[Reader-list] Big Brother Gets a Brain
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Sat Aug 2 02:49:13 IST 2003
The Village Voice
July 9 - 15, 2003
The Pentagon's Plan for Tracking Everything That Moves
Big Brother Gets a Brain
by Noah Shachtman
Illustration by Richard Borge
The cameras are already in place. The computer code is being
developed at a dozen or more major companies and universities. And
the trial runs have already been planned.
Everything is set for a new Pentagon program to become perhaps the
federal government's widest reaching, most invasive mechanism yet for
keeping us all under watch. Not in the far-off, dystopian future. But
here, and soon.
The military is scheduled to issue contracts for Combat Zones That
See, or CTS, as early as September. The first demonstration should
take place before next summer, according to a spokesperson. Approach
a checkpoint at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, during the test and CTS will
spot you. Turn the wheel on this sprawling, 8,656-acre army
encampment, and CTS will record your action. Your face and license
plate will likely be matched to those on terrorist watch lists. Make
a move considered suspicious, and CTS will instantly report you to
Fort Belvoir is only the beginning for CTS. Its architects at the
Pentagon say it will help protect our troops in cities like Baghdad,
where for the past few weeks fleeting attackers have been picking off
American fighters in ones and twos. But defense experts believe the
surveillance effort has a second, more sinister, purpose: to keep
entire cities under an omnipresent, unblinking eye.
This isn't some science fiction nightmare. Far from it. CTS depends
on parts you could get, in a pinch, at Kmart.
"There's almost a 100 percent chance that it will work," said Jim
Lewis, who heads the Technology and Public Policy Program at the
Center for Strategic and International Studies, "because it's just
connecting things that already exist."
As currently configured, the old-line cameras speckled throughout
every major city aren't that much of a privacy concern. Yes, there
are lenses everywhere-several thousand just in Manhattan. But they
see so much, it's almost impossible for snoops to sift through all
the footage and find what's important.
CTS would coordinate the cameras, gathering their views in a single
information storehouse. The goal, according to a recent Pentagon
presentation to defense contractors, is to "track everything that
"This gives the U.S. government capabilities Big Brother only
pretended to have," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a
defense think tank. "Before, we said Big Brother's watching. But he
really wasn't, because there was too much to watch."
CTS could help soldiers spot dangers as they navigate perilous urban
areas, Pentagon researchers insist. That's not how defense analysts
like Pike see it. The program "seems to have more to do with domestic
surveillance than a foreign battlefield," he said, "and more to do
with the Department of Homeland Security than the Department of
"Right now, this may be a military program," added Lewis. "But when
it gets up and running, there's going to be a huge temptation to
apply it to policing at home"-to keep tabs on ordinary citizens,
whether or not they've done something wrong.
Traditionally, the authorities have collected information only on
people who might be connected to a crime. If there was a murder in
the East Village, the cops didn't bring in all of St. Mark's Place;
they interrogated only the people who might have information about
the killer. Even the most extreme abuses of law enforcement
power-like J. Edgar Hoover's domestic spying on political
activists-homed in on very specific individuals, or groups, that he
imagined as threats to the state. He didn't put the whole state under
September 11 changed that. Now, the idea is to find out as much as
possible about as many people as possible. After all, the logic goes,
the country can't afford to sit back and wait to be attacked. Almost
anyone could play a part in a terrorist plot. So the government has
to keep tabs on almost everyone.
CTS, a $12 million, three-year program, is emerging as a potential
centerpiece of that initiative.
"Before, it was 'let's catch the bad guys and bring them to trial
after stuff happens,' " Lewis said. "Now it's 'let's look for
patterns and stop [an attack] before it happens.' "
That's why Attorney General John Ashcroft pushed for a program to
turn a million civilians into citizen-spies, snooping on their
neighbors. That's why the USA Patriot Act now allows for wiretaps
without warrants. And it's why the Pentagon has begun researching an
array of high-tech tools to pry into average people's lives.
CTS is the brainchild of DARPA, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency. That's the group of minds behind the
notoriously invasive Total (sorry, "Terrorism") Information Awareness
über-database. TIA's backers say the project will be carefully
targeted, but privacy advocates say it could compile in a single
place an unprecedented amount of information about you-your school
transcripts, medical records, credit card bills, e-mail, and so much
"LifeLog," currently in the early planning stage at DARPA, would
twist all these bits into narrative "threads," giving officials a
chance to watch events develop. Along the way, LifeLog's developers
would like to capture the name of every TV show you watch, every
magazine you read.
