Skip to main content

On the fourth anniversary of 9/11, the world not only recalls the carnage, it also finds itself face to face with the social and technological changes that the terrorist attacks began. The biggest of these -- arguably more important than any military issue -- is surveillance. Whoever you are, wherever you are, at any given moment some friend or foe may be watching you. That's today's reality.

We take some surveillance for granted. Airplanes and satellites with remote-sensing equipment constantly fly over Canada to monitor pollutants and illegal fishing, enforce Arctic sovereignty and inspect our territory for the movement of illegal goods.

Yet the main target of Big Brother is not acreage, but people. Personal surveillance is of two kinds, public and private. Public surveillance covers people and organizations that the state deems to be a real or potential danger. Private surveillance covers threats that an individual fears.

Story continues below advertisement

Although public surveillance has many times the scope of private surveillance, the two realms' technologies constantly overlap: The same devices may entrap the frisky husband and the errant embassy official.

Both spies and private detectives may use infrared cameras to show the incontrovertible heat signature of a companion lurking in a bed somebody swears he occupied alone all night. That image can be seen even if Mr. or Ms. X left the premises several hours ago.

Other spies use parabolic microphones to eavesdrop on a conversation from 100 metres or more. A three-dimensional shape called a paraboloid concentrates incoming sound wave fronts to a single point, called the focus. Locate a sensitive condenser microphone there, and you have an ear the size of an elephant's, permitting an analyst to transcribe illicit plots, conspiracies or love talk.

Are the plotters behind closed windows? No problem. New technology can extract human speech from the longitudinal vibrations transmitted through two panes of intervening glass. Loose lips not only sink careers, business deals and marriages, sometimes they imperil nations.

Long before 9/11, the big powers used science to spy on one another. And when the spymasters exhausted available technologies, they had their boffins develop new ones.

During the U.S. Civil War, observers in tethered balloons photographed enemy emplacements from 300 metres aloft. During the First World War, French physicists developed ways to eavesdrop on telegraph messages without physical links, via induced electrical fields. During the Second World War, abstract mathematics broke German codes.

Today's technology goes far beyond these first tentative steps. In Japan's government laboratories in Tsukuba, an hour's drive northeast of Tokyo, Dr. Takeshi Sasaki has developed trace-chemical detectors 20 nanometres -- one fifty-thousandth of a millimetre -- in diameter.

Story continues below advertisement

"These devices are not a miniaturization of the bench-top gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers used in labs," he says. "They are unique materials, each nano-engineered to detect one specific substance."

One of Dr. Sasaki's materials, made by directed self-assembly of cobalt oxide and silicon dioxide, is honeycombed with passageways three nanometres -- the width of a single strand of DNA -- in diameter. He calls these tiny tunnels nanopores. "Gas molecules of a specific type infiltrate the nanopores, reacting with receptor molecules built into the sides of the tunnels only a billionth of a metre beneath the material's surface," he explains.

Dr. Sasaki says the technology may soon mature into a rugged, accurate detector for trace molecules emitted by illegal drugs or explosives. This ultra-thin sensor would be as easy to use as litmus paper, and would be almost undetectable.

Nanotechnology, an emerging technology of extreme miniaturization, is being pressed into service to develop surveillance beyond anything in use today.

Rumours have begun to circulate among nanotechnologists that the U.S. Defence Advanced Research Project Agency has funded initial research into a "digital insect." This mobile, autonomous snoop would combine photo-rechargeable batteries with nanosensors for sound, infrared light and visible light, plus molecular detectors like those being developed by Tsukuba's Dr. Sasaki. On command, the tiny platform would "narrowcast" its findings in a digital microburst to a receiving station.

Development would proceed in stages, from bird-sized through bumblebee-sized to something nearly as small as a gnat. Such micro-snoops would be able to go anywhere unseen. The term "bug" certainly applies.

