Surveillance, Social Networks, and Suicide

Saint Augustine's "Confessions"

Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE) [1] one of the most revered doctors of the ecclesia catholica, might not have been so highly esteemed had he flourished centuries afterwards in a world of uberveillance [2]. One of the unique aspects of Augustine's life that endeared him to the community of the faithful, both past and present, was his rising up from the “fornications” [3] and the “delight in thievery” [4] to become a paradigm for both the eastern and western churches of the penitent who becomes a saint. But would the celebrated bishop and author of The City of God have risen to such prominence and reverence had his early and formative life been chronicled on Facebook and “serialized” on YouTube? Would Augustine's long and grueling years of penitence and good works have been recognized? That we have his stylized and erudite Confessions on paper is another matter altogether; as to its impact, the written record cannot be compared to capturing someone in the act on closed circuit television (CCTV). The audio-visual evidence is there forever to be rerun at whim by those who have access. And what of the multitude of other canonized “sinners” who in their own time and private space might not only mature by engaging with their humanity, indeed with their flaws and weaknesses, but also aspire to sainthood through repentance. If these “lives of the saints” were rerun before us, would we view such consecrated men and women in the same way? Where context is lacking or missing, then all interpretation of content, however compelling to the contrary, must be viewed with a high degree of suspicion.

Even in the political and civil rights arena, for example, had the private lives of colossal and “untouchable” figures such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King been subjected to never-ending uberveillance, how might that not only have affected the biography of these two men, but changed the course of history itself? Moreover, how would knowledge of such bio-intrusive surveillance altered both Kennedy's and King's decision-making processes and life habits? We know for instance, particularly from the seminal study of M.F. Keen, that the surveillance of prominent sociologists in the United States played a role in shaping the American sociological tradition. Certainly, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI [5] might have kept a detailed account of the supposed meanderings and subversions of its “suspects,” but these records whether true or false were not universally accessible and limited given the state of information and communication technology at the time [6]. And what of the private lives of popes and patriarchs, kings and queens, great philanthropists, and other exalted figures, how might they have stood up to the nowadays literal “fly on the wall” shadowing [7]?

The incongruity behind traditional surveillance technologies (including wholesale surveillance and “dataveillance”) is that, generally, individuals of power and influence are not subjected to the extreme and exaggerated types of surveillance techniques designed and planned for everyone else. This concept applies, except of course to occasions of blackmail and industrial espionage, for example, when the powerful and influential make use of whatever apparatus is at their disposal to spy on and turn against their own. It is not our blanket assertion that all influential and powerful people must necessarily be corrupt. It is fundamentally a matter of control revolving around authority, access, and opportunity. We return then, to the perennial question of who will guard the guards themselves: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Even uniquely enlightened persons such as Siddhartha Gautama and Jesus of Nazareth needed private space not only to engage inwardly and to reflect on their respective missions, but also to do discrete battle with their respective “temptations.” Uberveillance makes private space inch-by-inch obsolete [8]. Private space is that location that we all, saint and sinner alike, need – to make our mistakes in secret, to mature into wisdom, and to discover what we are and are not capable of. In losing large chunks of our privacy we are also forfeiting a critical component of our personal identity, which for a substantial group of philosophers, following on from John Locke, is “the identity of consciousness” [9]. There is, then, the potential for personality disorders to develop, particularly anxiety disorders or phobic neuroses.

The unbridled rush and push to create the transparent society, as David Brin [10] very well described it, has social implications that are largely ignored, or at best marginalized. The social implications of information security measures that are connected to never-ending surveillance or indeed to other network applications have serious and often irreversible psychological consequences of which only a few can be cited here: increased cases of mental illness (new forms of obsessive compulsive disorder and paranoia); a rise in related suicides; decreased levels of trust (at all spheres of relationships); and the impossibility of a “fresh start.” The traditionally received idea of the unconditional absolution of sin [11] in the secrecy of the confessional already does not exist in the world of some religious communities; believers are encouraged to log on and to “confess” online [12], [13]. These types of social networks are especially dangerous for individuals already battling mental illness, and who might afterwards deeply regret having uploaded imaginary or real discretions for everyone to read.

Would the celebrated bishop and author of The City of God have risen to such prominence and reverence had his early and formative life been chronicled on Facebook and “serialized” on YouTube?

The author of a noteworthy article published in Newsweek [14], commenting on the high-profile suicides of two internationally recognized digital technologists, Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake, put it well when he surmised “for some, technology and mental illness have long been thought to exist in a kind of dark symbiosis.” The startling suicides first of Duncan and soon after that of her partner Blake, for whom “the very technologies that had infused their work and elevated their lives became tools to reinforce destructive delusions,” are a significant, albeit sad reminder that even those heavily involved in new technologies are not immune from delusional and paranoid torment, whether based on fact or not.

And that is precisely the point: with covert shadowing you can never be completely sure that your paranoia is groundless. Long-term research at a clinical level remains to be conducted on the subject of never-ending surveillance and mental illness. There is some evidence to suggest that a similar paranoia played at least some part in another shocking suicide, that of the Chinese American novelist and journalist Iris Chang [15], the author of The Rape of Nanking.

