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CPSR Newsletter Vol 18, No 2
Volume 18, Number 2 The CPSR Newsletter Spring 2000

Safety, Security and Surveillance by Cynthia K. West, Ph.D.

A fellow digerati [1] member tells me she and her husband have purchased the new Mercedes station wagon to accommodate their growing family. Of course, one of Mercedes' marketing pitches is the ability to transport one's family safely, securely and in style. Elsie chirps, "The Mercedes also comes with a GPS (global positioning system) which is great. If I need to know how to get somewhere, I just check the GPS. And if I'm still lost, I can call Mercedes from the installed mobile phone and they, knowing my position exactly, will talk me through the directions or stay on the phone until I get there." She continues, "Plus, a nice feature is that Dan can call Mercedes and locate me in case of emergency." I nod understanding, but not necessarily agreeing.

This example displays just how common surveillance has become in the western world. In the case of surveillance cameras and GPS technology, we have turned public spaces into superpanopticons, or systems which are designed to shape and affect behavior as if one is under constant watch. The trade off for such public monitoring is supposed to be some sense of increased, or perhaps just maintained, safety and security.

These technologies are not innocent. For instance, the GPS has a history embedded in the military-industrial complex. One of its original applications, with respect to interaction with human subjects, was to track military personnel in the field. Soldiers wear a belted unit that communicates with the satellites and the GPS, letting those outside the combat zone know of the soldiers' whereabouts.

One step toward commercialization of the GPS was in the area of criminal justice, or tracking paroled prisoners. Such is the application marketed by ProTech Monitoring Inc. in Florida. [2] ProTech offers a receiving/tracking unit that a parolee (mostly sexual offenders) wear in a fanny pack along with a non-detachable ankle bracelet. The technology is in constant communication with the satellite and GPS. The GPS sends information bout his or her whereabouts to a monitoring center. The monitoring center, in turn, contacts the police, the parole officer and the victim of each parolee, should the parolee outstep his designated geographical boundaries.

There is a slippery slope of such technologies toward general consumer usage. For example, ProTech encourages the victims to also wear a corresponding unit to assure her or his safety. The argument is as follows: the monitoring center can know where the two individuals are with respect to each other and notify the victim more rapidly. The specious marketing message begs the question: Just who is the criminal here?

In Techno-Human Mesh, I argue that it is not long before the GPS is used to track general populations. Just as the book went to into production, featured Florida-based Applied Digital Solutions, a company promoting the use of a miniature digital device to be implanted in people, just under the skin, which communicates with and is tracked by GPS technology. [3] Their first markets include children and high risk heart patients. One benefit touted in the marketing message is that if you are a heart attack candidate, the device will monitor certain biological functions and notify a monitoring center if it detects medical concerns. Similarly, parents concerned about locating missing children, need not worry if their children have an implant. Their product, amazingly enough, is called the "Digital Angel."

Another example is Techno Bra (I am not kidding here) which proposes that women wear its digitally embedded support system. Techo-Bra features a digital device that can recognize the rapid jumps in the heart rate of its wearer, distinguishing between an exercising heart beat and a heart beat of a woman being sexually attacked. In the event of sexual assault, the bra uses the cellular phone network to notify the police. [4] The marketing message is that we will be safer if we purchase and utilize surveillance products.

I submit that we are not addressing these problems at their roots. That is, instead of encouraging individuals to act within moral limits, we create societies in which the individual is further isolated. It is each individual's responsibility to care for him or herself, not to rely on a stranger for assistance, but rely on the power of monitoring technologies. By relying on technologies for our safety concerns, we give the technologies power and render ourselves less potent players. Also, in this system, it is a vicious circle, always hoping that the technologies stay ahead of the criminal elements.

We must instead return to education and retain some process for educating members of society about agreed upon values. How does a community, which is often comprised of divergent interests, arrive at an agreement on common values? One successful example comes from Sanford McDonnell, chairman emeritus of McDonnell Douglas Corporation who, having developed a code of conduct and values for his employees, extended the idea to his community where he created and funded a school-business-community partnership called Personal Responsibility Education Process (PREP). The goal of this partnership was to determine common values and promote these values in schools. Parents and teachers of each school met to decide upon the specific values and character traits they wanted to develop in students. If not everyone agreed on a particular value, they conceded that the value would not be taught. Even though one school in this community was comprised of people from a variety of cultural backgrounds, they agreed on the core values of honesty, responsibility, respect, cooperation and service to others. [5]

Technologies of the superpanoptic type, like surveillance technologies, should be examined with great care. Those deemed invasive or non-constructive should be resisted. Educating individuals about the types of societies and communities we want to built needs to be the foundation, instead of technology solutions. Similarly, if as computer professionals, we are busy building systems such as these, we need to ask ourselves about their value in the short and long term. Are these systems we are building contributing to the kinds of communities we want to leave the next generations?

[1] I borrow John Brockman's term from his book of the same name, Digerati, to signify the group of individuals responsible for researching, developing, selling and marketing information technologies.

[2] See [ ].

[3] Richard Stenger, "Tiny human-borne monitoring device sparks privacy fears," 20 December 1999, [ ].

[4] Leander Kahney, "Techno Bra Calls the Cops," 1 July 1999,[,1282,20517,00.html ].

[5] Gail Bernice Holland, A Call for Connection (Novato, CA: New World Library, 1998), 101.

Based on forthcoming book to be published in 2000 by Quorum books, entitled Techno-Human Mesh: The Growing Power of Information Technologies © Cynthia K. West, 2000.

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