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Sinister Big Sister Surveillance

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Are you looking forward to getting an RFID (Radio Frequency ID) sticker for your car? No? Aside from additional cost and more red-tape, are you concerned about government surveillance and tracking?

The technology does promise to improve traffic management. Surely, unsnarling traffic in the metro qualifies as the greater good. So why should we refuse this technology? What’s the real deal with RFID? The technology has been around for a long time, so let’s take a quick look at what works, and what doesn't.

One of the most common uses of RFID is for tracking packages. Forwarders and logistics companies (e.g., FedEx, UPS, DHL) use RFID tags along with other technologies to ensure that your shipment doesn’t get lost. RFID scanners scattered throughout their distribution systems constantly log all shipments going through certain transit points. So, when you give them a call and ask, they can readily tell you where your package is. This works fairly well.

A few years back, banks also tried using RFID on credit cards. It would’ve been convenient. No need to swipe or scan, simply walk by the supermarket checkout counter. Of course, this also meant that those who wanted to steal the info on credit cards could simply take a leisurely stroll through a crowded mall. Bad idea.

Thus, like any other new technology, RFID works well, or not, depending on its application. Is it appropriate for traffic control? Yes, it will certainly help. But there are real limits to any technology. It would be naive to simply place our faith in tech and hope it will cure all our ills.

Naturally, any such monitoring raises concerns about increased surveillance over ordinarily law-abiding citizens. Will traffic RFID allow the government to track and find me? Yes, to a limited extent, which may even be crucial in an emergency. Besides which, they’ll be monitoring your car, not you.

Now, if I really wanted to find you, I could already use something else: your cellphone. Even without GPS, telcos can triangulate on your position using plain old GSM. This is actually offered as a commercial service. Of course, the telcos don’t track anyone and everyone continuously.

Also, while telcos can track your cellphone signal, they neither inspect nor keep records of content. In order to inspect or monitor the contents of calls or text messages, even law enforcement would have to first procure a court order.

Far more dangerous is allowing the continued, unrestricted monitoring of all online communications by both the government and private telcos. Such a provision is implied in Section 8 of Senate Bill No. 2317, the Anti-Child Porn bill authored by Sen. Jamby Madrigal. No (anti-wiretapping) safeguards have been included. Instead, broad, unfettered monitoring of all online activities sans warrant or court order is allowed; perhaps, even encouraged.

Naturally, it is difficult to critique provisions in legislation intended to quash nefarious activities such as pedophilia. Yet, if I wanted to sneak in draconian surveillance provisions, then doing so under the camouflage of good intentions would be a crafty way of doing so.

This is one reason we must be wary of various tech initiatives, rather than just focusing on obvious ones such as RFID.

While Anti-Child Porn bills have been fast-tracked, carefully crafted Anti-Cybercrime legislation has met with slow going. Work on Anti-Cybercrime started at the turn of the millennium and has undergone multiple reviews and revisions by various sectors.

Based on Europe’s Budapest Convention (and not on post-911 American laws), Anti-Cybercrime has several safeguards already built in. It doesn’t allow automatic monitoring of content by telcos. Content inspection requires judicial system oversight and a search warrant or production order. Also, Anti-Cybercrime already covers child pornography, as well as cybersex, hacking, spam, and scams.

Both Madrigal’s SB 2317 and its counterpart HB 6440 by Rep. Monica Prieto-Teodoro would be good laws. Yet both contain several dangerous provisions, which should be carefully scrutinized.

At the very least, even if we accept the desirability of online censorship and surveillance for a specific purpose, prudence dictates that we should already include safeguards in the law protecting ordinary citizens against improper use and abuse by government and corporate ISPs/telcos.

Print ed: 11/09


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