Friday, March 18, 2005

The Price of Freedom

The US Government may be planning to track the movements of its citizens and visitors & it has set up the EU and every other dictatorship in the world to do the same.

These thoughts follow from the specification of the new US passport (hat tip Bruce Schneier). It has a radio-readable 64 kbyte chip that holds the traditional information printed on the passport data page & a biometric version of the bearer's photo.

Looks benign, but why go to the expense? After all, the US has a wide-open border with Mexico, and seems happy to keep it that way. Yet the INS now fingerprints & photographs every foreign national arriving (legally) in the US. This will kill the tourist trade - every Brit I know is enraged by it (only felons can be fingerprinted there) - so why do it? Plus the Feds are insisting that, going forward, all foreign passports must be biometric. Which means handing the Syrians, Iranians and EUnuchs another weapon to control the very people the US seeks to free.

This can't have anything to do with terrorism - the 9/11 hijackers all entered on valid passports & if they'd wanted could have come in through Mexico. And any decent terrorist can just get a bunch of impeccable passports from friendly weasel countries.

So, it's something else. Governments are usually idiotic, but the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, so assume they're up to no good.

I think it's about those digitized photos. There are currently 3 options for biometrics: photo, fingerprint, and retina. Photo is the only one you can use at a distance & over CCTV. It works well, the Brits have been using it for years to track the IRA. The "Ring of Steel" around the City of London is lined with with Hi-Res CCTV cameras feeding face recognition software driven off a database of the 300 or so IRA killers. And most Brit cities are plastered with CCTV, so quite possibly the Brits track Gerry Adams as precisely as the Chinese do US aircraft carriers.

Now imagine the Feds have a database of images (64 Kbytes is fine) of every person legally in the country. Then progressively put hi-res CCTV in all busy streets, malls, rail stations, Federal and State offices, stadiums, university campuses etc. Bingo! - Minority Report without the hard-to-aim lasers.

The only problem with this theory is that the current face recognition is not good enough to uniquely ID hundreds of millions of people. Still, it's improving and is "just a matter of software", as an irritating boss of mine used to say.

This theory does not explain the Feds' insistence on a radio-readable chip, which makes the system costlier, and less secure. All suggestions - paranoid or otherwise - welcome.