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  • Big Brother technology

    by Ala
    27th August, 2008 at 2:22 pm    

    Last weekend the New Scientist reported on the harrowing developments in the world of surveillance technology. The week before, the Home Office announced plans to give law-enforcement agencies, local councils and other public bodies access to the details of people’s text messages, emails and internet activity. New technology has been developed by Seimens to ensure this kind of absolute surveillance can be integrated into one system.

    This software is trained on a large number of sample documents to pick out items such as names, phone numbers and places from generic text. This means it can spot names or numbers that crop up alongside anyone already of interest to the authorities, and then catalogue any documents that contain such associates.

    Once a person is being monitored, pattern-recognition software first identifies their typical behaviour, such as repeated calls to certain numbers over a period of a few months. The software can then identify any deviations from the norm and flag up unusual activities, such as transactions with a foreign bank, or contact with someone who is also under surveillance, so that analysts can take a closer look.

    The system has been sold in 60 countries and 90 phone call “monitoring centres”, developed by the joint-venture company Nokia Siemens Networks, are already being used around the world, although we don’t know which countries are using it.

    Whatever the level of accuracy, human rights advocates are concerned that the system could give surveillance-hungry repressive regimes a ready-made means of monitoring their citizens. Carole Samdup of the organisation Rights and Democracy in Montreal, Canada, says the system bears a strong resemblance to the Chinese government’s “Golden Shield” concept, a massive surveillance network encompassing internet and email monitoring as well as speech and facial-recognition technologies and closed-circuit TV cameras.

    I’m more worried about its use by non-repressive regimes.

                  Post to

    Filed in: Civil liberties,Technology,Terrorism

    16 Comments below   |  

    Reactions: Twitter, blogs

    1. Random Guy — on 27th August, 2008 at 4:48 pm  

      Could be a very useful marketing tool - they will make billions from selective data mining alone (trillions even).

    2. Dave S — on 27th August, 2008 at 5:49 pm  

      How long before we see people turning to terrorism as the only remaining means of protesting against increasingly intrusive “anti-terrorism” surveillance measures?

      Profile THAT, control-freak bastard governments!

    3. Refresh — on 27th August, 2008 at 8:26 pm  

      It would be interesting to know how it would impact on people willing to speak their minds on blogs.

      And if its pattern-matching technology in the frame, how long before it will know what you are likely to be thinking even before you’ve managed to find the words to express it. Not joking.

      This is the equivalent of the genome project.

    4. Rumbold — on 27th August, 2008 at 9:40 pm  

      I’m increasingly tempted to go and live with Dave S in his commune.

    5. Don — on 27th August, 2008 at 9:44 pm  

      Start of the matrix.

      I don’t even like it when Youtube tells me what I might like.

      (Apparently it’s the Dixie Chicks and Bill Bailey.)

    6. Sunny — on 27th August, 2008 at 10:06 pm  

      Could be a very useful marketing tool - they will make billions from selective data mining alone (trillions even).

      Dude, why do you think Google’s stock is the best long term buy?

    7. Dave S — on 27th August, 2008 at 10:32 pm  

      Refresh @ 3: I think it already impacts on people speaking their mind online. I often find myself being careful how I word things I’m posting in public places. Not because I fear upsetting people necessarily, but because I don’t want to be flagged up on some computer system. I try to tell myself not to mince my words, but it’s become semi-automatic. Hence, big brother has already achieved a partial victory in my case.

      Incidentally, I have a degree in computer science, and I don’t think I’m being excessively paranoid about this. I know exactly what computer systems can be made to do - or at least, I know maybe just the basics of it, and that’s enough to make me afraid.

      Even I am more than capable of creating some truly evil software - and I’m not just talking about my sloppy coding style!

      Rumbold @ 4: You’d be welcome, but alas it doesn’t exist yet. Besides, it won’t be a “commune” but a land co-operative. One way or another, it is going to happen, because we’ll never give up trying to get there. So give us 5 years or so, and you can come and visit (seriously)!

    8. Refresh — on 28th August, 2008 at 1:38 am  

      Dave, I agree. Pre-internet, people writing letters to the press were evaluated, logged and assessed for ‘subversive’ thought - the internet and blogging in particular has got to be a boon for these uber-watchers.

      You might recall an outfit called the Economic League which blacklisted workers if they were seen to be subversive ie likely to speak up.

      They made a point of keeping all their records on cards rather than computerise so that they wouldn’t fall foul of the Data Protection Act.

      By the way I too am a supporter of the Rochdale Pioneers.

      As for Google being a longterm winner - don’t bet on it. I am sure between Dave and I, we could come up with a far better solution.

    9. Rumbold — on 28th August, 2008 at 10:10 am  

      Dave S:

      “You’d be welcome, but alas it doesn’t exist yet. Besides, it won’t be a “commune” but a land co-operative. One way or another, it is going to happen, because we’ll never give up trying to get there. So give us 5 years or so, and you can come and visit (seriously)!”

      Waht’s the difference between a commune and co-operative?

    10. Dave S — on 28th August, 2008 at 2:29 pm  

      Refresh @ 8:
      Actually I’ve never heard of the Economic League - interesting and scary stuff! I’m sure I would have fallen foul of them, had they been in existence today.