Iris Chang promoting her book "The Rape of Nanking". In Wikipedia we read: "  It was later discovered that she had left behind three  suicide notes  each dated November 8, 2004. "Statement of Iris Chang" stated:   I promise to get up and get out of the house every morning. I will stop by to visit my parents then go for a long walk. I will follow the doctor's orders for medications. I promise not to hurt myself. I promise not to visit Web sites that talk about suicide. [11]    The next note was a draft of the third:   When you believe you have a future, you think in terms of generations and years. When you do not, you live not just by the day — but by the minute. It is far better that you remember me as I was—in my heyday as a best-selling author—than the wild-eyed wreck who returned from Louisville. ... Each breath is becoming difficult for me to take—the anxiety can be compared to drowning in an open sea. I know that my actions will transfer some of this pain to others, indeed those who love me the most. Please forgive me. [13]    The third note included:   There are aspects of my experience in Louisville that I will never understand. Deep down I suspect that you may have more answers about this than I do. I can never shake my belief that I was being recruited, and later persecuted, by forces more powerful than I could have imagined. Whether it was the  CIA  or some other organization I will never know. As long as I am alive, these forces will never stop hounding me.    Days before I left for Louisville I had a deep foreboding about my safety. I sensed suddenly threats to my own life: an eerie feeling that I was being followed in the streets, the white van parked outside my house, damaged mail arriving at my P.O. Box. I believe my detention at Norton Hospital was the government's attempt to discredit me.

Iris Chang promoting her book "The Rape of Nanking". In Wikipedia we read: "

It was later discovered that she had left behind three suicide notes each dated November 8, 2004. "Statement of Iris Chang" stated:

I promise to get up and get out of the house every morning. I will stop by to visit my parents then go for a long walk. I will follow the doctor's orders for medications. I promise not to hurt myself. I promise not to visit Web sites that talk about suicide.[11]

The next note was a draft of the third:

When you believe you have a future, you think in terms of generations and years. When you do not, you live not just by the day — but by the minute. It is far better that you remember me as I was—in my heyday as a best-selling author—than the wild-eyed wreck who returned from Louisville. ... Each breath is becoming difficult for me to take—the anxiety can be compared to drowning in an open sea. I know that my actions will transfer some of this pain to others, indeed those who love me the most. Please forgive me.[13]

The third note included:

There are aspects of my experience in Louisville that I will never understand. Deep down I suspect that you may have more answers about this than I do. I can never shake my belief that I was being recruited, and later persecuted, by forces more powerful than I could have imagined. Whether it was the CIA or some other organization I will never know. As long as I am alive, these forces will never stop hounding me.

Days before I left for Louisville I had a deep foreboding about my safety. I sensed suddenly threats to my own life: an eerie feeling that I was being followed in the streets, the white van parked outside my house, damaged mail arriving at my P.O. Box. I believe my detention at Norton Hospital was the government's attempt to discredit me.

The application of technology is rarely unbiased. Once a technique [16] is set in motion and diffused into our society it progressively becomes irreversible, particularly given the key component of interoperability and the vast amounts of capital invested in twenty-first century machinery. However, our comprehension of this hi-tech diffusion is not on commensurate levels. Cross-disciplinary discourse, public debate, and legislation lag far behind the establishment of the infrastructure and application of the technology. In simple terms, this lag is the “too much change in too short a period of time,” which Alvin Toffler famously referred to as “Future Shock” [17].

The situation is, unfortunately, reminiscent of that time in Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1945, when some of those engaged in the Manhattan Project, including one of the group's top physicists, the Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi, were taking side bets on the eve of the test on whether they would “ignite the atmosphere” once the atomic bomb was tested [18]. But the “fallout” from uberveillance is distributed, and it will initially, at least, be invisible to all except the approved operators of the data vacuum. The setting and foreboding of notable dystopian novels, which warn of “dangerous and alienating future societies” – Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1921), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), Ayn Rand's Anthem (1938), George Orwell's 1984 (1949), Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953) – where “dissent is bad” and the deified State “knows all” is being gradually realized. This is especially worrying, for as Noam Chomsky and others point out, we are concurrently witnessing a “growing democratic deficit” [19], [20].

Great strides are also being made in the field of biomedical engineering in the application of engineering principles and techniques to the medical field [21]. New technologies will heal and give hope to many who are suffering from life-debilitating and life-threatening diseases. The broken will walk again. The blind will see. The deaf will hear. Even bionic tongues are on the drawing board. Hearts and kidneys and other organs will be built anew. The fundamental point is that society at large is able to distinguish between positive and negative applications of technological advancements before we diffuse and integrate such innovations into our day-to-day existence.

Nanotechnology, which is behind many of these marvelous medical wonders, will interconnect with the surveillance field and quite literally make the notion of “privacy” – that is, revealing ourselves selectively – an artifact. We must do whatever is in our lawful power to check, mitigate, and to legislate against the unwarranted and abusive use of uber-intrusive surveillance applications. We are talking about applications with such incredible capabilities that will potentially have the power to dehumanize us and reach into the secret layers of our humanity. These are not unruly exaggerations when we consider that wireless sensors and motes, body area networks (BANs), and brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are already established technologies and that the era of mind control, particularly through pioneering advancements in brain-scanning technology, is getting steadily closer.

