Beyond the Cusp

December 17, 2014

Has the World Gone Crazy? Government Wants to Look and See

 

Thus far this week we have witnessed too many instances of violence from all across the globe with none of it making much sense. There was the taking of hostages in a small eatery in Australia with a wannabe ISIS crazy who amongst his demands insisted on talking to the Prime Minister of the country. There was a Taliban raid on a Pakistani school murdering innocent children with the count approaching one-hundred-fifty and nearly countless more reportedly in area hospitals, let’s pray it does not exceed that number. The United States did not miss out as a former Marine went on a killing spree in Philadelphia northwestern suburb in Pennsylvania murdering his ex-wife and her sister, mother, grandmother and two children of the sister as well as shooting and injuring the sister’s husband. These, as with too many murders reported unfortunately almost daily, are the actions of disturbed minds or people blinded beyond sanity by their cause will remain beyond our ability to understand. Where the twisted reasoning behind any murder may be beyond the ability of our ability to discern and understand, efforts should continue to see if any discerning and identifying character traits or other determining actions and indicators can be discovered such that in the future some of these grisly events can be prevented. We will probably never have the ability to prevent every time somebody goes beyond all societal norms and commits some act of violence tearing a hole in society as a whole.

 

The question we as societies will need to answer is how far are we to permit law enforcement to go both in their abilities to collect information and survey public or even private areas in order to prevent crimes and provide a higher level of safety in their efforts to circumvent crimes, especially crimes of violence. There are already increasing usages for cameras and sound detection equipment in cities throughout the world with London taking the lead as the most surveyed city with sound detectors and cameras placed throughout so that they can see virtually every area of the streets, river, shopping centers, service alleys and probably the darkest recesses and corners throughout the city. Surveillance carried out to such an extent combined with the advancing artificial intelligence advances in computer technology including facial recognition software, gait detection and profiling which will lead to computers monitoring the entirety of these cameras and potentially adding the microphones so that they can discern every spoken word and conversation using software collating the data in order to alert police to suspected criminal acts they determine are imminent. The police would be directed in the hope that their mere presence would prevent the crime and to interdict any criminal act as soon as it occurs or prevent any violent action intervening at the predicted moment such violence might occur. It would be a virtual future crime system used as deterrence and placing police exactly where they might be needed moments before any criminal act. For crimes such as theft or a holdup such a system would likely deter many criminals but then how far would such a system be empowered. Would they use such a system to determine the name of a person crossing a street in other than a designated crosswalk and send them a summons or ticket just as speed cameras and red light cameras do in many cities currently? Such a system would potentially provide a huge increase in revenue which could potentially completely finance the entire police department.

 

If placing cameras and listening devices all throughout our cities and towns is acceptable, then what if the government decides to go further? It would start with a program where the government would give people payment if they were permitted to add any monitoring cameras and sound devices people currently had in their homes and businesses. The program would begin innocently and be voluntary so what would be the harm, people could simply say they have no interest and such a program might make others who would be unable to afford an alarm system with cameras and twenty-four hour monitoring and such a program would be enabling more homes to be monitored and kept safe. What argument could be made that this was not a good thing and it is still voluntary, right? Then the government would eventually see this as now a right they could extend as were not most of the people who had systems voluntarily opting to join the government subsidy. Anyways, anybody now refusing the government mandated monitoring systems and the government including these systems in their extensive monitoring would be proof that you have something to hide. The thing is such a demand would not be instituted until the vast majority of the public had already agreed to this monitoring by the government and nobody had been adversely affected, so where is the harm in government placing monitoring in every home. Such monitoring would keep homes safe from burglaries while people were at work and where would be the harm? There was a time when people would only accept a ticket if it was written by an officer who had witnessed their exceeding the speed limit or running a red light. Nobody would accept a ticket from a camera radar trap and receiving one would result in their going to court and demanding to confront their accuser. Initially this defense was accepted by the courts and then the city council allowed for a regulation, or even passed a law in some instances, that made these tickets legal and no longer permitted the defense of demanding to confront your accuser and thus no judge would accept that defense. It has become common for camera evidence to be considered superior to an eye witness’s testimony. Add facial recognition and cameras can be utilized to identify people beyond any reasonable doubt in most courts. Where these automated law enforcement technologies will end is anybody’s guess. The camera and the microphones are just the tip of the coming iceberg as we can expect explosives detection systems placed in sensitive areas or places where large crowds are expected to form such as malls, ballparks, amusement parks, concerts, fairs and special events as well as whatever devices and data gathering system which have yet to be developed. Many of the larger ports and other commercial shipping and mass travel systems including trains, planes and ships have detection equipment which checks the luggage or shipping containers as well as magnetometers to check the people while visual checks are made of carryon luggage and bags. These detection devices are simply a computerized version of using a dog or other trained animal and currently almost as reliable and their evidence is acceptable in a court as sufficient evidence for permitting an officer to search and arrest any person refusing the search in order to search the person once in custody.

