Tuesday, April 17, 2012

America's Dystopian Future? You Have Been Warned.

Artwork by Masakatsu Sashie
by Nomad
It's getting increasingly more difficult to decide what is science fiction and what is the real world. I stumbled across a couple of stories that might give us an unpleasant foreshadowing of things to come if things keep going the way they are now. One note of caution, however: this kind of speculation is not for the paranoid.

Discover Magazine has a story ( Seeing Crime Before It Happens ) that could have been snatched from the Philip K. Dick novel, "Minority Report.

According to this article, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is attemptting to spot crimes before they happen. Based on a a nifty technology called Future Attribute Screening Technology, or FAST, technicians have devised a system of sensors that detect critical changes in heart rate, gaze, and other physiological markers.
In theory, FAST has the potential to detect terrorists in the final minutes before they act, but critics warn that the system may have other consequences, such as flagging innocent travelers through false positives while letting some with ill intent sneak by through false negatives. The DHS, for its part, maintains that FAST is merely improving on a far older and more fallible crime predictor: human judgment.

About 3,000 DHS officers already roam the nation’s airports scanning for suspicious behavior and facial expressions in a program called Screening of Passengers by Observational Techniques, or SPOT. The automated FAST system is intended to supplement SPOT by catching signals that are undetectable to the naked eye. FAST is not designed to replace the decision-making of human screeners, but government officials hope it will eventually be able to passively scan airport passengers and single out those worth pulling aside for additional screening.
Another site gives us more of an idea how the DHS would like to employ this technology.
Although DHS has publicly suggested that FAST could be used at airport checkpoints--the Transportation Security Administration is part of the department, after all--the government appears to have grander ambitions. One internal DHS document (PDF) also obtained by EPIC through the Freedom of Information Act says a mobile version of FAST "could be used at security checkpoints such as border crossings or at large public events such as sporting events or conventions."
People with rapid heart beats at a sporting event? Hmm. That ought to work out swimmingly.

The massive Blue Devil airship, next
to an 18-wheeler truck. Photo: Mav6
Now imagine a immense floating brain-egg floating above an urban area, constantly scanning, zooming in optically and electronically, monitoring cell phones, tracking "tagged" individuals, tapping emails and Internet usage. That's not science fiction. Meet Blue Devil 2- DARPA's $211 million crash program. (no pun intended)
The 370-foot airship, which can hover at 20,000 feet for five days, functions as a network hub for drones and ground sensors and as a surveillance craft in its own right. Built for the Air Force by the defense start-up Mav6, the blimp carries a 2,000-core supercomputer.
(In case you' re wondering about the wisdom of installing a slow moving balloon over enemy territory, hovering at that height would, I am told, put it beyond the reach of most ground to air missiles. Additionally it is reportedly made of kevlar Personally I am not convinced but I am not expert. And nobody asked me.)

What really makes Blue Devil 2 special is that it takes the out the human element. (Darn those humanoids with their slow decision-making brains!) And taking out the human element is important because, after all, how else can you have deniability when there's a SNAFU? ("The Blue Devil made us do it")

In an article in Danger Room (All-Seeing Blimp Could Be Afghanistan’s Biggest Brain) we get more a few more details
The idea behind the Blue Devil is to have up to a dozen different sensors, all flying on the same airship and talking to each other constantly. The supercomputer will crunch the data, and automatically slew the sensors in the right direction: pointing a camera at, say, the guy yapping about an upcoming ambush.

The goal is to get that coordinated information down to ground troops in less than 15 seconds.

“It could change the nature of overhead surveillance,” says retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, until recently the head of the Air Force’s intelligence efforts. “There’s huge potential there.” [emphasis mine]
Apparently the research and development ran into some problems with the program. Furthermore, the Air Force was never too keen on the project, preferring super-sonic aircraft instead. They prefer the sound of thunder rather than oodles of intelligence.

Enter the Congress. According to different article from Danger Room, after the Air Force made the decision not to deploy, two influential senators stepped in to add their two cents.
“We believe it would be a significant failure to stop work and not deploy this much needed platform to Afghanistan,” Senators Thad Cochran and Daniel Ionuye complain in a Feb. 14 letter to Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter (.pdf), obtained by Danger Room.

Just two small problems. These senators, though powerful, are pretty famous on Capitol Hill for backing some rather wacky and useless projects. Oh, and there’s a second giant spy blimp that is also scheduled for a flight test soon, and also promised to the generals in Afghanistan.
Basically the whole spy blimp project is an expensive mess. News from Wikipedia states:
While the Air Force has made no public decision on the future of the blimp, there is no money for the program in the 2013 budget, and in early 2012 a 90-day work stoppage on the blimp occurred while the project was placed under review.
And as I wrote in another post, it is only a matter of time before the blimps come home to roost. As we have seen with the use of drones by law enforcement in Texas, technology used on the battlefield is becoming commonly used domestically. The Department of Homeland Security financial grants to police department have already created a fully militarized police force. This, in turn, has repeatedly led to charges of police brutality and the violation of civil liberties.

Next up, nano drones.
An article at DefenseTech adds the final piece of the police state puzzle. 
Can’t you imagine a swarm of tiny drones like these being launched at an enemy by a small infantry unit? They could be carried in a backpack, controlled by a laptop and sent to spy on a nearby enemy and even explode on any targets they spot, similar to what the Army’s Switchblade UAV can do now. They’d be hard to spot until they were on top of the target and given their size and numbers, they’d be damn tough to defend against.

The buzzing sound alone would have me putting on my motorcycle helmet and heading for the hills. But I suppose they will all play a some kind of stereophonic message. "Do not run! We are your friends. We come in peace."

Add a tiny weeny canister of pepper spray (or something worse) on the backs of these do-hickeys and, by golly, you've just jumped five or seven years into the future. 

And make no mistake, unless there's a constitutional amendment banning the use of military weapons domestically (especially as a means of crowd control) and/or the use of surveillance equipment without probably cause, it will happen. 

Despite what you've heard, security need not come at the cost of liberty.
What do you think? Your comments are always welcome at Nomadic Politics.