Tangled Webs

   The Technology of Control
Issue 3.08
Sep 04, 1998

What are You Hiding?

When you think about it, the only people who really need privacy are those with something to hide. And while over the past year we have been treated to a great deal of misinformed hysteria over browser cookies, few authors seem willing to look at how little privacy we actually have.

The most comprehensive -- and truly frightening -- information I have found on the subject is the Appraisal of the Technology of Political Control. This report was put together for the European Parliament by the Scientific and Technological Options Assessment (STOA) program. Several copies are available online, including one at http://www.jya.com/stoa-atpc.htm.

The stated purpose of the report is "to provide Members of the European Parliament with a guide to recent advances in the technology of political control." And thankfully, "to develop appropriate structures of accountability to prevent undesirable innovations [from] emerging."

As you read the document you will need to keep reminding yourself that this is not something from the X-Files or speculation about what could happen. It is an objective evaluation of what has been happening over the last few decades in the United States and Europe.

Crowd Control Devices

Most of us think of rubber-bullets and tear gas as alternatives to lethal force, and at one time they were. However, the report points out that each generation of "nonlethal weapons" becomes not only more deadly than the last, but more commonly used by police forces.

Rubber bullets, for example, originally used only under exceptional circumstances, gradually gave way to a more dangerous PVC ordinance. In Northern Ireland their use became so common that half of the people killed by them were not involved in any kind of civil disturbance, and over half were children less 15 years old.

Once a crowd control technology gets the label of nonlethal, it sticks. The public does not perceive the gradual escalation, and we end up with the tragic irony that weapons banned from international warfare are routinely used by police on unarmed civilians. For example, peppergas (OC), was banned by the 1972 Biological Weapons convention. Yet, there have been over 60 deaths associated with police use of this spray in the United States.

Sublethal land-mines, designed to cripple rather than kill, cannot be used in warfare, but are routinely used by police and correctional facilities. Likewise prisons are becoming a laboratory for the development of "reconditioning drugs" such as anectine. These drugs are illegal outside prisons, and few controls exist on the programs.

Before you feel reassured because this is occurring safely behind prison walls, the report also explains how technologies have an unsettling way of gaining public acceptance for use on prisoners and then slowly begin to be used in everyday police work.

Big Brother May be Listening

While we have little to fear from cookies, the ISDN line we use to access the Internet may prove to a significant security risk. An international CCITT protocol for ISDN provides the ability for phones to be taken "off hook" remotely. The remote operator is then be able to listen to any conversation that occurs near the phone. The owner of the phone has no way of knowing this is happening. Although this protocol is in use now in the UK, China and Russia, it is certainly not implemented everywhere. I have been unable to determine whether it is used by NTT.

Even if our ISDN line is safe, the international calls we make with them are not. The Echelon system, operated jointly by the US, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, monitors key Intelsat satellites and scans the phone calls, faxes and email that pass through them for keywords. Artificial intelligence is then used to qualify the match and the intercepted message is then relayed to the requesting party for further analysis. According to the report there is little no no accountability built into this system.

Traffic control cameras not only catch speeders, but have been instrumental in solving a number of murder cases in Japan. They have been put to more repressive uses elsewhere. After the Tiananmen Square massacre, tapes from US and European-made traffic control cameras were used by the Chinese government to track down and arrest thousands of people. The Chinese government is now installing a similar traffic control system in Lhasa, Tibet. Lhasa, of course, has no traffic control problems. American and European firms are only too happy to sell the government the equipment.

Sales Agents

In fact it's astounding to learn the types of equipment US and European industry is willing to provide totalitarian regimes around the world. According to the report, not only did the US Department of Commerce have a customs code for "specially designed instruments of torture," but they granted over 350 export licenses under the category (OA82C) between September 1991 to December 1993. Keep in mind that this is the same government that considers encryption software too dangerous to export

European industry fares no better. The COPEX exhibition was held in England in 1994 for the display of European-made torture devices. Foreign invitees included delegations from China, Algeria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Turkey. The report includes snippets from the advertising literature for these products. I will not quote them here, but the copy leaves no doubt about the products' intended use, and is quite graphic in its description of the effects.

This report is not an enjoyable read. It is disturbing. There is something in all of us that wants to believe that none of it is real. Perhaps that's why the mainstream press has paid little notice to this report. Despite its importance, it hasn't generated a fraction of the media attention that Internet cookies have. On the Internet, however, this report is generating quite a buzz. People are reading it and talking about it.

The recommendations STOA makes for keeping these technologies in check are excellent. In the end, however, democratic accountability is the only thing that will prevent abuse. But such accountability can only come after citizens are aware of how the technologies are being used. Since the mainstream media seems to have little interest in telling us, it's reassuring to know that the Internet allows us to find out for ourselves.

[ Home Page] [ Back to Index ] [ Previous Issue ] [ Next Issue ]

© Copyright 1998, Tim Romero, t3@vanguardjp.com
This article fist appeared in the September 2, 1988 edition of The Japan Times.
Tangled Webs may be distributed freely provided this copyright notice is included.
The Tangled Webs Archive is located at http://www.dotco.com/t3/tangledwebs/index.shtml