Montréal,  22 janvier 2000  /  No 54
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Ralph Maddocks is a retired textile executive and former management consultant. He lives in Cowansville.
by Ralph Maddocks
          The two examples of democracy which we quote often, apart from our own, are the United States of America and that home of the Mother of Parliaments, Great Britain. Both have been in the news recently discussing the latest technological methods available to identify and follow up on their respective citizens. Technology which, though still in its embryonic stage, will undoubtedly find use as soon as the bureaucrats and their masters can devise the appropriate rationale to do so.
Science fiction becomes real 
          The high tech devices we have all seen on the TV or cinema screen are coming closer than you might think; those voiceprint-coded locks, those systems protected by retinal scans and positive fingerprint identification by computer are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Last November, at the Comdex technology show in Las Vegas, two companies, Motorola and Identicator joined forces to develop what is alleged to be the cheapest, smallest, lightest optical reader in the world. The DSR 300, which should cost less than US$20, will propel demand for these units to astronomical heights. Said to be the ultimate in security, what is known as positive user authentication bids fair to become « The next omnipresent technology » according to the chillingly prophetic words of a spokesman for the manufacturer. 
          This neat little hand held device uses Motorola's Digital DNA technology and can be used to unlock your car, log on to your computer, make online transactions or operate your cell phone. The latter knowledge must be joyful news to the cell phone operators whose losses from fraud are said to be close to one fifth of their billings. The device is already in use with notebook computers. You simply insert the reader into a universal port on your laptop which has already been programmed to allow only certain biometrically verified user to operate it. According to the makers the device will protect both hardware and software, rendering a stolen laptop completely useless.  
          This technology is being greeted by the government with considerable pleasure. The US government is known to have been developing a public key infrastructure, a database containing identity-verifying biometrics of its citizens. Just why they are doing all this is not yet clear, there is some pious mention of reducing fraud in the obtaining of government services, but it is clear that other less intrusive methods are available. According to the Free Congress Foundation, the US Secret Service is known to have funded a New Hampshire information technology company to set up a tax fraud data base which would allow the government to determine your identity whenever you made a purchase. Questions about the uses to which the government will put this latest technology are answered by the usual mindless remark: Those who have committed no crime have nothing to fear 
          This rapidly developing technology has spawned a new trade association based in Washington. One of the first acts of the International Biometric Industry Association (IBIA) was to announce their « IBIA Privacy Principles » which reads a bit like the Brownies' promise and whose loopholes would allow passage of the Titanic. One such principle reads, « The IBIA believes that clear legal standards should be developed to carefully define and limit the conditions under which agencies of national security and law enforcement may acquire, access, store and use biometric data. » They should indeed, but when? Probably when it is too late, after the government knows all about each and everyone of us. 
          The advantages of biometric identifiers are alleged by the IBIA to be that they are unique and go where you go. You cannot lose your fingerprint (at least not painlessly) or your retinal pattern, they are harder to steal than, say, your credit cards or SIN number. To employ that hackneyed phrase « You can't leave home without them ». The IBIA believes that existing US law will prevent the government from building data bases of its law-abiding citizens. Seeing that the US government ignores its Constitution on a fairly regular basis, it is doubtful that a few laws will stop them, at least not from trying. 
Big Brother stops your car 
          From over the Atlantic comes news of electronic speed limiters which are aimed at preventing drivers from exceeding the legal speed limits. The technology has already been tested and mandatory installation in all cars will take place within the next ten years. The system works by using the combination of a satellite positioning system to pinpoint the vehicles' location, an onboard computer containing digital maps for each street and road in Britain, encoded with their speed limits, and a device to choke off the car's fuel supply if the car exceeds the permissible speed. 
     « Questions about the uses to which the government will put this latest technology are answered by the usual mindless remark: Those who have committed no crime have nothing to fear. » 
          The Safety First people are overjoyed and see this as a way of reducing by two thirds the deaths caused by accidents on Britain's roads each year. Much the same as seat belts were intended to do in fact. They say also that when 60% of cars are so equipped, average traffic speed will have decreased to the point where speed cameras will become redundant and speeding prosecutions eliminated. In addition to accident reduction, they point to the possibility of fuel savings, and the ability to slow down traffic outside schools when the students are entering or leaving.  
          What wasn't mentioned, but no doubt a major point already considered with considerable satisfaction, is that the authorities would also be in a position to find you at will, or at least to find your car, no matter where you may be in the country, or presumably in any other country. Whether such devices would be disconnected by their owners as so often happened with air bags is not yet known. No doubt the authorities will make it yet one more offence to add to the ever burgeoning catalogue. 
          The beginning of an era where the government would be able to keep track of your movements whenever it wishes must have Orwell spinning in his grave, seeing that much of what he envisaged is finally coming to pass. Big Brother though has been replaced by a lot of Little Brothers. The Civil Liberties people have barely got into the act yet but there will no doubt be a fight along the lines of the one which the car manufacturers fought for years against seat belts. 
Let's reduce social confusion 
          Returning to the « Land of the Free », where, presumably on the principle of « get 'em while they're young » a new system has been proposed which will capture the personal data of each school student in a database. Each database will contain the identity, name, address, school, grade, school bus route number, telephone, contact, photo etc. The objective is to download the data by school bus route, each bus being equipped with a PC. In addition, each student will have his or her fingerprint taken and recorded as part of that database.  
          When getting on the bus the student will place his or her finger into the reader and the system will identify who the student is. There will be a greeting message displayed on the screen, along with the name of the school and if needed a photo of the student. If the student does not belong on that bus the driver will have to authorize the ride and enter the change of route in the student's record. If the student is not in the data base the driver will again have to authorize the ride and enter the name, school, ID, etc.  
          The same procedure will be followed at the end of the school day. Reports can be generated to show which students took the bus in the morning but did not take the bus in the afternoon. The school's main database can be updated over a phone line by modem. As usual, the system will be accessible only by authorized personnel via a password assigned on the basis of security level. Those who believe that all this information once gathered will remain unused by the government and its police enforcers should seek professional advice. This is simply one more example of the continuing attempt to collect either fingerprints or DNA samples from the whole population. By starting at the school level they will have constructed a national database within a generation or so. Not too surprising either is the fact that the anagram for the word fingerprints is serf printing. Quite so. 
          The 1946 Foreword to Huxley's Brave New World makes prophetic reading. He wrote, « The world will be directed by highly centralized totalitarian governments. Inevitably so; for the immediate future is likely to resemble the immediate past, and in the immediate past rapid technological changes, taking place in a mass-producing economy and among a population predominantly propertyless, have always tended to produce economic and social confusion. To deal with confusion, power has to be centralized and government control increased. » The USA and the UK seem to have had little trouble learning and applying this lesson well.  
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