Still, watching your data trail just isn't the same as actually
watching your physical tail. You can change your e-mail address, and
start paying cash. But you can't run away from yourself. And that's
the missing piece CTS could provide-an almost instant ability to
track, moment by moment, where you are and what you're doing.
"Before, there was a reasonable expectation of privacy when you were
walking down the street," Lewis said. "Now that's something that will
have to be adjusted."
That's not all that will change. As everybody who's ever mugged for
the camera knows, people act differently when they're being watched.
Sometimes, that's not such a bad thing. Web-surfing habits are
monitored on the job, so you wait until you're home to download porn.
On the street, you can be a little less skittish, knowing your
neighbors, your beat cops, your corner store owners are keeping an
eye on you.
But being watched by a faceless, inaccessible government minder,
that's something altogether different.
In 1791, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed a jail,
circular in shape. The warden would sit in a dark observation booth
in the middle; the prisoners would sit in well-lit, inward-facing
cells along the circumference. Under the constant threat of being
watched, the jailed would change their behavior, Bentham theorized,
bending their activities to the warden's rules.
Two centuries later, England has 2.5 million security cameras spread
throughout the country, by some estimates. Several cities, like the
port town of King's Lynn, are covered bythe lenses.
"It's exactly what Bentham predicted," said Simon Davies, director of
Privacy International, a British civil liberties group. "The kids
there are giving up going onto the street. They say it's almost like
being in a glass-paneled room, with their parents on the other side.
They're forced into smaller and smaller areas so they can be kids in
Putting people under electronic watch induces a kind of split
personality, said Bill Brown, who leads tours of Manhattan's spy cams
as part of his duties with the Surveillance Camera Players. The
authorities want people to obey the law, to behave rationally. But
video surveillance does the exact opposite. It makes people
feel-correctly-like they're constantly being watched, like they're
"And that's not a rational state at all," Brown said. "It's a mental
Stalin and Saddam did their best. They tried hard to keep under
surveillance as many of their citizens as they could. But these
efforts could never succeed completely. There was always a
"fundamental barrier-the ratio of watchers to the watched," said John
Pike of Globalsecurity.org.
"You couldn't have everybody working for the secret police," he
continued. "The thing that's so singularly seductive about automatic
video surveillance is that it breaks that fundamental barrier down."
CTS will keep watch by equipping each camera with a processor, like
the one in your computer. The chips will have programmed into them
"video understanding algorithms" that can distinguish one car from
another. At each checkpoint, the car's speed, time of arrival, color,
size, license plate, and shape are all instantly passed on to a
central server. If the early tests identifying cars go well, software
that recognizes a person's face and style of walk could also be added.
By sharing only this refined data-instead of the raw video itself-CTS
should keep fragile computer networks from becoming overloaded with
hours and hours of meaningless footage. Everybody knows how much of a
pain it can be to get a video clip in your e-mail inbox, instead of a
simple text message. Now imagine how much worse the problem would get
if thousands and thousands of such clips were being sent back and
forth, all day, every day. CTS would help government networks avoid
that burden, with each camera transmitting a mere 8 kilobits per
second, instead of the 200 or so kilobits needed for high-resolution
CTS would also keep the snoops who stare at the monitors from being
overwhelmed. "We have enough cameras, but not enough people to watch
the video feeds," said Tom Strat, who's heading up CTS for DARPA's
Information Exploitation Office.
If all's well, CTS cameras might send back to headquarters only basic
data or the occasional low-resolution image. But when there's
something fishy going down-like a car speeding away unexpectedly, or
a briefcase left in a train station-the images could come sharper,
and more quickly. Proto-CTS programs from contractors Northrop
Grumman and the Sarnoff Corporation would interrupt the gray monotony
of surveillance footage, setting red boxes aflash around the suspect
person or object.
"It focuses your attention right there," said Bruce De Witte of Northrop.
But CTS would do more than change what investigators see. It would
also give them a record of everything that happens in a city's public
places, potential evidence for prosecutors and terrorist hunters.
In its presentation to industry, DARPA said it wanted CTS to be able
to find the common threads between a shooting at a bus stop one month
and a bombing at a disco the next.
In theory, CTS could take an inventory of all of the cars around the
bus stop and near the disco immediately before and after the
incidents. Then it could examine where those cars went, to see if
there were any vehicles in common-or if a car acted as a sort of
messenger between two others.