 

There are numerous types of surveillance equipment with abilities which would astound the average person readily available to police departments should they care to make the outlay funds to purchase such devices. There is equipment which can listen to a conversation simply by placing an invisible laser onto any window to the room which the conversation of interest is being held. This technology has progressed to the point that one would need to cover the window with sound dampening screens or external cover such as aluminum storm shutters. There are systems which can see through walls with amazing detail capability. There are systems being researched which will allow governments to monitor people in ways they likely never imagined. People can be tracked by tracking their cell phones. Using your cell phone a person can be located to within ten feet and their cell phone can be activated to listen to any noises or conversations within the ability of the microphone to detect. Even the cell phone camera can be activated though such is often not very revealing as if the phone is in a purse or pocket the video will not reveal much. There are ways to monitor people’s computer usage as long as their computer is linked to a network which has internet connection active or if the computer itself is connected to the internet. The invasions of our privacy which government can potentially utilize if they wish to monitor our lives covertly are astounding and place every individual potentially in a very compromised position even without their knowledge. These are simply implications of the modern world we all reside within. But then in a world where many of us post even intimate information about ourselves on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Instagram, Vine and others, why would many of us complain or have any problem with the government monitoring our daily activities. Perhaps the government could start their own social media site and simply put videos of some of the craziest things they monitored and maybe also the top ten crimes of the day. The one prediction which can be made safely is that privacy is a quaint idea whose definition is growing ever smaller with every passing new technology. Perhaps any legal definition claiming that we have unalienable rights to privacy, that our homes are inviolable or that our papers, effects and private information are secure from search or seizure without a court order, summons or warrant are simply cute little ideas whose potential possibility is nil in our high-tech world where information rules and those who can best gather information rule. In simpler terms, if one wishes to have privacy they best be prepared to make a sizeable effort to assure that their desire has been attained. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Perhaps this could be adapted to modern times where we add that not only is eternal vigilance is the price of liberty but also the price for personal privacy from government. It could be argued that privacy is necessary to have liberty and to have real freedom. To be honest, it is rightly well worth the effort and allows one to sleep better each night.

 

Beyond the Cusp

 

April 6, 2014

Are Privacy Rights Even Possible Today?

The United States Constitution stipulates a carefully constructed and balanced governance with opposing interests and powers separated and posed as checks against the usurpation of excessive power over time by any one branch, individual or small group of individuals. Still, the Founding Fathers were challenged by the representatives of the various states and the people to give stated recognition and formalized structure to the protections of the individual from the power and infringement by the government which resulted in the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. This set of Amendments placed defined limitations on the government and its related institutions as well as defined unabridged rights awarded the people by an authority which superseded the government and any individual, group, corporation or entity. Initially there were a dozen proposed Amendments which were to constitute the Bill of Rights but only ten survived the ratification process. The first of the two Amendments which were not ratified pertained to the number of representatives and the maximum number of citizens they would be permitted to represent all in a sliding scale that increased the ratio as the number of representatives in the House of Representatives is increased as the total passed each hundred. It is easier to read the proposal than explain, so, it reads, “After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.” The other rejected Amendment concerned the rate of payment for members of the House of Representatives and read, “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”

