Date & Time

Thu, 06/29/2006


Surveillance has exploded, aided by the current level and power of information and communication technologies, the burgeoning amount of available information, and the decreasing costs of information processing. The trend is facilitated by further advances in information processing, storage, miniaturization, and network bandwidth. Already, as Prof. Latanya Sweeney of Carnegie Mellon University has demonstrated, it is possible to identify 87% of the individuals in the United States by name, just by combining data on date of birth, gender and zip code. As another measure of information flows, 77 million emails are sent around the world every minute.

The surveillance is not merely limited to following someone’s movements in public places. Video cameras, audio recorders, sensors and other devices are being commercialized and deployed to capture and analyze faces, gait, sweat, pulse, and eye movements, and DNA. The use of DNA raises issues beyond its use as a personal identifier. DNA also provides information about physical characteristics, health, and, possibly, disposition toward development of certain diseases. Moreover, a person’s DNA does not provide information just about that individual. It may also reveal information about others who are genetically related to the individual, without their awareness and consent. The use of DNA as an identifier, which in some quarters is strongly advocated, raises numerous unanswered legal and ethical questions.

Locational technologies, such as the global positioning system (GPS), which are being installed in all sorts of devices, provide a means to determine a person’s location and to monitor their movements. Satellites are able to record images on Earth at one-meter resolution. In the research stage is the Galvactivator, which is able, through measuring skin conductivity, to assess an individual’s state of arousal and convey it to third parties. IBM’s Blue Eyes tracks the movements of a person’s eyes to capture both the purposeful looks that she directs at the world about her, as well as unconscious glances of which she herself may be unaware.

What is the standard for generally placing a population under surveillance? Are previously accepted standards, such as reasonableness, imminent harm, and other legal and cultural norms, being followed, ignored or discarded? The risk, if these technologies are deployed to take ever greater note of us, is that fundamental principles, such as the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty, a human right and central tenet of legal systems, will be inverted, so that all of us will have become suspects.

The speaker will review the present state of the surveillance society and survey the landscape of emerging technologies and their characteristics of embeddedness, decentralization, ubiquity, and complexity. The deployment of surveillance technologies will also be reviewed, including RFIDs, the ubiquitous information environment, locational technologies, sensors, and technologies that gather and exchange information outside the range of human awareness. The social and policy implications and impacts of this powerful trend will be explored, along with measures to preserve autonomy and human dignity.


Deborah Hurley

Ms. Hurley is the Principal of the consulting firm she founded in 1996 and also served (1997-2002) at Harvard University as Director of the Harvard Information Infrastructure Project, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy, and Senior Research Associate in both the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Center for Business and Government. Hurley was an official (1988-96) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris, France, where she was responsible for writing the seminal report on information network security and for the 1992 OECD Guidelines for the Security of Information Systems.

Recipient of the 2002 Namur Award for outstanding contributions to awareness of the social implications of information technology, she is a member of the Board of Directors of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and currently serves or has served on many other governmental and non-governmental boards and committees, including for the U.S. State Department, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Academy of Sciences Research Council.

She is the author of several works on information policy, including Pole Star: Human Rights in the Information Society (International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, 2003), which has been issued in English, French, Spanish and Arabic.

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