Machines of Loving Grace
Governments and corporations the world over are devising ever more ingenious and intrusive schemes to keep a watchful eye on citizens.
From here on, squadrons of unmanned drones and all-pervasive surveillance over the internet could help capture what the UK’s estimated 2 million CCTV cameras cannot.
Here are some of the weirdest, most wonderful and downright scary surveillance methods currently in use.
Eyes in the Skies
State-sanctioned aerial surveillance stretches right back to the French Revolution and the formation of the world’s very first air corps in 1794.
We’ve come a long way since the Montgolfier brothers astonished revolutionary France by flying a measly nine kilometres in their famous silk balloon and inspiring the military to use a similar balloon, nicknamed l’Entreprenant, to reconnoitre enemy positions to aid a crushing victory in the decisive Battle of Fleurus . These days reconnaissance is hampered by few of the risks encountered by aviation’s early pioneers, with unmanned drone operators often sat behind a desk while surveillance imagery is beamed back from enemy territory on the other side of the planet.
According to current reports it might not be too long before the same technology is in widespread use by governments in a domestic setting. Drones already patrol the US/Mexico border and defence lobbyists have already pushed for the deregulation of US airspace, paving the way for up to 30,000 unmanned drones to be in use within the next 10 years.
Employers have been monitoring internet access ever since workers were distracted by browser-based Flash games in the first years of the switched-on century. Some companies even demand access to potential employees’ social media accounts to guard against the dangers of employing a raving alcoholic and/or serial absentee.
Imagine if governments had the same powers. The scenario isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.
Authorities in the UK and US are already fighting hard for similar powers, including the right to see the contents of your inbox and search history without a warrant, and even shadier spooking is already being carried out.
A very shady piece of software known as Finspy, or FinFisher, acts as a hi-tech keylogger which allows the user to take complete control of the target’s computer is already being deployed by governments whose poor human rights records is more than made up for by a talent and zest for oppression. Finspy is already being used by countries like the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Turkmenistan, along with other more unexpected players like Japan, the US and UK.
This malignant little piece of software caused Reporters without Borders to brand its developer Gamma International a ‘Corporate Enemy of the Internet.’
No story about the creeping ubiquity of surveillance technology would be complete without a reference to Orwell’s 1984. The political fable appears to have been a warning to most of us about the dangers of limited freedom that all-pervasive surveillance entails. Yet to those in power, 1984 appears to have acted less as a warning and more as a handy how-to guide.
Those who think the days in which Big Brother scrutinizes every movement of party members through the telescreen is still the stuff of fiction would do well to take a look at the case of Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Laptops handed out to students at the school were secretly fitted with software to intermittently activate the laptop’s webcam and email the collected images to central database.
The school was called out on its spying when a pupil was confronted over popping pills in his bedroom which later turned out be little more than sweets. The boy’s parents were understandably confused as to how the school knew what the pupil was up to in the privacy of his bedroom.
Following a lawsuit by concerned parents, Philadelphia State moved to ban the technology from being used in schools, but similar software is still used by laptop hire companies to help track down stolen and unpaid-for equipment.