The incongruity behind traditional surveillance technologies is that, generally, individuals of power and influence are not subjected to the extreme and exaggerated types of surveillance techniques designed and planned for everyone else.

The argument most often heard in the public domain is “if you have nothing to hide, why worry?” There are, however, at least three problems with this popular mantra. First, freedom implies not only being “free of chains” in the practical sense, to be permitted to go about one's daily business freely and without undue constraint, but nowadays also without your every move being tracked, monitored, and recorded.

Second, there is a metaphysical freedom connected to trust, which also implies to be able to dream, to think, and to believe without outside coercion.

And finally, whether we care to admit it or not, we all have something to hide. Disruption of any of these freedoms or rights would affect our decision-making processes and contribute to unhealthy personality development where what we “want” to do (or engage in) becomes what we think we must do (and theatrically engage in).

To artificially build a personality or to hold on to a set system of synthetically engineered beliefs is to deconstruct the human entity to the point where both initiative and creativity (two key components of a healthy individual) are increasingly diminished, and ultimately eradicated. Humancentric implants for surveillance will alter the “inner man” as much as the externals of technological innovation will transform the “outer man.” There are those who would argue that the body is obsolete and should be fused with machines; there are others who would support mind and identity downloading. In the context of such futuristic scenarios, Andrew Ross has aptly spoken of the “technocolonization of the body” [22]. Others on the cutting edge of the digital world are using technology in ways supposedly never intended by the manufacturers.

If the elements to this discussion that might point to the potential mushrooming of new totalitarian regimes seem paradoxical – after all we are living and reveling in a postmodern and liberal society where the individual cult on a mass scale is idolized and thriving – then we should stand back for a moment and reconsider the emerging picture. Two prominent features of the murderous regimes of Stalin and Hitler were the obsession with state secrecy and the detailed collection of all sorts of evidence documented in scrupulous registers [23]. Related to this collection of information was the well-known and beastly numbering of minorities, prisoners, and political dissidents. In our time, privacy experts such as David Lyon are warning, this type of “social sorting” is becoming evidenced once more [24]. Where are we heading today? In response, already in the United States a number of states (including North Dakota and Wisconsin) have passed anti-chipping bills banning the forced implantation of RFID tags or transponders into people [25].

In 1902 Georges Méliès' short science-fiction film A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune)spawned the fantastic tradition of putting celluloid form onto the predictive word. More recently representative of this tradition is James Bond in Casino Royale (2006). In this movie, Bond becomes a “marked” man, chipped in his left arm, just above the wrist by his government minders. “So you can keep an eye on me?” the famous spy sarcastically rejoins. The chip is not only for identification purposes but has multiple functions and applications, including the ability to act as a global positioning system (GPS) receiver for chronicling his every move. Later in the film when Bond is captured by his arch-nemesis, the banker Le Chiffre, he will have the microchip, which looks more like a miniature spark plug, cut out of his arm with a blade. These kinds of scenarios are no longer the exclusive domain of the novelist, the conspiracy theorist, the religious apocalypticist, or the intellectual property of the tech-visionary. We have the ability and potential to upgrade these information gathering mechanisms to unprecedented and sci-fi proportions.

Unique lifetime identifiers are more touted than ever before by both the private and public sectors as they have become increasingly synonymous with tax file and social security numbers. The supposed benefits of this permanent cradle-to-grave identification are energetically broadcast at various national and international forums, and especially in the contexts of white collar crime and national security. We are living in times in which commercial innovations will possibly match the internal complexity of the neuron with the help of the appositely called “labs-on-chips.” Writers dealing with these subjects have been speaking less of future shock and more along the lines of hyper-future shock. The key question, so far as identification and information-gathering technology is concerned, is: How are we as a concerned and informed community going to curb and regulate the broad dispersal and depth-charged reaches of surveillance? And how are we going to do this without denying the many positive and desirable applications of the infrastructures that underlie these technologies, particularly in the domain of healing the sick and the injured?

A great deal of this discussion should revolve around the related ethics of emerging technologies, and as we have noted, this discourse is especially critical when we consider the “unintentional” and hidden consequences of innovation. However, one of the methodological weaknesses in this global debate is the direct focus by some of the interlocutors on meta-ethics alone. What we must understand, if we are to make any practical progress in our negotiations, is that this subject must first be approached from the perspective of normative and applied ethics. The lines of distinction between all three of these approaches will at times remain unclear and even merge, but there are some litmus tests (human rights for example) for determining the morality and the ultimate price of our decisions.

Readers might well be asking what technology has to do with some of the metaphysical issues that we are raising here. Perhaps it would be sensible to periodically remind ourselves, as a recent discerning researcher also has pointed out [26], that two of our greatest thinkers, Plato and Aristotle, both warned of the inherent dangers of glorifying techne (art, skill). Techne should be subject to “reason and law”. Furthermore, Plato and Aristotle argued that techne represents “imperfect human imitation of nature.” The pertinent question in this instance might be why have modern societies gradually moved away from asking or seeking out these metaphysical connections. Such general apathy, with a few honorable exceptions, towards a philosophical critique of technology can probably be traced to a defensive response of western economic tradition to Karl Marx's “critique of Victorian progress.”

