My word: All eyes on us

The thought of a machine that reads my eyes, facial contours and fingerprints and stores the information in a biometric database also lacks romance.

July 11, 2013 22:07
Network defender at the US Air Force Space Command Network Operations & Security Center.

Cyber warfare 370. (photo credit: Rick Wilking/Reuters)

‘You have unforgettable eyes,’ a man once told me. This was not a romantic moment, however. He was an ophthalmologist assuring me that despite the lapse between visits my severe astigmatism granted me a special status.

The thought of a machine that reads my eyes, facial contours and fingerprints and stores the information in a biometric database also lacks romance. In fact, it’s good that there’s no device out there that actually reads my mind – yet – although, I suspect somewhere in Google’s great empire something is scanning these lines even as you read them.

It probably already knows I’m a technophobe – I’ve confessed that publicly before and the information is out there, forever, in cyberspace. The question is: What will it do with this information? Indeed, most of my reservations concerning such hi-tech devices are not only about who has access to my personal details but how they intend to exploit them.

I am not the type to try Google’s glasses.

The phrase “too much information” has never seemed more appropriate than when considering the constant stream of details this type of eye-wear provides.

Reading a recent article about augmented reality, my astigmatic eyes nearly popped out of my head. All the “implicit data” that could be provided, without my consent or knowledge, nearly blew my technologically challenged mind. More to the point, it nearly made me blow a fuse.

Whenever Facebook asks me to update my information to include “What’s your personal relationship status?” my instinct is to search for the option: “None of your damn business.”

Since no such answer is provided, I ignore the clause, obviously causing some kind of metaphysical frown at Facebook headquarters. The good men and women who work there have programmed the technology to keep on trying to get the extra desired info. It seems I’m being stalked by my own computer, and I will no doubt be even more obsessively trackable by a smartphone were I to give in and get one.

This week the question of who has my eyes and feels my unique touch (or at least my fingerprints) arose with the launch of the biometric database pilot project for Israeli identity cards and passports.

The lack of privacy seems to be growing ever more acute.

Many recall George Orwell’s Big Brother in this context (although there is of course a generation or two for whom the words are associated with so-called reality TV rather than dictatorship). I’m often reminded of E.M. Forster’s equally foresighted The Machine Stops, first published in 1909. In the science-fiction short story, people develop a religion based on the omnipotent global Machine. When the Mending Apparatus, responsible for keeping the Machine going, breaks down it results in the collapse of the life-support system of the world as they know it.

If Orwell’s 1984 creates horror from the fact that there are no secrets, Forster’s novella points to the apocalyptic result of putting all faith in technology.

In Israel, those who support the database primarily praise its possible use to thwart terror attacks. And nobody can appreciate the importance of that better than us.

Some proponents note that a huge amount of information on individuals is already freely available and that we should not take our privacy for granted in any case.

Yet anybody who has ever suffered a burglary knows that part of the trauma is not what is stolen but the knowledge that somebody invaded your personal space and touched your belongings.

And here lies part of the conflict between the aims and ramifications of the biometric database. On the one hand, it is meant to help prevent crime – or make solving cases easier; on the other, it is “stealing” our own freedom and distinguishing features to do so. It also makes us more individually vulnerable to identity theft and, as a state, open to possible cyber terrorism in the hands of hostile hackers.

Furthermore, I bet that whatever is cutting edge today will in just a few years be outdated – and outwitted. Whatever the bureaucratic mind can come up with to keep track of citizens, the criminal mind will eventually be able to come up with a solution.

Last week, an internal Interior Ministry memo cautioning that the database was not sufficiently protected leaked to the press. That the warning got out does not bode well for the security of the data itself.

When Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which governments are tracking each other and their own citizens, the surprise was in the scope rather than the fact that such snooping is officially sanctioned.

Since the security excuse is used to trump all others, it is humbling to consider that the US government knows everything there is to know about Snowden, but, as I write these lines, is still unable to collar him.

FREEDOM WAS on my mind a lot this week. It was not only the biometric database, it was also the “sensational” discovery that so-called Prisoner X was not alone. Ben Zygier, the Australian-born Israeli who committed suicide in the bathroom of his prison cell in December 2010, was not the only person being held in anonymity in an Israeli prison. There is, or was, also a Prisoner Y, similarly held in solitary confinement.

As I noted when Zygier’s story first created headlines worldwide in February, he was not really a Prisoner X at all. His family – and my heart goes out to them – knew where he was and even visited him.

He met with his wife the day he died, and indeed his anguished reaction at being told that she wanted a divorce and a concerned email from his mother were among the red lights that should have warned of the increased likelihood of a suicide attempt.

Zygier was visited by big-name lawyer Avigdor Feldman, one of several attorneys with whom he’d been in touch, the day before he killed himself. And his case had been presented to several judges who had extended his remand. He did not just disappear off the face of the earth.

Feldman this week, in an interview with Radio 103FM, said he had also met Prisoner Y. Although we do not know what landed Zygier in jail, facing a reported 10-year sentence after a plea bargain, whatever it was, Prisoner Y’s offense, according to Feldman, was an even more “sensational” and “shocking” breach of security.

I am concerned that prolonged solitary confinement could be used as a punitive measure and not purely for reasons of security (either of the prisoner or the state or both). And the judicial system has to make sure this does not happen.

I’m not worried that loved ones will suddenly be grabbed off the streets and disappear, as the tone of the coverage of the case often implies.

That there are nameless people in the Mossad and similar agencies doing their jobs, despite the personal risks, helps keep the country safe as much as the existence of any biometric database.

Even in this age, there is still a place for secrets – secret diplomacy can bring about peace and secret methods of defense can prevent war.

Not everything needs to be known in the name of democracy, especially when freedom itself is at risk.

Certain technological developments can be described as progress, but where’s the currently anonymous bureaucrat who’s prepared to look me in my (soon-to-be scanned) eyes and tell me that all my secrets – let alone my very identity – are safe?

The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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