Apple’s desktop computer, the Macintosh, was launched the year after MG Michael completed his Bachelor of Arts degree at Sydney University in 1983. Few people at the time could have predicted the impact that personal computing would have on people’s lives. The debut of the PC was announced by a $1.5 million television commercial and was set in a dystopian future modeled after the George Orwell novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, airing during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII. Despite the infancy of personal computing, Michael could see how technology in general was starting to impact on individuals, families and in particular multinational organizations. Three years earlier Michael had been a member of the NSW Police Force and had been exposed to the latest technological breakthroughs like random breathalising (RBT) units, private branch exchanges, and innovative crime fighting systems.
Michael was to return to Sydney University in 1990 where he would complete a Masters of Theology focusing on dogmatics and religious mysticism. He gained a number of other qualifications between his Bachelors and PhD, a Bachelor of Theology from the Sydney College of Divinity and a Masters by Research at Macquarie University on the 666 conundrum in the Book of Revelation which was awarded the Dean’s Commendation for a “work of an exceptionally high standard.” Michael graduated with his PhD in 2003 from the Australian Catholic University where he investigated the canonical reception of the Apocalypse by the early Christian communities. In 2005 he found himself with an opportunity to take on a role at the University of Wollongong, first tutoring, then lecturing/coordinating, and then finally as a specialist full-time researcher in the field of the social implications of technology working on several grants including in the area of location-based services (LBS) and radio-frequency identification (RFID).
The culmination of some twenty years of interdisciplinary study and experience came when Michael coined the term uberveillance in 2006. The first time the term was used by Dr MG Michael was in a guest lecture he delivered on the “Consequences of Innovation”. Since that time, the word uberveillance has been gaining international acceptance across a number of disciplines and has been officially included in the fifth edition of the printed Macquarie Dictionary. In 2008, uberveillance topped the technology category in Macquarie Dictionary’s search for word of the year. A significant moment of the research occurred when Michael was invited to present at 29th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Montreal Canada in 2007. One of the keynote addresses during the event was given by the second United States Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff.
Uberveillance is an omnipresent electronic surveillance facilitated by technology that makes it possible to embed surveillance devices in the human body. Uberveillance, in its ultimate manifestation allows for identification, location finding, and condition monitoring of individuals through embedded technology which makes use of existing and increasingly ubiquitous infrastructure. It is more than wearable computing, it is embedded computing inside the human body for the purposes of diagnostics, security, and computer-mediated living. It is something akin to big brother on the inside looking out, as opposed to the typical surveillance notion of Big Brother on the outside looking down. Consider it a humancentric “black box” similar to that of a cockpit recorder in an aeroplane.
The motivation behind the word’s creation came about from the powerlessness of the available terminology to describe to the full extent the technological capabilities becoming available in the field of surveillance. Michael could find no other way but to bring together the German prefix “über” with the French root word “veiller” to describe the “above and beyond” surveillance conducted by governments in the name of national security. In its ultimate form uberveillance will mean that a third party will take control of the “personview” for the purposes of direct evidence or even for the manipulation of that evidence. Some research concerning uberveillance has so far included studies on the privacy, trust, security and human rights implications of chip implants (e.g. Alzheimer’s patients); the socio-ethical implications of pinpoint location based services; and an exploration of the factors motivating ‘underground implantees’ to embed technology in their body. Uberveillance has already been considered within the context of electronic health monitoring applications, policing and justice, retail and the mass market, within the emergency management domain and for social services.
MG Michael has been researching the trajectory of ‘beneath-the-skin’ surveillance technologies that could identify and locate individuals for over three decades since the introduction of the unassuming bank card in Australia in 1974, a low level identification card in essence that allowed a cardholder access to funds via a magnetic-stripe. Today, Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) are considered elementary when compared with the radical innovations entering the market, especially in the nanotechnology space. Michael said: “I am often struck by the ethical dilemmas that will face engineers (of all types) in the future as they go about their new discoveries in the laboratories, clinical testing, and finally product diffusion. Because we can, it should not always mean we must. It is in my opinion vital that we reach out as a community of experts in diverse disciplines to discuss and debate those technological issues that are currently transforming our society, but even more importantly to discuss and debate those emerging technologies that are forthcoming with broad reaching applications and implications, that may even change the very essence and definition of what we now hold to be “human”.
