I See London; I See France...

Posted by Peter Cochrane on July 7, 2003

CIO Magazine, Chris Lindquist - 7th July 2003

The feds could see your underpants if one technologist's security scenario comes to fruition.
A couple of weeks ago I attended the World Technology Summit, a yearly get-together sponsored by the World Technology Network. The Network is a group of businesspeople, scientists, technologists and others who look to promote serendipity in the pursuit of innovation. (Put a biochemist in touch with a mechanical engineer and a computer scientist. Shake. See what happens.)

The Summit showcases smart people from around the world who mingle, listen to talks by other brainy folks, and look for opportunities to combine their ideas with others. I learned more in the first four hours of this conference than I have in four days at some.

One thing I learned is that the world may be an increasingly scary place for privacy advocates in the coming years. Even as the National Do Not Call Registry goes live, technology is rapidly moving forward that could provide government agencies and private companies with details down to your underwear size.

If I'm sounding paranoid, blame Peter Cochrane, co-founder and chief technologist at tech incubator Concept Labs. Cochrane used his time on stage to lay out a vision of the future replete with ubiquitous cameras (both privately owned and government controlled) and RFID tags smart enough to identify other tags in the vicinity and use them to create a virtual fingerprint of a room. TV gets stolen? No problem. If it doesn't recognize the other appliances nearby, it will simply refuse to work.

Now imagine this scenario. A dozen people come to the airport. Different times. Different cars. Never even looking at each other. The only overt connection is that they're headed for the same flight, along with many other passengers. New tech identifies all the passengers through retina scans (Cochrane claims that the tools exist to identify people at long range through obstacles such as windshields and driving rain) and checks their belongings via their embedded RFID tags. (Everything is going to have RFID tags-just ask WalMart.)

So far, so good. No delays. No lines. No taking off shoes and exposing mismatched socks. Everyone's happy.

But as the passengers head for their plane, software grinds away in the background (perhaps software from a company like SRD, making comparisons. Looking for anomalies. Trying to uncover pieces that just don't make sense. Then it finds something: Twelve passengers-that seemingly unrelated dozen we mentioned-are carrying cell phones purchased at the same time on the same credit card. The flight gets grounded automatically until this "coincidence" gets explained.

According to Cochrane, had such technology been in place on 9/11, the terrorist attacks might never have happened. Such scenarios undoubtedly have government security experts salivating, but what would be the cost? I'm not sure that the increase in safety would warrant letting the government own that kind of detailed, instantaneous access to my life. Administrations change. Data gets lost, stolen and corrupted. The potential for misuse would be staggering.

Some would argue that I'm providing much of the same data about myself through my grocery-chain loyalty card--all in return for two-for-one corn flakes. But the store knows only what I choose to give it. I can shop elsewhere or not use the card if I want to keep something private. If I want to go to Europe, however, it's unlikely that I'll decide to walk or take the bus instead of a plane.

Cochrane's vision could be either nirvana or hell, depending on your take on personal privacy. But the fact that we're even able to talk about it as anything other than science fiction shows that we're coming face to face with big decisions about our private lives. Let's hope we make the right ones.