Since news broke over the weekend the internet has been awash with talk of “Trapwire”, a computer system recently developed to track individuals and activities using surveillance cameras. Though Trapwire’s been known about for years now, it wasn’t until the last batch of Stratfor (global “private intelligence” gurus) emails hit Wikileaks that people really began to panic. As Fred Burton tells it, this system is already in place across numerous American, Canadian and British cities, guarding all manner of “highly valued” potential terrorist targets.

The reaction has been mixed. Many, such as Anonymous, are terrified and incensed, vowing to take down this technological leviathan. Others, such as the mainstream press, have been doing all they can to downplay the dangers. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but I’m inclined toward the former. This may not quite be “Skynet”, yet, but there’s more than enough reasons to panic. For starters, Wikileaks has been bombarded with a heavy DDOS attack all weekend (10GB/second, allegedly), which has prevented many from seeing the actual emails in question. Second, at least one of the emails admits that the system is directed at “activists” as well as terrorists.

What does Trapwire actually do? The main purpose seems to be identifying “terrorists” near specific sites by scanning internet-connected cameras for signs that someone may be “casing” the target (surveying and studying). As someone who’s spent much of the last week wandering around taking pictures of famous sites (like any tourist), this scares me a little. Other claims, such as whether Trapwire is connected into facial recognition software or social media databases seem less clear. It certainly seems that it isn’t quite as bad as Anonymous’ communiqe is suggesting, but at the same time, it’s unquestionably a step in that direction.

This isn’t just about Trapwire. It’s one system built by one company in use for one purpose, however Orwellian. The problem is, these kinds of technological abilities are growing at a frghtening speed. A decade ago, facial recognition software was a pipe dream, mostly because they’d never be able to amass enough photos to scan for more than a few individuals. It would literally have taken a mass-effort on behalf from millions of people uploading photos, selecting faces an typing names. Then came Facebook. Surveillance cameras, too, have multiplied faster than tribbles, fallen dramatically in price and improved dramatically in quality. Then there’s all the other systems – Echelon and the like, used for data-mining, wiretapping and other tasks which have also been installed. Surveillance is evolving very rapidly, and the technological and financial barriers are falling faster every day.

Years ago I visited the old headquarters of the Stasi, the former East German secret police renowned for being possibly the most terrifying domestic spying agency in history. It’s now a museum, filled with what now seem like quaint relics of a 1950s spy film (you can watch a guided tour while eating lunch, featuring Roger Moore!). Were cameras hidden in birdfeeders really so evil? Or their enormous collection of rags in jars which carefully preserved individuals’ scents? Of course not – but in the context of an agency who saw no problem keeping “files” on millions of citizens, almost half the population, they were utterly terrifying. We might never know how many people died in prison as a result of those birdfeeder-cameras, and there’s a horrifying lesson to be learned about how many eyes we want to grant violent and paranoid governments. Today, we’re fast approaching a digital profiling system which scans everybody, all the time, for the slightest eye movements or keywords in private conversations which might indicate “terrorist” intent, without any human oversight until it comes time for arrests.

Does that make you feel safe?

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