 

All that may be interesting but it also has as much relevance to the modern world as do those definitions for the number of citizens each House of Representatives member has in their districts as today that number is in excess of seven hundreds of thousands, not the tens of thousands as was originally thought to be a fair ratio. The idea of personal anonymity and the safeguarding of each person from excessive government intrusion and inspection were considered sacrosanct at the writing and founding of the United States. This was a unique concept whose origins were a recent concept then and now is either a concept that has never been addressed for much of the world and becoming a quaint and dated concept where it originated in the political parlors and by the political philosophers and thinkers leading up to the founding of the United States and the explosion of representative governance in Europe and America. The current debate has taken some twists and turns especially since the revelations introduced into the public conscience through the release of classified information by Edward Snowden about the extent of spying on individual citizens by the United States government. Of course his releases told of what many thought to be excessive intrusions by the NSA and other data gathering government agencies and were perceived as being something relatively new as such unprecedented ability for gathering data, especially electronic data, was thought to be a recently acquired ability for government. The reality is even more frightening than what was revealed by Mr. Snowden as the NSA has been capable of recording virtually every bit of electronic data generated in the United States since somewhere back in the 1970s. This ability has been supplemented and expanded repeatedly going through different names, one of the more memorable being the Echelon System used in the 1980 -90s which also was capable of recording huge amounts of data comparable to the total electronic data output of the United States. It is apparent that the NSA has increased their abilities in, at a minimum, direct correlation to the amount of electronic data capable of being produced by the United States, no small feat. Recent revelation have told of the United States actually recording every e-mail and electronic communication of any one nation in the world in addition to its abilities to monitor the United States electronic output and some have spoken of the ability to record to some extent and level all the electronic communications and generated data of the entire planet. What possibility for privacy remains when measured against such unfathomable abilities?

 

Those who specialize in knowing the extent and depth of the abilities to gather data on an individual often are quoted, though almost always as an anonymous source, telling of borderline or even absolutely mind-boggling abilities possessed by the government spying and law enforcement agencies. There have been cases claiming they have the ability to listen to a conversation in a closed room from as much as a quarter or half mile distant simply by pointing a specialized laser at a window pane and interpreting the changes in the vibration of the glass molecules as long as the window is not covered by a thick, sound dampening set of curtains. There are claims that they can locate people using thermal imaging through walls of almost any building. Many have heard that the spy satellites optics are capable of reading a newspaper that somebody is reading sitting on a park bench. The Soviet Union demanded that their government employees never carry any classified documents outside of buildings unless they were safely contained in a briefcase. Many of the tactics used in the biggest Hollywood films such as listening in on conversations from a distance utilizing parabolic microphones and other such routine spy thriller capabilities are likely outdated by the time we see them in movies. There was a recent report that some government agency was researching some form of determining through observable and easily collected data who would be most likely to commit crimes, what those crimes would be, whom they would target and when the crime would be committed with some degree of dependable accuracy. What is the obligation of the government if they are capable of predicting future criminal events in preventing any harm resulting from such acts and how close are we to replacing the precogs lying in a pool and seeing events referred to as precrimes as in the movie Minority Report except using instruments, computers and software programs to predict such possibilities. Between the abilities of governments for data collection, computing of metadata, and making accurate predictions and profiling individuals, what possibility does anybody have of escaping with even the slightest shred of privacy intact? And what can be done to prevent governments from misusing such data, and even more important, what limits should be placed on private companies when it comes to sharing personal data and forming profiles on individuals which can and are used in targeted advertising and other such abilities. And even if such limitations were to be incorporated into regulations or criminal codes, how would they even be enforced or even could they be enforced and if enforced, what other problems would result from government attempting to gather the proof of such crimes being committed? It becomes mind-boggling just playing out the ever-expanding web resulting from data collection and manipulation.

