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Future Tense: Little Brother Is Watching

Future Tense, one of the revolving features on this page, presents stories and essays from the intersection of computational science and technological speculation, their boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what will and could be. In a world of technology and fear, the public gets to know what it wants to know... and more than it can possibly digest.
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surveillance images

A wet, busy highway at dusk. A pickup truck is tailgating you. Its front bumper pushes up to within six feet of your car. The driver glares, though he can easily pass on either side. You’re in his way.

Your bumper camera is activated by a proximity sensor and snaps a high-res image of the truck and its license plate, then sends it to the highway patrol. Your car’s equipment is law-enforcement certified, the evidence is clear, and the driver of the pickup is issued a ticket based on four such incidents within a 10-minute period. A record of aggressive driving can result in hefty fines and even a suspended license. Some municipalities offer the equipment for free to drivers in their jurisdictions. The impressive revenue stream can be useful in communities where angry voters no longer want to pay taxes.

These are often the same folks most interested in locking ’em up and throwing away the key—until they themselves are snagged and fined.

The whole city and most of the highway system will soon be monitored by millions or even billions of small, cheap, hi-res cameras, some embedded in paint and masonry—all feeding into servers and computer hubs that constantly process imagery, looking for suspicious or illegal behavior.

The computers pass along potential items of interest to tens of thousands of human contract operators employed at centers around the nation, where they compare possible "hits" to recent 911 calls and criminal databases and may pass them along to FBI and Homeland Security hubs, where they are further analyzed and refined.

One of the most important developments in surveillance will be facial-recognition software capable of comparing blurry videos taken from many different cameras and angles, as well as still photos. Computer enhancement will soon be able to approximate 3D scans from 2D sources. Still, even with improved software, fewer than one in 10 identification hits will be accurate. Computers still find it difficult to work with faces. Even many humans aren’t very good at the art of comparison and identification.

A woman walks to her neighborhood market. A man follows her to the corner, dogging her every step. Built into the woman’s cellphone is an aggression-warning monitor she triggers with a finger or a word. It activates a 4K video camera in her spex—what look like glasses and may in fact contain prescription lenses. As the man approaches, a video is recorded—surprisingly detailed, even in low light.

The video integrates streams from four cameras recording wide-angled images all around the woman.

The man’s features are obscured by a hoodie. The woman’s vest-embedded health sensor confirms that her heart-rate is up, she’s starting to sweat, and the closeness and anonymity of the man indicates the likelihood of danger.

As the man in the hoodie comes within 30 feet of the woman, her computer sends an emergency alert to the local police department. CCTV cameras mounted throughout the neighborhood automatically backtrack, log, and process images from the last hour. A good view of the man’s face from a single camera hundreds of yards away is compared to a database of known offenders. Seconds later, the woman is warned by a message flashed in her spex that the man is very possibly a convicted felon and sex offender. This automatically triggers a blaring alarm in the neighborhood.

The felon flees as neighbors come out on their porches to see what’s up. Police drones the size of small birds flood the area, taking their own videos and guiding patrol cars. An arrest warrant is issued for the felon for parole violation. There’s no place he can go without being tracked—unless he leaves the city completely. And even then, rural communities are finding the costs reasonable for installing their own surveillance systems.

All the highways, all the roads. All the paths and trails. It’s just a matter of software and hardware and money. And fear.

Similar situations will play out everywhere, in a world where perceived threats are far more important than actual danger, politically and psychologically. Zero-tolerance rules for rude or reckless behavior will ramp up the pressure on society’s marginals—including immature young people, the mentally ill, and petty thieves. Private individuals and neighborhood-watch groups will keep local records of individuals and pass them along to landlords or housing authorities, as well as to the police, possibly using them to justify the tracking of individual movements and behavior around the clock.

There is no right of privacy in public thoroughfares.

Courts may rule that private recordings in public places are in fact unprotected by constitutional safeguards, particularly against self-incrimination. All such records could become public property. Individuals may find their personal recordings subpoenaed for cases in which they have minimal or no involvement, as part of a sweep for information around a crime scene.

Ultimately, any unusual, reckless, or outright bad behavior will be captured by some surveillance system or other, resulting in further scrutiny, court orders, or law-enforcement investigations. The squeeze will be applied to any potential miscreants, even if their actions turn out to be relatively harmless.

Pictures of individuals alleged to have been involved in suspicious activity will be posted on social-networking sites. Wives will learn where their husbands go at night, and vice versa.

Morally minded individuals will post streaming video taken outside clinics, hospitals, liquor stores, adult entertainment stores.

Videos that might show bad intentions—or might not—could force employers to fire those involved. This will likely add to the self-perceived overwhelming burden on those members of society who already feel they have nothing left to lose.

As forgiveness and forgetfulness become conveniences of the past, as lubrication is stripped off, friction and stress will increase.

Anyone can own a gun. Everyone can track everyone else. The weak links could feel the pressure the most, and might also break first.

That tailgater was having a very bad day. Now, he’s going to have a very bad couple of months. He could lose his driver’s license and his job. What he might do next will also be recorded in glorious detail.

Everyone of us has, at one time or another, done something foolish or just plain thoughtless. Many of us have gotten away with petty crimes and grown out of the bad behavior—without being caught. We mature. We learn. Our lives are not minutely observed.

That will change. Escaping from the consequences of minor offenses functions as one kind of lubrication in the gears of society. No society can afford the cost of prosecuting every minor crime. Few individuals can afford complete, day-in, day-out scrutiny in an increasingly judgmental society. Vengeance is everywhere. Nobody gets away with anything. We’re terrified of our neighbors, and we hate being afraid.

As forgiveness and forgetfulness become conveniences of the past, as lubrication is stripped off, friction and stress will increase.

Welcome to the myriad eyes of Little Brother.

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