If you have ever seen the cult '60s British television program The Prisoner, in which captured Cold War spies live on an island under constant surveillance, you can imagine what life may soon be like on Ayers Island, on the Penobscot River near the University of Maine. In coming years, visitors to Ayers Island, the site of an abandoned paper and textile mill in Orono, Maine, will be spied upon by a comprehensive network of video cameras, motion detectors and sensors. Lurking behind all of those sensors will be an artificial intelligence system that will decide who can be trusted and who is deserving of greater scrutiny.
The engineers, drawn largely from the nearby University of Maine, will use the network to test the reliability of new sensors. They will also attempt to demonstrate that AI, combined with ubiquitous sensors, may be able to provide civil authorities with comprehensive, real-time intelligence about the whereabouts of individuals and cars, and the status of buildings and other structures within a particular geographical area.
The island's initial monitoring systems will be rudimentary, made from off-the-shelf parts and store-bought alarm systems. But eventually, ubiquitous cameras and biometric readers, backed by a central computer, will recognize and record faces and license plates, and make it possible for someone sitting at a computer monitor to track individuals everywhere they go on the island, said George Markowsky, president of Ayers Island LLC. "This is going to push the envelope on a lot of fronts," said Markowsky. "The goal is to detect anyone coming onto the island at any point, and to follow them if they exhibit suspicious behavior."
I don't suppose it occurred to the engineers that, well ... the civil authorities don't actually need to know that sort of thing about everyone all the time, that getting people to review all the data will be difficult and probably ruinously expensive, that a fishbowl island is really probably not the best place to detect "suspicious behavior" -- after all, where would you go and how would you hide in any realistic way? -- and that perhaps a computer is not the best judge of "suspicious behavior", given the very wide range of normal nonsuspicious human behavior. And how will they account for different cultures? Tourists from, say, India might behave differently in some minor but attention-getting respects than tourists from Indiana.
I would also think that if this were put into tourist areas generally -- stick it into Key West or San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf or what have you-- and it became generally known, it might have a somewhat deleterious effect on tourism generally. After all, it essentially codes as follows:
- By the way, we're watching you. We're watching where you go, we're watching what you eat, we're recording your face and your car's license plate number. You use a credit card, we can probably blow that up and pull off the numbers.
- But ... Why? I haven't done anything.
- Because we can. And they're such cool toys! Oh, by the way, the computer says that you picked your nose in a suspicious manner, so we'll be picking you up for questioning now.
I'm not remotely a privacy fanatic, but this just seems a tad excessive, to put it mildly.Posted by iain at May 05, 2004 01:36 PM