In relation to surveillance and to ubiquitous location determination technologies, we are at a critical junction; some might well argue that we have long ago decided which road to travel. Maybe these commenters are right. Perhaps there is no longer a place for trusty wisdom in our world. Just the same, full-scale uberveillance has not yet arrived. We must moderate the negative fallout of science and control technology and, as Jacques Ellul [16] would say, “transcend” it: lest its control of us becomes non-negotiable and we ourselves become the frogs in the slow warming water.

The insightful and expertly considered papers that follow were presented at the IEEE-SSIT International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS) 2010, in Wollongong, Australia. In one way or another each of the writers directly investigate issues related to both the technological and social implication spheres broached in this paper. Though their approach or methodology might differ in some evident places, they all agree that the rapid pace of the development and application of new surveillance techniques without due diligence and involvement of the scientific and public communities at large, has built-in potential of a great disaster, in terms of societal loss of privacy, erosion of freedoms, and disintegration of trust.


Excerpts of this article were originally published in Quadrant magazine [27] in 2009. Quadrant is Australia's leading intellectual journal of ideas, literature, poetry, and historical and political debate.


Special issues and sections, Social network services, History, Technological innovation, Surveillance

Citation: MG Michael, Katina Michael, 2011, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Vol. 30, No. 3, Fall, 2011, pp. 13-17, DOI: 10.1109/MTS.2011.942312

Toward a State of Überveillance


Überveillance is an emerging concept, and neither its application nor its power have yet fully arrived [38]. For some time, Roger Clarke's [12, p. 498] 1988 dataveillance concept has been prevalent: the “systematic use of personal data systems in the investigation or monitoring of the actions of one or more persons.”

Almost twenty years on, technology has developed so much and the national security context has altered so greatly [52], that there is a pressing need to formulate a new term to convey both the present reality, and the Realpolitik (policy primarily based on power) of our times. However, if it had not been for dataveillance, überveillance could not be. It must be emphasized that dataveillance will always exist - it will provide the scorecard for the engine being used to fulfill überveillance.

Dataveillance to Überveillance

Überveillance takes that which was static or discrete in the dataveillance world, and makes it constant and embedded. Consider überveillance not only automatic and having to do with identification, but also about real-time location tracking and condition monitoring. That is, überveillance connotes the ability to automatically locate and identify - in essence the ability to perform automatic location identification (ALI). Überveillance has to do with the fundamental who (ID), where (location), and when (time) questions in an attempt to derive why (motivation), what (result), and even how (method/plan/thought). Überveillance can be a predictive mechanism for a person's expected behavior, traits, likes, or dislikes; or it can be based on historical fact; or it can be something in between. The inherent problem with überveillance is that facts do not always add up to truth (i.e., as in the case of an exclusive disjunction T + T = F), and predictions based on überveillance are not always correct.

Überveillance is more than closed circuit television feeds, or cross-agency databases linked to national identity cards, or biometrics and ePassports used for international travel. Überveillance is the sum total of all these types of surveillance and the deliberate integration of an individual's personal data for the continuous tracking and monitoring of identity and location in real time. In its ultimate form, überveillance has to do with more than automatic identification technologies that we carry with us. It has to do with under-the-skin technology that is embedded in the body, such as microchip implants; it is that which cuts into the flesh - a charagma (mark) [61]. Think of it as Big Brother on the inside looking out. This charagma is virtually meaningless without the hybrid network architecture that supports its functionality: making the person a walking online node i.e., beyond luggable netbooks, smart phones, and contactless cards. We are referring here to the lowest common denominator, the smallest unit of tracking - presently a tiny chip inside the body of a human being, which could one day work similarly to the black box.

Implants cannot be left behind, cannot be lost, and supposedly cannot be tampered with; they are always on, can link to objects, and make the person seemingly otherworldly. This act of “chipification” is best illustrated by the ever-increasing uses of implant devices for medical prosthesis and for diagnostics [54]. Humancentric implants are giving rise to the Electrophorus [36, p. 313], the bearer of electric technology; an individual entity very different from the sci-fi notion of Cyborg as portrayed in such popular television series as the Six Million Dollar Man (1974–1978). In its current state, the Electrophorus relies on a device being triggered wirelessly when it enters an electromagnetic field; these properties now mean that systems can interact with people within a spatial dimension, unobtrusively [62]. And it is surely not simple coincidence that alongside überveillance we are witnessing the philosophical reawakening (throughout most of the fundamental streams running through our culture) of Nietzsche's Übermensch - the overcoming of the “all-too-human” [25].

