If you think computer tracking is pervasive now, see what's next
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By Elizabeth Weise
In the world of 2054, as portrayed in the summer movie "Minority Report," surveillance is a constant presence.
Lasers scan the irises of subway passengers and automatically deduct their fare. Billboards use the same technology to recognize passers-by and call out to them by name. At one point, Tom Cruise walks into the Gap after he has paid a black-market surgeon to swap out his eyes and replace them with someone else's to shield his identity. The store cheerfully calls out, "Hello Mr. Yakamoto, welcome back to the Gap. How did those assorted tank tops work out?"
But the real future is unlikely to be anywhere near that intrusive. Think instead of a gentle dusting of almost microscopic sensors in everything we use, wear, walk on and drive, all calling out to each other in a radio whisper we never hear or see but that tracks us like a mother following a 2-year-old to keep her out of trouble.
"It's going to be extremely invasive of privacy, but we're going to forget using those words. I think we'll get used to this stuff in an alarmingly short amount of time," said Bruce Sterling, an Austin, Texas, science-fiction writer much in demand by think tanks to help them imagine and plan for the future.
It's called "ubicomp" ubiquitous computing. The roadway will know when it's icy and caution our car to slow down on the curves. Our toilet will analyze our urine and notify our doctor if anything is amiss. When we listen to music, the player will note each song and quietly deduct a few cents from our account, maybe less if we allow the record companies to track what we like and don't like for their marketing plans.
Imagine it as elder care. "Prosthetic ubicomp," Sterling calls it. Computer scientist Henry Kautz of the University of Washington in Seattle is already working on it. His Assisted Cognition Project uses a network of digital devices and wireless sensors in the walls of homes, in appliances and furniture and clothing. The devices would work together to monitor an individual, offer prompts when appropriate and summon help when needed.
The military and law enforcement are eager to make use of the latest computer database technologies to track criminals. The Senate has held a hearing on the possibility of creating a national system of biometric measurement using the body to uniquely identify individuals to help in the fight against terrorism. Federal agents were able to recreate a detailed record of the lives of the Sept. 11 terrorists by using credit-card transactions, phone records and security-camera tapes.
But it's not just terrorists who are tracked, and it's not just the government doing the tracking. Already, gigabytes of information are collected about us every day in databases compiled by the supermarkets where we shop, our pharmacies, credit-card companies and phone companies.
Trade-offs for convenience
To some extent, the trade-off for the consumer is between convenience and privacy. Across the country, drivers can sign up to use palm-sized transponders that automatically deduct the cost of bridge and highway tolls as they drive. But this means there's a digital record detailing each time and place their car made the trip. And customers aren't the ones deciding how the information will be used. In Southern California, a supermarket used a customer's previous purchasing records to imply that his fall in a store was caused in part by his heavy drinking documented by what he'd bought with his discount card.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., said last year's Supreme Court ruling that police couldn't use thermal imaging devices to detect marijuana being raised under grow lamps shows the court "doesn't plan to abandon the Fourth Amendment even as technology makes possible new forms of intrusion."
But that was in the home, which has a special place in U.S. privacy law. Out in public, we're fair game. Face-recognition software was used to surreptitiously scan everyone who passed through the turnstiles at the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla. The digitized images were matched electronically with databases of mug shots of criminals and terrorists.
Computerized iris scanning has existed since 1994 and has been used at ATMs, in hospitals and airports, but it's not as easy as the film "Minority Report" suggests.
"One unrealistic thing in the movie is that the guy is running down the street and the billboards are identifying him as he goes by," said computer scientist John Daugman of Cambridge University in England, who invented the computer algorithms for iris recognition. "You have to be looking at the camera so you pretty much have to be a cooperative and willing subject."
Trackers are everywhere
We're already used to pervasive tracking of our daily routines online. Web sites immediately identify visitors based on tiny files called "cookies" placed in their hard drives. It's these trackers that allow Amazon.com to greet you by name and make suggestions of books you might like based on your past buying behavior. Though privacy advocates wail mightily, attempts to legislate privacy have generally been unable to withstand corporate America's thirst for marketing knowledge about its customers.
In the movie, murderers are stopped before they kill by a "pre-crime unit" based on the predictions of "pre-cogs." Cruise plays Detective John Anderton, who must run when he's arrested for the future murder of a man he has never met. It's based on a 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick, one of science fiction's more dystopian writers.
Dick's work, written at the height of the Red Scare, was a meditation on the nature of free will, destiny and whether society has the right to protect itself at the expense of the individual. And in Dick's story, unlike the movie, there's no happy ending: Anderton goes to prison for the crime he didn't commit.