The forensic process could be further enhanced by one of DARPA's
analysis programs, like LifeLog or Total Information Awareness. After
mining license plate numbers from the footage, investigators could
identify the car owners. And then dig into the owners' Web-surfing
trails, to see if there were any visits to explosive-making sites.
And scan e-mail accounts for virulent language. And plumb credit card
receipts for big fertilizer purchases.
To the uninitiated, storing and sharing all this information might
seem like insurmountably complex tasks. And according to Strat, the
CTS manager, the ability to network surveillance cameras over a wide
area is "not right around the corner."
Defense and technology analysts have a different view.
"(CTS) is pretty creepy. And the creepiest part about it is that it's
not all that sophisticated," said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney
with the privacy-rights proponent Electronic Frontier Foundation.
DARPA has mandated that the CTS demonstrations be done only with
readily available, "off the shelf" equipment-the kind of stuff you
could get at Spyville.com. You could find slightly less diesel
versions of the gear at Amazon.com.
So getting the cameras will be easy. What may be harder is handing
off information-a description of a suspicious vehicle, say-from one
camera to the next. These lenses will be separated by hundreds, even
thousands, of meters. And "appearances can change dramatically" in
those distances, Johns Hopkins University senior research scientist
Chris Diehl said. Slight variations in light or in the camera's angle
can make a car look very different to a mechanical eye. "If you read
the literature, there really isn't a proven method" for solving this
problem, he said.
Yet this obstacle seems surmountable. In a CTS simulation conducted
by software developer Alphatech, a car could be tracked over 10
kilometers with accuracy of 90 percent or better with cameras placed
400 meters apart. The percentage went up, of course, as the cameras
moved closer together.
CTS is but one of an array of private and public sector programs to
sort through the ever expanding amount of surveillance imagery.
University of California at San Diego's Computer Vision and Robotics
Research lab just received a $600,000 grant from a Defense Department
counterterror group for a CTS-like project. At Los Alamos National
Laboratory, Stephen Brumby is using genetic algorithms-programs that
are bred from smaller components of code-to automatically analyze
At the Sarnoff Corporation, a project dubbed Video Flashlight would
morph cameras' views into a single three-dimensional model. Using a
joystick, a security officer could maneuver through this simulated
world as though playing a game of Half Life or Grand Theft Auto.
In order for Video Flashlight to work, however, it would have to use
stationary cameras. CTS doesn't have that limitation; it's supposed
to function with drones and other battlefield sensors. That's one of
the reasons Globalsecurity.org's John Pike thinks the program could
have a legitimate military function-"to the extent that it is
relevant to urban operations, as opposed to the running of a
well-oiled police state."
Combat in cities "tends to quickly degenerate into small firefights,"
Pike explained. It's a lot harder to know what's happening in a
crowded city than it is in an open desert. Radios cut out quicker;
drones and satellites have a harder time peering through the concrete
canyons and narrow passageways of urban life. CTS could restore some
of that sight, giving U.S. generals a "broader situational awareness."
This assumes, of course, that CTS has anything to do with urban
combat. If it does, it'd be a surprise to some of the businesses
bidding for the CTS contract.
"The primary application is for homeland security," said Tom Lento, a
spokesman for the Sarnoff Corporation.
"The whole theme here is homeland security," added Northrop Grumman's De Witte.
Strat disagreed. "DARPA's mission is not to do homeland security," he said.
In a presentation to industry, DARPA noted, "CTS technology will be
demonstrated only within the observable boundaries of government
installations where video surveillance is expressly permitted, and
operational deployment areas outside the United States where it is
consistent with all local laws."
But in an interview, Strat did admit that "there's a chance that some
of this technology might work its way" into domestic surveillance
In the test at Fort Belvoir this year the aim is to track 90 percent
of all of cars within the target area for any given 30-minute period.
The paths of 1 million vehicles should be stored and retrievable
within three seconds. A year after that, CTS is supposed to move on
to testing in an urban combat setting, where it will gather
information from 100 mobile sensors, like drone spy planes and "video
ropes" containing dozens of tiny cameras.
Shortly thereafter, CTS could be keeping tabs on a city near you.
"This is coming whether we like it or not," said Jim Lewis, with the
Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's not how do we
stop the tidal wave. It's how do we manage it."
Noah Shachtman edits the blog www.defensetech.org.
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