Legal and Ethical Issues

In 2005 the European Group on Ethics (EGE) in Science and New Technologies, established by the European Commission (EC), submitted an Opinion on ICT implants in the human body [45]. The thirty-four page document outlines legal and ethical issues having to do with ICT implants, and is based on the European Union Treaty (Article 6) which has to do with the “fundamental rights” of the individual. Fundamental rights have to do with human dignity, the right to the integrity of the person, and the protection of personal data. From the legal perspective the following was ascertained [45, pp. 20–21]:

  • the existence of a recognised serious but uncertain risk, currently applying to the simplest types of ICT implants in the human body, requires application of the precautionary principle. In particular, one should distinguish between active and passive implants, reversible and irreversible implants, and between offline and online implants;
  • the purpose specification principle mandates at least a distinction between medical and non-medical applications. However, medical applications should also be evaluated stringently, partly to prevent them from being invoked as a means to legitimize other types of application;
  • the data minimization principle rules out the lawfulness of ICT implants that are only aimed at identifying patients, if they can be replaced by less invasive and equally secure tools;
  • the proportionality principle rules out the lawfulness of implants such as those that are used, for instance, exclusively to facilitate entrance to public premises;
  • the principle of integrity and inviolability of the body rules out that the data subject's consent is sufficient to allow all kinds of implant to be deployed; and
  • the dignity principle prohibits transformation of the body into an object that can be manipulated and controlled remotely - into a mere source of information.

ICT implants for non-medical purposes violate fundamental legal principles. ICT implants also have numerous ethical issues, including the requirement for: non-instrumentalization, privacy, non-discrimination, informed consent, equity, and the precautionary principle (see also [8], [27], [29]). It should be stated, however, that the EGE, while not recommending ICT implants for non-medical applications because they are fundamentally fraught with legal and ethical issues, did state the following [45, p. 32]:

ICT implants for surveillance in particular threaten human dignity. They could be used by state authorities, individuals and groups to increase their power over others. The implants could be used to locate people (and also to retrieve other kinds of information about them). This might be justified for security reasons (early release for prisoners) or for safety reasons (location of vulnerable children).

However, the EGE insists that such surveillance applications of ICT implants may only be permitted if the legislator considers that there is an urgent and justified necessity in a democratic society (Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention) and there are no less intrusive methods. Nevertheless the EGE does not favor such uses and considers that surveillance applications, under all circumstances, must be specified in legislation. Surveillance procedures in individual cases should be approved and monitored by an independent court.

The same general principles should apply to the use of ICT implants for military purposes. Although this Opinion was certainly useful, we have growing concerns about the development of the information society, the lack of public debate and awareness regarding this emerging technology, and the pressing need for regulation that has not occurred commensurate to developments in this domain.

Herein rests the problem of human rights and striking a “balance” between freedom, security, and justice. First, we contend that it is a fallacy to speak of a balance. In the microchip implant scenario, there will never be a balance, so long as someone else has the potential to control the implant device or the stored data about us that is linked to the device. Second, we are living in a period where chip implants for the purposes of segregation are being discussed seriously by health officials and politicians. We are speaking here of the identification of groups of people in the name of “health management” or “national security.” We will almost certainly witness new, and more fixed forms, of “electronic apartheid.”

Consider the very real case where the “Papua Legislative Council was deliberating a regulation that would see microchips implanted in people living with HIV/AIDS so authorities could monitor their actions” [50]. Similar discussions on “registration” were held regarding asylum seekers and illegal immigrants in the European Union [18]. RFID implants or the “tagging” of populations in Asia (e.g., Singapore) were also considered “the next step” in the containment and eradication of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 [43]. Apart from disease outbreaks, RFID has also been discussed as a response and recovery device for emergency services personnel dispatched to terrorist disasters [6], and for the identification of victims of natural disasters, such as in the case of the Boxing Day Tsunami [10]. The question remains whether there is a truly legitimate use function of chip implants for the purposes of emergency management as opposed to other applications. Definition plays a critical role in this instance. A similar debate has ensued in the use of the Schengen Information System II in the European Union where differing states have recorded alerts on individuals based on their understanding of a security risk [17].

In June of 2006, legislative analyst Anthony Gad, reported in brief 06-13 for the Legislative Reference Bureau [16], that the:

2005 Wisconsin Act 482, passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Jim Doyle on May 30, 2006, prohibits the required implanting of microchips in humans. It is the first law of its kind in the nation reflecting a proactive attempt to prevent potential abuses of this emergent technology.

A number of states in the United States have passed similar laws [63], despite the fact that at the national level, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration [15] has allowed radio frequency identification implants for medical use in humans. The Wisconsin Act [59] states:

The people of the state of Wisconsin, represented in senate and assembly, do enact as follows: SECTION 1. 146.25 of the statutes is created to read: 146.25 Required implanting of microchip prohibited. (1) No person may require an individual to undergo the implanting of a microchip. (2) Any person who violates sub. (1) may be required to forfeit not more than $10,000. Each day of continued violation constitutes a separate offense.

North Dakota followed Wisconsin's example. Wisconsin Governor Hoeven signed a two sentence bill into state law on April 4, 2007. The bill was criticized by some who said that while it protected citizens from being “injected” with an implant, it did not prevent someone from making them swallow it [51]. And indeed, there are now a number of swallowable capsule technologies for a variety of purposes that have been patented in the U.S. and worldwide. As with a number of other states, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed bill SB 362 proposed by state Senator Joe Simitian barring “employers and others from forcing people to have a radio frequency identification (RFID) device implanted under their skin” [28], [60]. According to the Californian Office of Privacy Protection [9] this bill

… would prohibit a person from requiring any other individual to undergo the subcutaneous implanting of an identification device. It would allow an aggrieved party to bring an action against a violator for injunctive relief or for the assessment of civil penalties to be determined by the court.

