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The Road to Southend Pier

In his new book, subtitled “One Man’s Struggle Against a Surveillance Society,” Ross Clark chronicles an attempt to walk from his East Anglia home to a Pier in Southend…all the while avoiding surveillance cameras and the other various instruments of Britian’s so-called police state. In London, sometimes called the most surveilled city in the world, it is said an average pedestrian might find him or herself photographed more than 300 times per day. Along his way, Clark thoughtfully discusses some of the inconsistencies, inefficiencies, and absurdities of his country’s security policies.

Mick Hume of the London Times makes the point that Clark’s funny and insightful critique is hardly that of an extremist, however.

His book is less a militant's pamphlet than a protest on behalf of respectable Brits about the absurdities of the surveillance society. He is appalled that while millions are herded on to a DNA register, police cannot take samples from terrorist suspects on control orders. “It is bizarre to think,” he writes, “that the Government is planning to let credit agencies advertise the contents of our bank accounts — yet will not allow police forces to name convicted criminals.” Clark is most dismissive of the bureaucratic pointlessness of the “virtual” police state, with cameras that nobody watches taking pictures that nobody can use. He observes that the “peculiar effect of surveillance, both on us and our leaders” is that “it gives the impression that everything is under control, when in fact it isn't”.

So, if not a “virtual” police state, does Clark seek a “real” one… none at all…or none-of-the-above. His views, like those of most, are decidedly more interesting and complex. And of course it's true, when it comes to our security and privacy, we can do better…and should.

MI5 Tracks 2000 Terrorists

Via Security Managment Weekly & Washington Post:
Around 2,000 terrorism suspects are being monitored by British authorities,
and an equal number of individuals are suspected of also being involved in
insurgent or malicious activity, according to remarks from MI5 Director General
Jonathan Evans in a rare public address. Britain's Security Service has recorded
a rise in the number of terrorism-related arrests, including foiled plots to
bomb international jets and detonate car bombs in public places, but attributes
this growth in part to heightened security efforts. Evans and Prime Minister
Gordon Brown both underscore the threat of Islamic terrorist activity in the
country, and Evans has named al-Qaeda as one group with a "clear determination
to mount terrorist attacks against the United Kingdom." The MI5 head says while
the attacks are mainly carried out by Britons, citizens are being influenced and
trained by militant groups in Pakistan and Somalia. Evans adds, however, that
non-extremist agents from Russia and China also pose a threat to the country by
attempting to steal civilian and military technology, and by placing undercover
operatives within Britain.

Half-moth Half-robot All-seeing

Researchers at the University of Arizona have accomplished the amazing, and somewhat bizarre, feat of connecting a 6-inch-tall wheeled robot to the brain of a moth. As the moth observes activity around it, the signals from its brain are translated and sent to a computer that directs the robot to turn toward wherever the moth is looking.

The moth's vision has evolved over millions of years to accurately guide the
insect as it dodges predators or seeks mates. Although the moth brain is
the size of a grain of rice, the insect's ability to detect motion is "amazing
-- beyond anything we could build," said senior author Charles M. Higgins, an
associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of
The researchers also pointed to other potential uses for moth-based technology:

Higgins said a robot hooked into the moth's sophisticated olfactory system might
one day be used to detect bombs. After all, he said, "if it blows up, all you've
lost is a moth."

Many Faces of Biometrics in Iraq

Just back from Iraq, Wired writer/blogger Noah Shachtman offers some interesting details on the wide array of biometric technology being utilized there. First, he writes about his own experience:

Then, us reporters need to be issued IDs. Which means getting a scan of your index finger, and a having a standard, passport-style picture taken. At two-thirty in the morning, it took seven tries to get a shot where I didn't look stoned out of my mind. After that, they take scans of both your irises. Five more headshots – for the facial recognition software. And scans of all ten fingerprints. Finally, I'm approved as an accredited member of the press in Iraq. Just that easy.

Then there is the experience of the general population, in places like Fallujah, who actually seem to have a slightly easier time of things:

The Marines have walled off Fallujah, and closed the city’s roads to traffic. The only way in is to have a badge. And the only way to get a badge is to have Marines snap your picture, scan your irises, and take all ten of your fingerprints. Only then can you get into the city.

That’s just one approach in one location, however. The various biometric projects that Shachman describes seem disconnected and sub-optimized on a number of levels. There is no single biometric database, for instance, and even if it existed, it would be too large for the hand-held devices used by the Marines. And in Baghdad, they have another problem:

Back in Baghdad, they're running a biometric badge system – based on Saddam’s old fingerprint records -- to check on the backgrounds of Iraqi security forces. (Which brings up the question, is a criminal in Saddam’s eyes a bad guy – or a good one?)

More stories and insight at Noah’s blog.


You Look Too Young to Smoke

A Japanese vending machine company is using facial recognition to verify the age of would-be smokers. Creators of the device claim 90% accuracy in separating children and adults. In the case the machine can't make a clear determination, it can also request picture identification as backup. I wonder if children will try to trick the machine and look older by wearing makeup, wigs, or putting a cigarette in their mouth.