      However, I’ve heard anecdotes from a couple of friends now (one a university lecturer and the other an old school friend who works for the Ministry Of Defence) about job interviews where they were asked which newspapers they read, with “The Guardian” clearly being an unacceptable answer if they wished to be offered the job.

      I could probably find out more details about their experiences if needed - the exact details are a little fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure my university lecturer friend said that the interview was terminated as soon as he had given that “wrong” answer. (I find that hard to believe, but then again it’s not so far fetched really. It wasn’t for a university job - was for something else, but I can’t remember what.)

      Rumbold @ 9:
      Well, people in the co-operative movements in the UK (at least those I know) don’t tend to use the word “commune” any more.

      It seems to conjure up negative images of rampant bed-hopping, or cults, or whatever. Suffice to say, I’m not quite sure, but I know plenty of people who live in housing co-ops, and none of them use the word “commune” to describe their living arrangement.

      They each have their own rooms, own belongings and so on. They just share bills, cooking and cleaning, and other activities which it makes sense for the whole house to participate in.

      A bit like a large shared house, where the residents collectively are their own landlord, and better organised, with more developed ways of dealing with the running of the house, personal disputes and so on.

      It’s a subtle difference, but to my mind, that’s not quite the same thing as a commune.

      So, our land co-op: essentially it will be an “eco village” (I don’t like that term particularly), where we have some shared land we can use to produce our food, materials and energy supplies from. Each “family” (or whatever) living there will have their own house, their own kitchen and so on. We’ll be living together in a co-operative manner to produce food and other stuff that is useful for everybody, but still very much having our own spaces too.

      I suppose in the sense of a commune, we’re likely to behave more like a larger family / community than just a bunch of people living in a hamlet together. Undoubtedly we will have an emotional attachment to the other people living with us, and a very strong sense of community.

      But it’s certainly no kibbutz!

      If you’re interested, check out the following:

      Radical Routes - a co-op of co-ops, hopefully we’ll affiliate to them:

      Lammas - quite a pioneering eco-village development in the UK. Ours will be on a much smaller scale, but we’re watching this one with great interest:

      A Low Impact Woodland Home - hopefully we’ll be building our homes very similar to this:

      Isn’t that last one a beautiful home? Take a look at the price! :)

    11. sonia — on 28th August, 2008 at 10:40 pm  

      this should be quite funny - just think, what with the institutional track record of “losing data”..all the chaos this will cause!

    12. sonia — on 28th August, 2008 at 10:42 pm  

      i don’t believe it anyway, local councils can barely manage the data they are supposed to manage, so don’t see how they would handle this stuff. Same goes for central government really.

    13. Dave S — on 29th August, 2008 at 12:20 am  

      Sonia - absolutely, it will be a totally unmanagable database disaster!

      The problem is when you are the one on the wrong side of the totally unmanagable database disaster.

      Same with the National Identity Register.

      When the computer says “no”, they are going to take it’s word, not yours, and you’re going to have a very hard time proving otherwise.

      A while ago, when I left Facebook, I was racking my brains trying to think if it would be possible to create an open-source, maybe even a decentralised version of a social networking site. So that people could keep in touch with their friends easily, share photos, and do all the social stuff that Facebook allows you to do, but also so that the information about who knows who, photos, details of our lives and so on were not in any form that would be useful to the surveillance state.

      My idea is something like a cross between Facebook features and BitTorrent / Tor decentralisation, with PGP/GPG built in so that messages between friends are as secure as possible and can’t be intercepted in the middle. Completely open source code too, so that you know it’s trustworthy.

      After thinking about it on-and-off for some time, even assuming we could somehow get past the technical difficulties of making a decentralised social networking system, I came to the conclusion that there is no possible way to make such a system that cannot be exploited by authoritarian governments intent on harvesting personal data about citizens.

      It’s simply a bad idea to collect that kind of data in any form in the first place - even in my “ideal” decentralised, user-secured system.

      I still think about this idea from time to time. But then I think to myself: Do I want to spend several years coding a Facebook replacement for paranoid geeks like myself, or do I want to just hurry up and build my ecohouse and grow lots of vegetables, so I can get off the Internet and into the great outdoors?

      I think the right answer to that is a pretty obvious one. ;-)

      Why the hell was I ever on Facebook? Peer pressure, simple as. Everyone else was using it, and I was getting tired of ignoring the barrage of “Come and join Facebook!” emails. Sometimes even paranoid anti-ID activists have moments of weakness that they live to regret. Never again… he says.

    14. Refresh — on 29th August, 2008 at 7:27 am  

      I am genuinely shocked that you were ever on Facebook.

      Decentralised is only the beginning.

    15. Dave S — on 29th August, 2008 at 1:04 pm  

      Refresh: You and me both! What can I say… I’m an idiot! (Sometimes!)

      I did a bit of Googling on “decentralized social networking” last night to see what I could find. Glad to see I’m far from the only one who has thought about this.

      There’s also Crabgrass from Riseup, which looks to be interesting - though obviously designed for activists, rather than as a Facebook replacement!

    16. izmir temizlik ÅŸirketleri — on 5th September, 2008 at 1:16 pm  

      thank you for sharing

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