The bill, which went into effect January 1, 2008, did not receive support from the technology industry on the contention that it was “unnecessary.”

Interestingly, however, it is in the United States that most chip implant applications have occurred, despite the calls for caution. The first human-implantable passive RFID microchip (the VeriChipTM) was approved for medical use in October of 2004 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Nine hundred hospitals across the United States have registered the VeriChip's VeriMed system, and now the corporation's focus has moved to “patient enrollment” including people with diabetes, Alzheimer's, and dementia [14]. The VeriMedTM Patient Identification System is used for “rapidly and accurately identifying people who arrive in an emergency room and are unable to communicate” [56].

In February of 2006 [55], reported two of its employees had “glass encapsulated microchips with miniature antennas embedded in their forearms … merely a way of restricting access to vaults that held sensitive data and images for police departments, a layer of security beyond key cards and clearance codes.” Implants may soon be applied to the corrective services sector [44]. In 2002, 27 of 50 American states were using some form of satellite surveillance to monitor parolees. Similar schemes have been used in Sweden since 1994. In the majority of cases, parolees wear wireless wrist or ankle bracelets and carry small boxes containing the vital tracking and positioning technology. The positioning transmitter emits a constant signal that is monitored at a central location [33]. Despite continued claims by researchers that RFID is only used for identification purposes, Health Data Management disclosed that VeriChip (the primary commercial RFID implant patient ID provider) had enhanced its patient wander application by adding the ability to follow the “real-time location of patients, the ability to define containment areas for different classes of patients, and one-touch alerting. The system now also features the ability to track equipment in addition to patients” [19]. A number of these issues have moved the American Medical Association to produce an ethics code for RFID chip implants [4], [41], [47].

Outside the U.S., we find several applications for human-centric RFID. VeriChip's Scott Silverman stated in 2004 that 7000 chip implants had been given to distributors [57]. Today the number of VeriChip implantees worldwide is estimated to be at about 2000. So where did all these chips go? As far back as 2004, a nightclub in Barcelona, Spain [11] and Rotterdam, The Netherlands, known as the Baja Beach Club was offering “its VIP clients the opportunity to have a syringeinjected microchip implanted in their upper arms that not only [gave] them special access to VIP lounges, but also [acted] as a debit account from which they [could] pay for drinks” [39]. Microchips have also been implanted in a number of Mexican officials in the law enforcement sector [57]. “Mexico's top federal prosecutors and investigators began receiving chip implants in their arms … in order to get access to restricted areas inside the attorney general's headquarters.” In this instance, the implant acted as an access control security device despite the documented evidence that RFID is not a secure technology (see Gartner Research report [42]).

Despite the obvious issues related to security, there are a few unsolicited studies that forecast that VeriChip (now under the new corporate name Positive ID) will sell between 1 million and 1.4 million chips by 2020 [64, p. 21]. While these forecasts may seem over inflated to some researchers, one need only consider the very real possibility that some Americans may opt-in to adopting a Class II device that is implantable, life-supporting, or life-sustaining for more affordable and better quality health care (see section C of the Health Care bill titled: National Medical Device Registry [65, pp. 1001–1012]. There is also the real possibility that future pandemic outbreaks even more threatening than the H1N1 influenza, may require all citizens to become implanted for early detection depending on their travel patterns [66].

In the United Kingdom, The Guardian [58], reported that 11-year old Danielle Duval had an active chip (i.e., containing a rechargeable battery) implanted in her. Her mother believes that it is no different from tracking a stolen car, albeit for more important application. Mrs. Duvall is considering implanting her younger daughter age 7 as well but will wait until the child is a bit older, “so that she fully understands what's happening.” In Tokyo the Kyowa Corporation in 2004 manufactured a schoolbag with a GPS device fitted into it, to meet parental concerns about crime, and in 2005 Yokohama City children were involved in a four month RFID bracelet trial using the I-Safety system [53]. In 2007, Trutex, a company in Lancashire England, was seriously considering fitting the school uniforms they manufacture with RFID [31]. What might be next? Will concerned parents force microchip implants on minors?

Recently, decade-old experimental studies on microchip implants in rats have come to light tying the device to tumors [29]. The American Veterinary Medical Association [3] was so concerned that they released the following statement:

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is very concerned about recent reports and studies that have linked microchip identification implants, commonly used in dogs and cats, to cancer in dogs and laboratory animals…. In addition, removal of the chip is a more invasive procedure and not without potential complications. It's clear that there is a need for more scientific research into this technology. [emphasis added]

We see here evidence pointing to the notion of “no return” - an admittance that removal of the chip is not easy, and not without complications.

