I recently took a cruise, the first one in my life. It’s never been something I particularly aspired to, but I was invited to give the keynote at a conference being held on a cruise, so found myself with the opportunity to experience this aspect of our culture.
It turned out to be the largest cruise ship in the world, The Oasis of the Seas, a 17-deck, mini-city, with 6,300 passengers and 2,300 crew. A floating entertainment, eating, drinking, sports, gambling, shopping palace. Five-star samsara.
You can get a sense of how big it is by looking at the size of the people alongside the ship…
I can’t imagine its ecological footprint. But I doubt many there actually cared; they were having too much fun.
I was fascinated by how every little detail was taken care of, down to the glass plaque in the elevator floors reminding you what day of the week it was.
One thing in particular caught my attention. Cruise photographers roamed the ship taking pictures of guests at events, having dinner, partying. Later you could go to a touch screen, enter your cabin number and see all the photos taken of you. You could then compile them into a DVD for yourself (for a nice price, of course). The photographers never asked your name, or cabin number. But they did not need to. Before you embarked, a photo of you was taken for ID, and stored in the central computer. Face recognition software then made it easy to automatically match your picture with your name.
The cruise took place at the same time as Ed Snowden was hitting the headlines. And the two came together in my mind, as I thought about the state of surveillance a few years hence.
Face recognition software is improving dramatically, and will soon be able to recognize almost anyone’s mug shot out of billions – not just the few thousand on a cruise. Already some people are not putting an image of their face on Facebook for fear that software may recognize them in other situations. But don’t think that will protect you from the NSA; anyone with a photo ID, e.g. a driving license, is already in the system.
Sometime, not long from now, your face may appear on a CCTV feed. You may just be innocently walking down a street, but anyone wanting more information could instantly pull up your name, date of birth, address, social security number, other places you’ve been sighted. By that time, various databases may be more integrated giving access to your IRS records, telephone and email records, web history, political affiliations, etc.. Anything that is “on record.”
Moreover, don’t feel safe for now because we are not at that point yet. The NSA may not be able to analyze all the data they are collecting at the moment. However, as computing power continues its relentless exponential growth, data-mining will reach the point where they will be able to reach back into the past and process the information being gathered now. And those unbreakable encryptions you feel safe behind today may be crackable in the future.
Whether we like it or not, this is the direction the technology is going, and judging from recent government responses, is not going to stop. Big Brother is here and growing fast.
The moral of this unfolding story? Beware. Be very aware.
Ironically, I write this as the conviction of Bradley Manning sets a legal precedent for the release of information on the Internet being classified as espionage. And I thought they were the ones spying on us.