Wednesday, December 22, 2004

"Big Brother is watching you" may become reality

The following excerpts come from Scott Henson's blog, Grits for Breakfast. It's unsettling, but not surprising.

Should Texans have to give up "facial recognition" data and all ten fingerprints -- just like they were being booked into the county jail -- in order to get a driver's license? Chairman Frank Corte, Rep. Leo Berman, and a majority of the Texas House Defense Affairs Committee say ''Yes." That committee's #1 recommendation in its InterimReport (pdf) heading into the 79th Legislature is to allow the Texas Department of Public Safety to gather new "biometric data" – or new types of measurements about your physical body – as part of driver’s license applications. The Committee admitted the issue is "controversial," and that not even all committee members agree with the recommendation.

Legislative plans for instant one-to-many facial recognition systems would expand large-scale, secret government surveillance of Texans beyond the realm of science fiction to full-blown reality.

Developments in digital video, infrared, x-ray, wireless, global positioning satellite systems, biometrics, image scanning, voice recognition, DNA, and brain wave fingerprinting provide government with new ways to "search" individuals and collect vast databases of information on law-abiding Texans.

Given the alleged speed of biometric identification software and the proliferation of cameras at intersections and elsewhere, literally every Texan with a driver's license could be identified and tracked everywhere we go in our daily lives, without any pretense of probable cause.

In Michigan, police used video cameras to spy inside public restrooms, and used a law enforcement database to stalk women, threaten motorists and settle scores. The database was improperly used to check out attractive women officers spotted on the road, along with ex-wives and even colleagues.

Unless the Legislature revisits the question, secret surveillance cameras are the current legal reality. By collecting biometric identifiers on every driver and ID card holder - Texans suddenly will live in a place where law enforcement can monitor and track individuals virtually wherever we go in public. No longer will surveillance videos be anonymous - a database could match faces, fingerprints or even voiceprints to names, addresses or even credit reports as we go through our daily

After all, if the cameras have resolution high enough to capture license plate numbers from a moving car, they're sharp enough to capture someone's face through the windshield, and once the Texas Department of Public Safety has biometric data on every driver, in theory, government will be able to identify you from those pictures.

Just because you're paranoid, though, doesn't mean no one's out to get you. A major European Union study called An Appraisal of the Technologies of Political Control concluded that, “much of this [surveillance] technology is [in fact] used to track the activities of dissidents, human rights activists, journalists, student leaders, minorities, trade union leaders and political opponents.”

For example, “The cameras used in Tiananmen Square were sold as advanced traffic control systems by Siemens Plessey. Yet after the 1989 massacre of students, there followed a witch hunt when the authorities tortured and interrogated thousands in an effort to ferret out the subversives. The Scoot surveillance system with USA made Pelco cameras were used to faithfully record the protests. The images were repeatedly broadcast over Chinese television offering a reward for information, with the result that nearly all the transgressors were identified.

If the Chinese government had biometric facial recognition technology, like the House Defense Affairs Committee wants, they wouldn't have had to offer rewards, or ever reveal how they were using their traffic cameras. They could have just secretly identified the dissidents from their pictures and rounded them up.


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