 

The final area that also is providing insights which may be an even bigger threat is in the area of AI, artificial intelligence. Google and Microsoft are working with the United States government and who knows who else to utilize the data they are able to collect using buying patterns and search terminology used when searching the internet and many other data inputs to formulate a program or set of programs that will be able to predict future trends and reason and think in a manner close to that of a human being. They claim such research is being used to better serve the public and to be able to design robots in the future that will be better enabled to interact with people. What threats to our privacy exist as a result of such research and is there any way we can protect ourselves from such intrusions? The result of everything we are experiencing and that are being reported is that there is no longer anything that even resembles the privacy that the Founding Fathers attempted to give the people guarantees would be held sacred by government. That is looking less and less likely with every revelation. Now the United States is implementing a healthcare system which will posit all the healthcare information into the computers of the IRS, Internal Revenue Service, the tax people. How much power will the government have when the IRS has complete records of your healthcare and your financial situation? How will government use such data and will the government now determine the level of healthcare a person will be entitled to be provided conditional on their financial worth to the society as a whole? This could easily enter an area which at its worst could result in some form of euthanasia and a form of means testing to qualify for healthcare treatments at the least. Thinking too long and too hard on the completeness of the government’s ability to gather every iota of personal information on each and every individual, especially realizing that each of us are potentially ourselves, and to utilize this data to predict our future actions and results of everything in our lives such that they can literally know before we ourselves are aware of what tomorrow holds for each of us and use this ability for nefarious purposes which will compromise every shred of our privacy and most know our most intimate thoughts before we even have them, can any government or person be trusted with such knowledge and the power it imparts. Some of the items which were restricted to the areas of futurist political science fiction such as in Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World are now becoming within the grasp of government and companies making these stories warnings of what is coming soon to our worlds and it will make for many horrifying prognostications on what our lives will become. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and ultimate power corrupts beyond imagination and what is coming is beyond even that.

 

Beyond the Cusp

 

March 22, 2014

Can We Trust the Government Alphabet Agencies?

It seems every other week we read of yet another breach in security or illegal program spying on individuals, companies, foreign leaders of both friendly and not so friendly nations, and even agencies monitoring other agencies or even Congress. Then there have been the reports of the Administration using the IRS, OSHA, EPA and NSA among other agencies to spy on, impede operations of, obstruct functions in, intervene in daily operations or investigate personnel, personal, intimate and other sensitive information on organizations, businesses and people who they suspected might oppose or otherwise threaten the aims and objectives of their programs or even interfere with campaigning and electioneering that might oppose the President. The breadth, width and depth of these invasive policies have definitively proven that even if you have done nothing wrong or illegal you still might have much to fear and worry about from a government which appears to stop at nothing to compromise personal privacy of those they suspect of any opposition or even simply disagreeing with policies and intended programs. This past week we learned that the NSA not only has the capability to monitor and record every phone call and electronic communication of an entire nation and store the information for review for as long as a full month. Of course this revelation refused to identify the nation the Administration has chosen for such special consideration and inspection though I have a pretty good idea which nation has such a level of interest for such a deep and total level of spying and penetration into even the daily lives of every citizen and it is not the Russians, Chinese or any of the other nations which many American citizens would consider to be adversaries.