The social and ethical implications of microchipping people for a variety of applications from personal identification to patient monitoring remains largely unexplored. Some of the major problems pertaining to microchip implants are related to “who” or “what” is in control of the personal data stored and gathered from such devices. While each new implant device might well be in accordance with governing regulations for commercial purposes, it does not necessarily mean that the risks associated with that given application have been nullified. The question of ethics and ethical practices however, cloud the technology which by its very nature is penetrating, trespassing into that most sacred of spaces- the human body. The natural possession of the self becomes to a degree the property of a third party stakeholder. This condition beckons new explorations into the traditional world of metaphysics, particularly to do with those perennial philosophical questions connected to identity and consciousness.
The approach Michael has taken with his collaborators has been to study the usability contexts of humancentric microchip implants to determine a plausible list of applications including control, care, and convenience-based applications within a tag, track and trace paradigm. Dr Michael has also sought to define the position of various stakeholders in the microchip implant value chain. The approach is multi-pronged, borrowing methodologies from multiple disciplines to enrich the findings and inform the principal questions.
“The predictive element has been a strong force in all our studies and we have captured the auto-ID trajectory within the field of high-tech innovation. We have encouraged as much as possible, public discourse and critical debate on the matter, reaching out to diverse audiences and researchers. We have sought comprehensive interviews with key informant implantees to gauge their feelings and attitudes towards the pros and cons of RFID implants, providing hypothetical scenarios, with a focus on user-centred design. We have also simulated trials based not only on microchip implants but on converging capabilities such as location services and conditional monitoring. The big picture view cannot be ignored. It is not sufficient to study implants alone; the early signs are that ID + location + sensors will work in concert to offer subscribers intelligent value-added services that may well fall into the broader category of ubiquitous commerce applications. With this in mind, we have also studied U.S. case law seeking examples related to the tracking and monitoring of citizens and employees.”
This internationally cited research has led to a 500 page reference volume published in the United States in 2009 titled: Innovative Automatic Identification and Location-Based Services: From Bar Codes to Chip Implants. The book has been used in graduate engineering curricula related to automatic identification technology in several United States tertiary institutions including Western Illinois University. Following the success of the first book by Michael and Michael, a second edited volume is also expected to be completed by year end 2011 with the title: Uberveillance and the Social Implications of Microchip Implants: Emerging Technologies. Michael and Michael are a husband and wife team whose collaboration at UOW has seen them co-author numerous papers in the information communication technology field. Significantly, they have been the guest editors of a special section in the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine on Uberveillance, and have guest edited a special issue on The Social Implications of National Security in Prometheus. They have also held four annual national workshops sponsored by the ARC Research Network for a Secure Australia (RNSA), one of which had the theme: “From Dataveillance to Uberveillance and the Realpolitik of the Transparent Society.” More recently a paper on Uberveillance was published in the Proceedings of the IEEE, the oldest general computing and engineering journal in the world now in its 98th year. Uberveillance has also received wide media coverage including Forbes Magazine, New York Times, ABC America Online, and the National Post in Canada.
More recently the term uberveillance has been used as one of the key themes in Sam Yarney’s suspense thriller novel, The Banjo Player (2010). Michael and Michael were also invited to submit a book chapter to This Pervasive Day published by Imperial College Press on the topic of microchipping humans and the black box beneath the skin for the Pervasive Adaptation (PerAda) European Commission-funded project edited by Dr Jeremy Pitt. In September of this year, uberveillance will also feature in a Michigan State University panel session at a symposium being organized and hosted by Dr. Andrew Maynard, Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. The panel title is "Ubiquitous Monitoring and Risk: Implications of 'Uberveillance' in Public Health and Sustainability”.
Citation: MG Michael, March 1, 2010, "Class Notes: 1980s: Dr Michael G Michael", Sydney Alumni Magazine (SAM), Australia, p. 38.