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Thursday, February 15, 2007

No Privacy

No Privacy

4/2/1996 by Mark Powell

Orwellian snooping: Infrared sees through crime, bedroom walls

Even before 1984, for which George Orwell imagined all-invasive, all-seeing government, infrared-imaging gear enabled those owning it to "see" through walls. Military aircraft have long used forward-looking infrared - FLIR - to sense targets by heat emissions, measuring temperature differences as small as 0.2 degrees.

But it's not used just in the military anymore. BY late 1994, infrared technology was in police use in nearly 40 U.S. cities. Your local voyeuristic cop can scope you from far outside, even watch you loving your mate under the covers in your darkened bedroom.

Many courts have decided warrantless infrared snooping doesn't breach Fourth Amendment rights or even general privacy. But not all. In 1994, Washington state's Supreme Court prohibited the practice, overturning a conviction in which infrared led to a warrant instead of vice versa. The court said infrared snooping goes far "beyond natural senses" and noted the state constitution's provision paralleling the Fourth Amendment: "No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs or his home invaded without authority of law."

And last October senior U.S. District Judge Monroe McKay led a Denver-based appellate panel in a similar ruling, citing among other things the bedroom scenario. The government predictably challenged him, citing the technology's crime-fighting value. For instance, Tulsa's criminal apprehensions went up 800% after two choppers got FLIR.

Whatever the final outcome of that case, in most of the United States, police are free to look through your walls without a warrant.

A thorny problem. We want criminals detected and pursued in real time, but we crave privacy in our homes -- the only places in an ever more crowded, recorded society where we have a prayer of enjoying it.

Technology, as ever, brings challenges and problems with its benefits. In many fields we confront its race ahead of expectations, law and ethics. We've had to leap telecommunications law forward just to stay in decent tail-chase of technology.

Medicine boldly and troublingly advancing into life's basic mechanics raises similar questions. We've conceived children in test tubes. We're growing human ears on the backs of mice (simply because we can, apparently) and, it was announced last month with shockingly little fanfare, cloning full-size mammals: sheep. Genetic technology cures the previously incurable and relieves great suffering, but its possibilities horrify us.

Technology, like a gun, is neither good nor evil; man's application can be either.

As technology advances, however we choose to use it, privacy steadily evaporates. Computerized medical, credit and criminal files make us open books to governments and police, even before we factor in the skill and will of law- and code-breaking hackers and the Internet's universal openness. Whom we call, what films we watch, what on-line services we hit, and more are recorded, as are stores, lobbies and even streets. As our conveniences allow us to inspect the world, they allow it to inspect us.

Thermal imaging's positive uses outnumber the negative. Infrared in invaluable in search and rescue, and not just in cold wilderness. Dateline NBC featured its wonderful ability to let firemen clearly see victims in hellish, black-smoke building fires. Cities struggle to purchase a gear at $20,000 a set.

It gives border patrols a fighting chance at night against illegal hordes. It's great for airborne marijuana busting and space-borne environmental analysis. Infrared helps the military on the battlefield and the police nab perps. It protects the very homes it invades as an important part of fire alarms and infant crib monitors.

But who wants to trust a government unrestricted with this stuff? At Waco, it thought a FLIR-equipped chopper of more value than firefighting equipment.

Infrared imaging will scope people where they reasonably expect privacy. The argument is whether to require a search warrant. Unrestricted-use advocates say infrared scopes receive rather than emit energy and thus are noninvasive. Technically true, but weak sophistry -- a high-gain mike receives, not emits, but most people would call its use to spy invasive. People should expect that at their uncovered windows they may be seen. But barring a proper search warrant issued on probable cause, they should expect privacy behind solid walls.

The U.S. attorney challenging Judge McKay ridiculed his "Orwellian speculations." Well, federal electronic audio surveillance is up over 500% since 1980, intercepting (say prosecutors) 80% "irrelevant" talk. And Big Brother Bill is pushing an encryption-regulation plan to ensure federal ability to conduct surveillance of the world's phones, faxes and modems. You bet we have Orwellian speculations.

I refer to Kim Seng's letter on No Privacy and wish to add the following.

The Singapore Government spends heavily on all forms of defence and security equipment as well as manpower operations. It does not have to account for what it does. It does not have to obtain a court warrant to operate any of its surveillance equipment or operations. There is no legal redress for victims of surveillance. There is no legal recourse for victims of government invasion of privacy. And at US$20,000 apiece, the Singapore Government has enough taxpayers' money to buy and use many of these. It's probably cheaper, more advanced now and even easier to operate since the article opposite was published in 1996 in the online edition of USA Today.

Also, handphones, formerly called cell or cellular phones, operate by means of small areas called 'cells' with each cell transmitter/receiver atop a building or high point. This means that as long as your handphone is on, not just when receiving or making a call, your position can be determined very accurately from your handphone position. As long as it is on, it is in touch with the nearest cell transmitter/receiver and so reveals your position.

Robert HO