hour communications and video news footage..

.Military / Spy networks - satellites track the world’s most secret military and government installations and test sites using software that enables surveillance of the remotest areas on the planet. This information is also used for research, using images from Google Earth satellite maps to replace traditional archaeological methods; by Governments to monitor border integrity and NGOs to safeguard wildlife against poaching in protected areas. Powerful probes and remote autonomous vehicle landers are increasingly used in space exploration  to obtain fly by views of planets, moons and asteroids and in the future mining options.
Drones / UAVs – these are likely to become common in the future, sharing airspace with piloted aircraft. They are currently used for surveillance spying and kill missions, but in the future will be used for reconaissance by most governments, NGOs and private corporations.

They can monitor a range of information sources, vastly reducing the operational risk in conflict areas; allowing surveillance by sensors that can record full motion video, infrared patterns. radio and mobile phone signals. They can also refuel on remote short airstrips, extending effective air range by thousands of kilometres.

Nextgen drones will be autonomous and smaller, able to navigate and eventually make target decisions, controlled by  complex algorithms and Web feeds; eliminating human operators from the decision loop entirely.  They will be used by every type of organisation - criminal networks, private security businesses, NGOs and social activist groups, providing a variety of logistical, security, news gathering and research services.
But many legal, ethical and regulatory issues remain to be resolved before UAVs will be able to operate in lockstep with human controlled vehicles. There is now fierce pushback by the community against another method of individual privacy invasion.

Intelligent Devices
With the imminent arrival of the Internet of Everything the focus will be on every object in relation to surveillance - machines, electronic devices and systems that can communicate with other machines as well as human users will be the first objects of interest to  be caught in the net. These will include complex systems such as supersmart phones and robots as well as everyday home and office devices such as  cameras, TVs, printers, video recorders, toys,  game consoles, microwave ovens, toasters, fridges etc, all equipped with forms of embedded sensors and actuators including chipped product and ID codes. Eventually  trillions of such active objects including life forms – plants,  animals and humans- will be linked to the Internet through a variety of communication protocols including including DNA sequences and brain interfaces.

Robots of all types will be pervasive in the home,  workplace and industrial areas including- humanoids, capable of intereacting and cooperating with humans in work areas such as retail stores and factories or performing home support services- initially cleaning, food delivery, health and companion support.  They will eventually be capable of more sophisticated decision-making and autonomous operation equal to humans in every activity and finally acting in surveillance / supervisory mode.

 Social Networks /Media

Humans are also expanding their remit in the surveillance game in the form of citizen reporters, scientists and observers, using smartphones to gather information from their local environment, then feeding it through social network media.  Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter already provide feedback on the latest breaking news across the globe, particularly in entertainment, crime and disaster areas, often creating ad hoc networks to provide alternative coverage when standard communication fails as in Haiti-  offering critical on the ground suppport and impact assessment as first responders.

Phone cameras have already proved the single most important surveillance tool available to communities in times of crisis;  also a tool for democracy that has already proved crucial in capturing proof of abuse during the Arab Spring. Citizen reporters, and community activists  equipped with such devices constantly feed the Web with realtime events, capturing evidence of illegal activities and promoting events of public interest through crowdsourcing. The social media therefore provides a significant back channel in disseminating realtime information around the globe like a Mexican wave, as well as signalling emerging trends such as disease epidemics and political developments.
In addition, activist NGOs, whistleblowers and mass movements- Greenpeace, Wikileaks and Occupy all contribute to this channel, providing background monitoring and surveillance of big business and  Government corruption; a form of ethical surveillance crucial to a democracy.

 Cyber Espionage

Cyber espionage is now rife around the world. Serious cyber attacks are a daily occurrence particularly between nations such as  China, US, Russia, Britain, Iran and Israel, with the intent of covert acquisition of national secrets, Intellectual property, financial assets and personal information.
But cyber espionage is also a form of intrusive surveillance.

Current cyber malware such as Stuxnet, Flame, Duqu and Miniduke are all primarily surveillance and  reconnaissance weapons capable of performing spy missions as well as crippling vital target infrastructure. This routinely involves  copying critical screen images, websites, emails, documentation and network traffic in general.- performing extensive data mining, copying, transmitting and deleting files for espionage purposes.
The Pentagon’s Plan x is a good example of the exploding surveillance syndrome now overtaking society. It aims to create a  new surveillance and operations system to map the digital battlefield of cyberspace and  define a playbook for deploying cyberweapons. It will provide a realtime graphical rendering of this cyberworld showing ongoing operations and realtime flows of networked data around the world like a large scale computer game. This visualisation or surveillance model of cyberspace requires intensive reconaissance of both friend and foe. But it is already out of date- a model more appropriate for the sci-fi films of the nineties. It will soon be superseded by a much bigger prescence – a multi-dimensional cognitive model in which  players are linked directly to the Intelligent Web.

The US is also assembling a vast intelligence surveillance apparatus to collect information about its own citizens as well as those overseas actors perceived as terrorist risks, integrating the resources of the Department of Homeland Security, military , local police departments and FBI. In the near future this will be expanded to encompass the whole range of US and overseas allied security agencies. This machine will collate information about thousands of US citizens and residents many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing, to assist the FBI initially in its ongoing eternal and surreal war against home grown terrorism.
According to news reports there are now almost 4000 federal, state and local organisations working on domestic counterterrorism projects, following the 2001 attacks. Obviously this is  getting out of hand, making it virtually impossible to achieve any realistic goal for achieving a coordinated system.

