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Traveling Under the Watchful Eyes of the Big Brotherhood

Posted by hansmuller on June 16, 2003 at 8:05 AM PDT

I'm in Dublin Ireland this week for the
GNOME Users and Developers
Conference
(GUADEC, pronounced "gua-dac"). It's a long way from Santa
Clara California, not just in terms of hours and miles but in terms of
queues and security checkpoints. Security has been tightened at
airports by scanning luggage and people and shoes and by repeatedly
checking one's boarding pass and photo ID.

Within the last couple of a months a proposal to enhance security at
government sites by installing tens of thousands of web cams and
deploying an army of eyeballs to watch them (from home!) has been href="http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/internet/05/22/cams.homeland.ap/">
widely reported. Most reports come with a subtitle like "Is this
nuts or what?", however I have to admit to finding the idea
intriguing. Despite 25 years of computer vision research, the human
visual system is still the most effective way to distinguish an image
of an intruder at the border of some restricted area from a deer or a
tumbleweed or the wind and shadows. Webcams are cheap and, in theory,
there's a Big Brotherhood Eyeball Workforce eagerly waiting to watch
them.

Back in the 1960s Peter Graves' Impossible Mission force wouldn't have
thought twice about penetrating a security system that required one to
fabricate a photo-ID and a paper boarding pass. I can't imagine that
modern bad guys would find the problem any more difficult. On this
trip to Dublin, while I was waiting to have my papers checked, I
thought about how one could apply RFID and The Brotherhood to the
problem. RFID is "Radio
Frequency Identification"
a technology that's used for tracking
individual products (like cans of beans) or packages or cattle. An
inexpensive - about 5 cents - chip is attached to a paper tag along
with a tiny anttena coil. An RFID reader hits the tag's antenna with
a radio signal which powers up the chip and causes it to transmit it's
unique 64 bit ID number.

So here's the idea. Make a digital photograph of every passenger when
they first arrive at the airport and give each passenger a RFID
transponder card. That initial check-in would be the only time the
passenger would need to show their photo-ID, although aiport might
make a photograph of that too, to enable a double check. Security
people manning checkpoints with RFID readers would see each
passenger's picture along with their ticket information. So passengers
wouldn't have to repeatedly fumble for ID's and boarding passes. The
passenger images would only be hours to minutes old, so checking would
be much easier than eyeballing a 10 year old passport photo. RFID
cards are cheap, likewise for database entries.

Once you've got a system that can passively identify passengers
and is armed with a picture of every one of them, the job of watching
would be easy to deploy on the net. The same eyeball army that might
watch the fences at secure government sites, could also be employed
matching faces at airport checkpoints or even on security cameras
monitoring the wide open spaces within the air transportation system.
Gadget freaks should find comfort in the fact that security guards
could use PDAs (even their mobile phones!) to keep tabs on the flow of
faces.

There are plenty of reasons why this would never work. The physical
and software infrastructure problems are considerable. Although
there's nothing fundamentally technically challenging about creating a
system that stores ticket info and picture or two keyed by a
dynamically allocated ID, it's easy to imagine the project being
hamstrung by mundane problems like cabling, mounting web cameras, even
getting passengers to hold still for a minute. And those problems
pale by comparison to the privacy issue cyclone that such a system
would inspire.

So I'm here at GUADEC and in case you haven't guessed, jet lag has me
up early enough in the morning to record this lunacy. While I'm here,
I hope to talk with GNOME developers about the prospects building more
GNOME desktop applications in Java and for extending same in Java.
The GNOME 2.2 release includes a bunch of new integration points for
extending Nautilus and the Panel, I'm also hoping to develop a better
understanding of how Java might be used in that context and with the
venerable Bonobo component infrastructure. Java is widely used on
Linux, more than any other language per a recent IDC report. In terms
of Linux desktops, notably GNOME desktops, it's harder to say how
prevalent Java is - since the whole point is creating applications
that are not specific to any platform. By the end of this week's
GUADEC conference, I hope to have a better feel for how well Java is
working for GNOME.

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