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Saturday
Nov182006

Every breath, every move can be watched

George Orwell had it completely wrong: ubiquitous sensing technology won't be the dictator's tool for enslaving ordinary citizens. Rather, it'll give open societies the capacity for serious resilience in an increasingly connected world where danger knows no boundaries.

We're standing on the edge of a technological revolution that will provide us with everything we need to defeat transnational terrorism in this so-called Long War, and no, it won't be some secret "government project." Instead, this revolution in capabilities will be driven primarily by the private sector's response to the growing desire of average citizens for hyper-connected lives.

Every breath you take, every move you make ... can be watched all right.

George Orwell had it completely wrong: ubiquitous sensing technology won't be the dictator's tool for enslaving ordinary citizens. Rather, it will give open societies the capacity for serious resilience in an increasingly connected world where danger knows no boundaries.

We're standing on the edge of a technological revolution that will provide us with everything we need to defeat transnational terrorism in this so-called Long War, and no, it won't be some secret "government project." Instead, this revolution in capabilities will be driven primarily by the private sector's response to the growing desire of average citizens for hyper-connected lives.

Today it's MySpace and YouTube, where young people share their most intimate details with the world, but tomorrow it will be the real-time sharing of sensor data -- in effect, linking your desires to your movement.

We've gotten early glimpses of this technology all around us, such as Amazon remembering what type of books you like and pushing similar ones in your direction.

Then there's your car navigation system finding you that specialty grocery store just as you get off the interstate near grandmother's house. So not only does Little Red Riding Hood stay on track, she can basically forget about lugging that basket.

But what if you were willing to share more than just your location? What if MySpace becomes AnySpace?

Then it will be that salesperson in store B who walks up to you unprompted with a tie that matches perfectly the shirt you just bought down the street in Store A. He'll also know you prefer gold cuff links in geometric shapes.

How? Your cell phone will announce your arrival and allow the store to pull up all your preferences and recent purchases. So yeah, those cuff links will be on sale, but only for you, and only in that store, and only for the next 15 minutes.

Years off? Hardly. You can get this service right now in the right stores in Singapore.

But it won't just be young people driving this explosion of new sensor-location services. Our aging Boomer population will surely fuel its own revolution in elder care.

Say you have a heart condition. Today you might get it checked out every few weeks in your doctor's office. But why not wear a sensor that pushes your real-time heart rate over the Web to your medical provider? Why can't we all be "under a doctor's care" all the time?

I'm not talking some technological ball-and-chain here. Today's small subcutaneous implants become tomorrow's down-the-hatch pill that you swallow, sending thousands of nanosensors racing through your bloodstream.

Take two of these tonight and the doctor calls you in the morning!

I know, I know, it's scary stuff ... until it's your ticker that's not working right and you'd rather not spend the rest of your days in your living room recliner, afraid to go out. Ever watch a parent go through that? Want something better when your time comes?

Why stop there?

What if you had such biosensors spread throughout your population? Imagine how you could monitor the winter flu season?

Spread them among your agricultural livestock. What outbreaks might you prevent then?

Disperse them throughout your forests and rivers and lakes. Who knows what you could learn about global warming?

Security-wise, America can't possibly track for every low-probability high-impact event that transnational terrorists might toss our way. Similarly, we've got to stop closing barn doors after the cows have gone--as in, a terrorist plants a bomb in his shoe and from then on all passengers' shoes are X-rayed by airport security.

Trust me, Mr. Shoe Bomber could have shoved his explosives somewhere much worse. If he had, we'd all be removing more than just our shoes ....

Fast-forward a few years to when the United States is saturated with sensors and you begin to see the networking/computational possibilities: collect enough real-time data and your capacity to notice and thereby predict "suspicious behavior" grows exponentially. Soon, you're not just tracking for bombs but for bombers.

Want a world without secrets? Such transparency is coming faster than you think.

No, this development won't signal freedom's downfall. Instead, ubiquitous sense-think-and-respond networks will constitute the cornerstone of our society's resilience in this Long War against terrorism, because tomorrow's definition of deterrence will be, "anything the terrorists throw at us, we can counter faster."

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