The Norplant System was a levonorgestrel contraceptive insert that over 1 million women in the United States, and over 3.6 million women worldwide had been implanted with through 1996 [2]. The implants were inserted just under the skin of the upper arm in a surgical procedure under local anesthesia and could be removed in a similar fashion. As of 1997, there were 2700 Norplant suits pending in the state and federal courts across the United States alone. Most of the claims had to do with “pain or damage associated with insertion or removal of the implants … [p]laintiffs have contended that they were not adequately warned, however, concerning the degree or severity of these events” [2]. Thus, concerns for the potential for widespread health implications caused by humancentric implants have also been around for some time. In 2003, Covacio provided evidence why implants may impact humans adversely, categorizing these into thermal (i.e., whole/partial rise in body heating), stimulation (i.e., excitation of nerves and muscles), and other effects, most of which are currently unknown [13].

Role of Emerging Technologies

Wireless networks are now commonplace. What is not yet common are formal service level agreements to hand-off transactions between different types of networks. These architectures and protocols are being developed, and it is only a matter of time before existing technologies have the capability to track individuals between indoor and outdoor locations seamlessly, or a new technology is created to do what present-day networks cannot [26]. For instance, a wristwatch device with GPS capabilities to be worn under the skin translucently is one idea that was proposed in 1998. Hengartner and Steenkiste [23] forewarn that “[l]ocation is a sensitive piece of information” and that “releasing it to random entities might pose security and privacy risks.”

There is nowhere to hide in this digital society, and nothing remains private (in due course, perhaps, not even our thoughts). Nanotechnology, the engineering of functional systems at the molecular level, is also set to change the way we perceive surveillance - microscopic bugs (some 50 000 times smaller than the width of the human hair) will be more parasitic than even the most advanced silicon-based auto-ID technologies. In the future we may be wearing hundreds of microscopic implants, each relating to an exomuscle or an exoskeleton, and which have the power to interact with literally millions of objects in the “outside world.” The question is not whether state governments will invest in this technology: they are already making these investments [40]. There is a question whether the next generation will view this technology as super “cool” and convenient and opt-in without comprehending the consequences of their compliance.

The social implications of these über-intrusive technologies will obey few limits and no political borders. They will affect our day-to-day existence and our family and community relations. They will give rise to mental health problems, even more complex forms of paranoia and obsessive compulsive disorder. Many scholars now agree that with the support of modern neuroscience, “the intimate relation between bodily and psychic functions is basic to our personal identity” [45, p. 3]. Religious observances will be affected; for example, in the practice of confession and a particular understanding of absolution from “sin” - people might confess as much as they might want, but the records on the database, the slate, will not be wiped clean. The list of social implications is limited only by our imaginations. The peeping Tom that we carry on the inside will have manifest consequences for that which philosophers and theologians normally term self-consciousness.

Paradoxical Levels of Überveillance

In all of these factors rests the multiple paradoxical levels of überveillance. In the first instance, it will be one of the great blunders of the new political order to think that chip implants (or indeed nanodevices) will provide the last inch of detail required to know where a person is, what they are doing, and what they are thinking. Authentic ambient context will always be lacking, and this could further aggravate potential “puppeteers” of any comprehensive surveillance system. Marcus Wigan captures this critical facet of context when he speaks of “asymmetric information held by third parties.” Second, chip implants will not necessarily make a person smarter or more aware (unless someone can afford chip implants that have that effect), but on the contrary and under the “right” circumstances may make us increasingly unaware and mute. Third, chip implants are not the panacea they are made out to be - they can fail, they can be stolen, they are not tamper-proof, and they may cause harmful effects to the body. They are a foreign object and their primary function is to relate to the outside world not to the body itself (as in the case of pacemakers and cochlear implants). Fourth, chip implants at present do not give a person greater control over her space, but allow for others to control and to decrease the individual's autonomy and as a result decrease interpersonal trust at both societal and state levels. Trust is inexorably linked to both metaphysical and moral freedom. Therefore the naive position routinely heard in the public domain that if you have “nothing to hide, why worry?” misses the point entirely. Fifth, chip implants will create a presently unimaginable digital divide - we are not referring to computer access here, or Internet access, but access to another mode of existence. The “haves” (implantees) and the “have-nots” (non-implantees) will not be on speaking terms; perhaps this suggests a fresh interpretation to the biblical tower of Babel (Gen. 11:9).

In the scenario, where a universal ID is instituted, unless the implant is removed within its prescribed time, the body will adopt the foreign object and tie it to tissue. At this moment, there will be no exit strategy and no contingency plan; it will be a life sentence to upgrades, virus protection mechanisms, and inescapable intrusion. Imagine a working situation where your computer - the one that stores all your personal data - has been hit by a worm, and becomes increasingly inoperable and subject to overflow errors and connectivity problems. Now imagine the same thing happening with an embedded implant. There would be little choice other than to upgrade or to opt out of the networked world altogether.

A decisive step towards überveillance will be a unique and “non-refundable” identification number (ID). The universal drive to provide us all with cradle-to-grave unique lifetime identifiers (ULIs), which will replace our names, is gaining increasing momentum, especially after September 11. Philosophers have have argued that names are the signification of identity and origin; our names possess both sense and reference [24, p. 602f]. Two of the twentieth century's greatest political consciences (one who survived the Stalinist purges and the other the holocaust), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Primo Levi, have warned us of the connection between murderous regimes and the numbering of individuals. It is far easier to extinguish an individual if you are rubbing out a number rather than a life history.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recounts in The Gulag Archipelago (1918–56), (2007, p. 346f):

[Corrective Labor Camps] quite blatantly borrowed from the Nazis a practice which had proved valuable to them - the substitution of a number for the prisoner's name, his “I”, his human individuality, so that the difference between one man and another was a digit more or less in an otherwise identical row of figures … [i]f you remember all this, it may not surprise you to hear that making him wear numbers was the most hurtful and effective way of damaging a prisoner's self-respect.