There are also a number of legislative bills relating to Internet surveillance awaiting ratification including – SOPA, PIPA and CISPA. The  first two speak to copyright protection of content on the web threatening to close down any remotely implicated site,  which opponents say infringes on the right to privacy and freedom of access to the Web; while the third  relates to the monitoring of private citizen information or spying on the general public, in the name of investigating hypothetical cyber threats and ensuring the security of networks against cyber attack.

All three have met with fierce opposition from advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union  and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as ignoring the legal rights of supposed infringers and excessively intrusive and draconian.
Future Shock

While the benefits of the future Interne/Web are enormous in terms of greater knowledge leading to a higher quality of life and a safer existence for humanity, there are concurrent significant downsides which will quickly escalate, potentially  leading to a loss of control of humanity over its destiny. 
The existential risk is that transition to such an always on and pervasive entity as a global  surveillance machine, monitoring  a large proportion of the planet’s  natural, engineered and cultural environment, could  lead to a big brother society in which everyone is a person of interest.

The major disruptions noted as already emerging, relate to the inevitable erosion of citizen privacy  and equitable access to the the Internet in the name of security, with new US laws such as SOPA  and CISPA due to be enacted. These purportably aim to provide greater protection for intellectual property and personal rights but at the same time have the potential to erode democratic rights. 

In other words the beneficial potential of the Internet/Web is at risk of being subverted, emerging instead as a vast spying or surveillance machine.

But this is just the beginning of a slippery slope in human rights attrition.
The surveillance mechanisms outlined will inevitably lead to much greater personal freedoms restriction, which in turn will increase pressure for some form of predictive capacity to choke off dissent. This is likely to escalate no matter what legal safeguards are adopted.

In the paranoid world of the spy/surveillance agencies, networks will become impossibly entangled – much more so than in the current geopolitical/security maze. If there are 4000 domestic agencies in the US currently involved in covert surveillance, how many more are there internationally and how many will there be involved in the surveillance game when the cyberespionage paranoia really explodes?

Who is friend or foe when every nation and major organisation is spying on every other?
As mentioned, prediction/forecasting models are already in widespread use – and so they should be in a world threatened by global warming and economic collapse.  Projects such as the FuturICT Social Observatory, although not gaining EU funding in the immediate future will continue, monitoring vast amounts of information, searching for trends and elusive signals to save the planet.

It is good science when forecasting is applied to reduce risks to our civiliisation. But when such mechanisms abuse power by tightening control over populations it is the beginning of an unravelling of democratic standards.
Autocratic and fascist states throughout history have applied such techniques to their people, punishing political enemies and dissidents in the process. The current surveillance technologies amplify this potential for misuse a thousandfold, exploiting the Web as civilisation’s greatest asset for potential benefit, turning it instead into a quasi Surveillance/Precog machine with the capacity to predict an individual’s movements and actions.

Governments have lost the ability to solve this problem.

Even if there is the will it has become too complex.

The Future is at a tipping point- and the outcome does not look promising.


  1. Most excellent article (even if I remain more optimistic... I mean if we have nothing to hide and our life is an open book who cares who sees it- anyway, who is watching behind the glass wall harder than steel houses but young observers learning the trade from their view at a distance who are humorously self centered and less than aware?)

    On the other hand why we cannot manage this new phenomenon is precisely because the established investigators of the human brain, the cognitive scientists and the neurologists with there mappings of nerve connections and ideas of how we develop with attention, emotions, happiness and cultural fitting in... as the twig is bent so grows the tree and a spoiled child spared the rod and all that...these as all organizations strive to fill all space, achieve hegemony over everything...yet, in a multiverse of space these sorts of clouds- let us call it the SuperCloud, has competing clouds to fill said space... and so on.

    It is a paradox and not necessarily the reality, but beyond the tipping point even the as if aware machines and us will need time more than space. Our universities have too little imagination in this development just as we pass laws to give it the equivalent of medication as if in the adolescent they have no way to monitor and control their emotions. Such a current mess is the intentions or chance ignorance of such people stuck in the past thinking it the future.

    Let us hope in our human poetry we find purity of our private dreams and clarity in our thinking and communication- like this piece of well thought out observation and writing you have given us.

    I will cite this on facebook in hopes someone can add to the thinking on this.

    L. Edgar Otto PeSla

  2. There is an interesting trend, we are becoming more distinct culturally, but more cohesive economically and technologically. I think technology has the potential to change important aspects of society, such as education and learning, surveillance, and also more conspicuously, the role of a person in a post modern and highly monitored society. Our technology funds to the dygenics and it's aspirations will surely fail us sociologically, albeit personally we will be much more privileged technologically which I look forward to. Surveillance is certainly a fetish of the governments, and the justification is anti-terrorism. Anti-terrorism is a joke, as terrorism does not affect a lot of people nor is it a common threat to anyone, governments included. I suspect there is a deeper meaning to the surveillance developments of the United States.