 

One of the most threatening and freedom chilling revelations was the level of inspection and extraneous required paperwork, reports, queries and intensive inspection that were utilized by the Administration through challenging the tax status or approval to applications for tax exempt status of agencies, organizations and other political entities which the administration had singled out as possibly having intentions to work against the reelection of President Obama. When it became obvious that many of the particular groups had identifying information or names containing phrases which included Tea Party, Constitution, Freedom, Conservative, Liberty and other identifiers the Administration suspected would indicate largely conservative, libertarian and constitutionalist groups which they considered to be political adversaries. There have been claims by some conservative and Republican sources claiming that these attacks were largely responsible for the apparent disappearance in the last election of Tea Party groups and have even blamed these reputedly illegal actions for Mitt Romney’s loss in the Presidential election. Of course whether those claims are truly valid is something we can argue forever as nobody will ever be able to prove anything one way or the other. The one thing I hope we could all agree on is such abuse of powers and using the brute force of the government for politicized gains is something that must not be condoned no matter who is committing such actions. What makes these accusations even more frightening is that apparently fellow citizens who work presumably for the public good performed these actions without objection or complaint. But then again, the Administration under President Obama has prosecuted both a higher percentage and larger number of whistle-blowers than any previous Presidential Administration in American history. They have also garnered one of the top spots for resistance and outright refusal to release information when responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. In many ways President Obama has operated in one of the most secretive and least transparent Administration ever while also having unheard of levels of malfeasance by government agencies and the worst records on protection and respect of privacy rights of individuals.

 

If none of the above worries you, then perhaps a few other bits of information might place things in a different light. The United States government is working in conjunction with a number of internet companies, technology companies, university researchers and the military on artificial intelligence research with an emphasis on algorithms and programs which can be used to predict both general behavior of the society and to find ways of predicting individual behavior through methods of simple observational data which can be gleamed using current surveillance and other related information. Another threat comes thanks to the Patient Protections and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) which will place all of people’s medical records and information in the hands of the most invasive department who already hold massive amounts of your personal financial information, as the IRS will now be tasked to handle your taxes and healthcare. Add to this the NSA and their abilities to record and analyze amounts of electronic data virtually beyond imagination and their working often at the behest of the FBI or the CIA through requests handled by Homeland Security Agency and couple these abilities and place them in the hands of an oppressive government and you are looking at the worst case combination of the most terrible predictions from the heart of political science fiction such as Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, and throw in the idea of Carousel from Logan’s Run as the end treatment resulting from the use by Obamacare of a plan named the “complete lives system” for the allocation of very scarce resources, such as kidneys, vaccines, dialysis machines, intensive care beds, and others, as proposed and written by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, health adviser to President Barack Obama. The future which is approaching faster than many of us can realize will either be a place of unbelievable progress and freedom or the most oppressive government which is intrusive to the point where personal liberties and freedoms will be but a fleeting memory and we will fear even exhibiting the slightest unaccepted action and our every emotional reaction will be picked up and recorded for analysis by biometric surveillance possibly provoking government interventions for the slightest hints of thought crimes.

 

Where I have enormous hopes for the future, I also temper that with a healthy level of suspicion and respect for the potentials for misuse of coming technologies. When I worked as a production repair and test technician as well as an R&D technician with the engineers of a company which manufactured leading edge EEG and computer automated seizure detection systems using mathematical algorithms to detect and aid in diagnosing patients and which were used for sleep studies and treating and analyzing epilepsy and other disorders of the brain, I got a glimpse into how much we were able to determine about medical conditions and other systems simply through mathematical analysis of medical data. This was close to thirty years ago and the company had units which not only recorded up to sixty four channels of EEG but also did seizure detection and analysis in real time even with processors as slow and primitive as were available back them. I also had the pleasure and honor of working with the most intelligent person I have ever had the privilege to know, a gentleman who designed circuits and had an understanding of electronics as well as higher math that was astonishing. I was honored when he chose for me to work on any project and realized the full potential of monitoring and predictive analysis which was available at that time and cannot even begin to imagine where those areas of science, medicine and electronic monitoring have progressed to and attained. That is part of why I have a deep respect for the potentials for government to use technology in intrusive and subversive ways which can be turned against the people in order to control the population under the guise of working for the betterment of mankind. For one frightening example of such simply do some research and read about the “complete lives system” and take a few deep breaths and try to relax with that knowledge and knowing it is at the heart of the government’s healthcare plans for the United States.

 

Beyond the Cusp

 

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