Primo Levi writes similarly in his own well-known account of the human condition in The Drowned and the Saved (1989, p. 94f):

Altogether different is what must be said about the tattoo [the number], an altogether autochthonous Auschwitzian invention … [t]he operation was not very painful and lasted no more than a minute, but it was traumatic. Its symbolic meaning was clear to everyone: this is an indelible mark, you will never leave here; this is the mark with which slaves are branded and cattle sent to the slaughter, and this is what you have become. You no longer have a name; this is your new name.

And many centuries before both Solzhenitsyn and Levi were to become acknowledged as two of the greatest political consciences of our times, an exile on the isle of Patmos - during the reign of the Emperor Domitian - referred to the abuses of the emperor cult which was practiced in Asia Minor away from the more sophisticated population of Rome [37, pp. 176–196]. He was Saint John the Evangelist, commonly recognized as the author of the Book of Revelation (c. A.D. 95):

16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty-six (Rev 13:16–18) [RSV, 1973].

The technological infrastructures—the software, the middleware, and the hardware for ULIs—are readily available to support a diverse range of humancentric applications, and increasingly those embedded technologies which will eventually support überveillance. Multi-national corporations, particularly those involved in telecommunications, banking, and health are investing millions (expecting literally billions in return) in identifiable technologies that have a tracking capability. At the same time the media, which in some cases may yield more sway with people than government institutions themselves, squanders its influence and is not intelligently challenging the automatic identification (auto-ID) trajectory. As if in chorus, blockbuster productions from Hollywood are playing up all forms of biometrics as not only hip and smart, but also as unavoidable mini-device fashion accessories for the upwardly mobile and attractive. Advertising plays a dominant role in this cultural tech-rap. Advertisers are well aware that the market is literally limitless and demographically accessible at all levels (and more tantalizingly from cradle-to-grave consumers). Our culture, which in previous generations was for the better part the vanguard against most things detrimental to our collective well-being, is dangerously close to bankrupt (it already is idol worshipping) and has progressively become fecund territory for whatever idiocy might take our fancy. Carl Bernstein [7] captured the atmosphere of recent times very well:

We are in the process of creating what deserves to be called the idiot culture. Not an idiot sub-culture, which every society has bubbling beneath the surface and which can provide harmless fun; but the culture itself. For the first time the weird and the stupid and the coarse are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal.

Despite the technological fixation with which most of the world is engaged, there is a perceptible mood of a collective disquiet that something is not as it should be. In the face of that, this self-deception of “wellness” is not only taking a stronger hold on us, but it is also being rationalized and deconstructed on many levels. We must break free of this dangerous daydream to make out the cracks that have already started to appear on the gold tinted rim of this seeming 21st century utopia. The machine, the new technicized “gulag archipelago” is ever pitiless and without conscience. It can crush bones, break spirits, and rip out hearts without pausing.

The authors of this article are not anti-government; nor are they conspiracy theorists (though we now know better than to rule out all conspiracy theories). Nor do they believe that these dark scenarios are inevitable. But we do believe that we are close to the point of no return. Others believe that point is much closer [1]. It remains for individuals to speak up and argue for, and to demand regulation, as has happened in several states in the United States where Acts have been established to avoid microchipping without an individual's consent, i.e., compulsory electronic tagging of citizens. Our politicians for a number of reasons will not legislate on this issue of their own accord, with some few exceptions. It would involve multifaceted industry and absorb too much of their time, and there is the fear they might be labelled anti-technology or worse still, failing to do all that they can to fight against “terror.” This is one of the components of the modern-day Realpolitik, which in its push for a transparent society is bulldozing ahead without any true sensibility for the richness, fullness, and sensitivity of the undergrowth. As an actively engaged community, as a body of concerned researchers with an ecumenical conscience and voice, we can make a difference by postponing or even avoiding some of the doomsday scenario outlined here.

Finally, the authors would like to underscore three main points. First, nowhere is it suggested in this paper that medical prosthetic or therapeutic devices are not welcome technological innovations. Second, the positions, projections, and beliefs expressed in this summary do not necessarily reflect the positions, projections, and beliefs of the individual contributors to this special section. And third the authors of the papers do embrace all that which is vital and dynamic with technology, but reject its rampant application and diffusion without studied consideration as to the potential effects and consequences.


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IEEE Keywords: Implants, TV, Data systems, National security, Pressing, Engines, Condition monitoring, Circuits,Feeds, Databases

Citation: M.G. Michael, Katina Michael, Toward a State of Überveillance, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine ( Volume: 29, Issue: 2, Summer 2010 ), pp. 9 - 16, Date of Publication: 01 June 2010, DOI: 10.1109/MTS.2010.937024