I had an interesting argument the other day about traffic cameras, and camera tracking/facial recognition in general. The opposing argument (being sketched out by traffic cameras/traffic cameras being bad) was a fairly typical slippery slope type objection — now it’s traffic tickets, but next it’ll be your face logged into sinister, opressive databases every time you turn a corner — while my argument was traffic safety is cool, as is not dying while driving, more or less. But it led to an interesting statement about surveillance culture. While you’re being surveilled (or potentially surveilled) in a wide variety of ways beyond cameras — buying behavior via credit/debit cards, location/search/call/text history via smartphone — cameras are actually the most nefarious and concerning because there is no way to opt-out of that variety of surveillance, whereas with cell phones and payment cards, you can opt to use a landline (with some effort) or use cash (with even more effort, depending on the purchase). It leads to a really interesting consideration of the possibilities of exemption from surveilance in “normal” society (versus going and living in the woods with guns, say).
Which is an argument that exists a bit more in principle than actual practice, I think. Location tracking is probably the number one concern I see with regards to smartphones — that is unique to phones, versus things like internet browsing — and I guess turning the thing off when you’re somewhere you don’t want to be tracked is an opt-out. But if you are actually being tracked, leaving large gaps in your location data would seem to be more a reason to just track you harder, possibly a good route to earning your own tracking drone or whatever else this generic Power that is very concerned about your whereabouts chooses to use to keep you in view. In other words, under the neccessary premise behind being terrified of location tracking that it is actually ocurring, it just seems like evading tracking by turning your phone off and on would cause that tracking to go from passive to active. I really have to reach here.
Even more interesting than cell phones/smartphones is buying things. I suppose you could be buying any number of things that Power might use to profile you as something that is against Power. Everyone I know thinks they’re on some kind of list for saying something wrong on Facebook about the government or Occupy, or for buying stuff that might paint them as a radical. (One of the first online purchases I ever made was the tree-spiking manual Ecodefense, so I’m fucked too, I guess.) So the opt-out here is that when buying whatever thing earning the disapproval the evil empire, you just pay cash. Not all the time of course — eshewing payment cards in the year 2012 is basically another way of going to the woods with guns, but just for those purchases that you (not neccessarily they) deem suspicious.
But we make the false assumption with cash that there’s something inherent about it that makes it untraceable/trackable, when in reality there’s not much to keep cash flowing from your mattress to your wallet to the hardware store from being just as trackable as money flowing through a payment card. (We can talk about bartering systems and alternative currencies, but now we’re back in the woods with guns.) Yesterday researchers at University of South Dakota and South Dakota School of Mines and Technology published a paper in the journal Nanotechnology about new techniques for embedding invisible QR codes on currency. It’s just a code that illuminates in infra-red light. Nothing mind-blowing (unless you’re into nanomaterials, in fairness).
The technology is intended to be used to prevent counterfeiting, but since we’re in slippery-slope territory already here, there’s no reason that same (minimal) technology couldn’t be used to keep a record of every bill in circulation, including who’s hands that the currency has passed through. And this is really just an invisible QR code, which honestly seems pretty limited compared to what you could do with money. Like, there exists a consumer GPS tracking device that you can slip into someone’s food undetected. It’s a safe bet that you could GPS a dollar bill easily enough.
And what about Bitcoin, you ask? It has impressive capabilities for obscuring identities, yes, but it’s hardly anonymous thanks to some basic network analysis. Bitcoin drug busts have already happened. The future of your dollars is as sci-fi and dystopian as anything else, sorry.
Those particular opt-outs seem kind of obvious, so what, in normal non-woods-with-guns society, can we opt-out of, in terms of surveillance? E-mail? Internet searches? Not so much, unless you have a whole lot of faith in the dudes trying to launch an alternative internet. TOR? “The Dark Web”? That onion’s been hacked. Transportation? Even on a bike you’re under the eyes of the same traffic cameras/cop cameras everyone else is. Though in most places I know, you’re not required to be flying bike license numbers, so I suppose it’s easier than most modes of getting around to remain anonymous. So there you have it folks, your one opt-out in modern surveillance culture: a bike. Hopefully you don’t have kids or a commute.
Ultimately, I’m less interested in debating the opt-outs of being-watched — though in totally unrelated news, I’m two weeks away from moving somewhere without cell phone reception or traffic/cop cameras — then in the distinctions between power and technology (and the relative inevitability of each) that the conversation brings up. Do we confuse the slippery slope of power — which has always been able to opress us in myriad horrifying ways — with the slipper slope of technology? Do they share the same slope? For another post.