Tuesday, December 27, 2005


When security trumps everything

From The Staesman

Multinationals spin and hype to push the envelop of our expectations of absolute security — not only physical security but also of our health. They tickle our fantasies and seed our dreams. In slogans and jingles they capture our hidden desires. Sometime one-liners have an unintended message symbolic of the new era we are sliding into willy-nilly.

In a full-blown two-page advertisement in major newspapers and magazines, not long ago, a digital multinational company created a thought-provoking blurb for the kind of world that might be emerging from the digitally networked wireless society. On one side of the double page blow up, a sharp-looking vigilant cop said in the ad: “I have x-ray vision.

I have the power to see a bank robbery from across town. I have the power to see how many people are robbing the bank. I even have the power to see which one is wearing the ski mask. I am more than a police officer.”

This has been a long cherished fantasy of security experts, which is now being fed feverishly by the developing digital surveillance technology, including the airline screening system that the US Transport Agency has put into place, raking up much controversy.

Reading the ad I wondered why this technology could not be used in Iraq for controlling insurgency that is killing and maiming Americans and Iraqis. Could keeping the peace be helped with technology? Probably.

As the adman continued on the next page, the police officer’s extraordinary power came from the fact that he’s wirelessly networked with a ubiquitous surveillance system. “I am the x-ray glasses (which the police officer wears)…. I have the power to send videos and data without the use of wires. I have the power to link a bank’s surveillance camera to a squad car en rout to robbery. I have the power to show cops what they’re up against.”

But keep in mind that it’s not the police officer that said: “I am here to protect and serve.” It’s the computer company boasting: “I am more than a network.” We were being asked to trust the network that would improve the efficiency of our otherwise dumb police and promised other wonders such as hastening the development of new drugs.

In general, ads promise to fulfil an existing need or turn our suppressed wants and subliminal desires into urgent needs that must be fulfilled.

Continuing the series, the ad offered much more. The second part showed a seashell that promised to fight cancer. “I have an extract in my shell that has the power to slow cancers in mice. I have the power to be the next penicillin.” That’s an unsubstantiated claim, but I couldn’t stop wondering what if that turned out to be true. Admen are no buffoons. They weave our collective dreams and wishes on paper and screen. I must suspend my disbelief.

The seashell, mercenaria mercenaria, hard clam shell whose delicate meat goes into the famous New England clam chowder soup, is more than a shell. Not so much because of its natural potential but more so because of the power of the network that can turn it into modern medicine. How can the Internet have so much potential for pharmaceutical research? It is through online collaboration.

“I have the power to move clinical trials online so new drugs get to the market faster.” Drug testing that moves from labs to animal trials and finally for human use takes years before the Food and Drug Administration gives its final approval for marketing.

But networking can abridge the time for patients who can’t wait, let say, HIV positives. Clinical trials can be outsourced to India, for example.

And that’s the beauty of the digital age. Whatever work can be done online in the USA can be done equally well elsewhere, wherever there is sufficient brainpower.

And India has brainpower aplenty.

“I have the power to protect a patient’s privacy,” said the voice of the network. Isn’t that what we want to hear? Threat to privacy is at the heart of the network debate. Some people hate being cocooned in anonymous networks where privacy may not survive.

“I can use the power of e-learning to let doctors share research with other doctors. I think sharing is caring.” Yes, sharing is one of the greatest potentials of a networked society, but beware that terrorists could use the same technology also, which in fact some of them, especially Al- Qaida, are already using.

And that brings us back to the police officer, the one who used his wirelessly enhanced networked vision to fight bank robbers except that banks are not robbed by masked gunslingers nowadays but by computer hackers and conmen who may be operating anonymously from any wireless hotspot across the globe.

In the age of terrorism, we are asked not to grudge the police pre-emptive powers to save us from whatever dangers might happen. That is exactly what President George W Bush has been telling us as to why he authorised the National Security Agency to carry out warrant-less interceptions of communications of people suspected of Al-Qaida contacts in the USA. Only if we know that the power won’t be misused.

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