Story continues below advertisement

On a larger scale, imaging and recording technology has been mass-produced, micro-miniaturized and cost-reduced to such an extent that high-quality surveillance is now universal.

The Canadian military, always apt with an acronym, calls this technology COTS, for "commercial off the shelf." A key subcomponent is the "charge-coupled device," or CCD, a specialized microchip developed to record the faint trickle of photons from faraway stars. The device looks like a chessboard, with a grid of tiny light-sensitive squares. When polled by a central processor, the elements output their recorded light; the processor then turns this into images.

The military long ago put CCDs into its "eyes in the sky." Some analysts believe that spy satellites can resolve visible images to 10 centimetres, which would read individual licence plates or spot an unshaven man's beard. Going by the public-domain specs of space probes such as the Mars Orbiters, and by the conservative assumption that military technology exceeds anything in the private sector, such tales would seem more truth than myth.

Variants of the CCD have found their way into consumer goods -- digital still cameras, videocams and imaging cellphones. They also enable the public-surveillance cameras that increasingly infest our world. These catch us walking, talking, shopping, eating, banking and occasionally committing crimes.

The science and technology of surveillance extends beyond electronics and nanotech to sociology. For example, surveillance has spawned a low-level popular response called "sousveillance," whose self-assigned role is to "out the cams."

In Manhattan, a cheerful group of anarchists called the NYSCP (New York Surveillance Camera Players) detects hidden eyes on sign poles and light standards, then mugs before them in an attempt to embarrass their human monitors. Unfortunately, this may defeat the NYSCP's aim of discombobulating the human component of surveillance: Anything that relieves the tedium of staring at monitors probably pleases the watcher.

Story continues below advertisement

The group feels impelled to its performance art because, surprisingly, the American Civil Liberties Union has no objection to surveillance cameras in public places. "It is unreasonable to expect privacy in community locales," the ACLU says.

It's an interesting argument. Jane Jacobs, the world-famous urban scientist who makes Toronto her home, defines a safe city as "one that has eyes on the street." In other words, a watched area is a safe area.

And what difference is there between a neighbour's eyes and a video camera? In terms of human rights, might people's right to safety trump their right to privacy?

NYSCP's members consider the ACLU a toothless watchdog of civil liberties, and they and other private individuals persist in making their point.

A recent civil suit against Atlanta police alleges that while watching closed-circuit TV screens showing nothing but peace, order and good government, the defendant security officials grew so bored with the absence of crime that they turned their cameras on good-looking female Atlantans.

One young female, noticing the cameras trained on her, ripped off her top and flashed her breasts at the observers. Authorities charged her with lewd behaviour in a public place, but steadfastly refused to prosecute, or even to identify, the men who violated her privacy.

Story continues below advertisement

One of the more compelling components of the surveillance issue is not new government inquiries into citizens' public and personal lives, but a belated recognition of how deeply the snoops had been burrowing before 9/11. The terrorist attacks simply threw light on a worrisome, existing situation.

Consider Echelon, an all-but-omnipotent system established three decades ago by the U.S. National Security Agency.

Echelon's raison d'être is nothing less than monitoring every telephone call made in Europe or North America for keywords deemed important to U.S. security.

Echelon's tendrils extend far beyond the United States. Every trunk line in Britain's telephone system goes through an Echelon emplacement, a fact revealed in public testimony by a senior officer in British Telecom.

(Afterward, he was roundly rebuked by a High Court judge for his loose lips.)

Besides Britain, Echelon participants include New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

Story continues below advertisement

In the 1970s, U.S. senator Frank Church said: "[Echelon]at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such [is]the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back."

Political elites allegedly have already used Echelon for personal vendettas.

When prime minister Margaret Thatcher suspected two of her cabinet ministers of disloyalty, she reportedly had Echelon bug the suspects' phone calls. The two were caught red-handed, and dismissed.

In the United States, it has been alleged that the telephone conversations of senior politicians, including senator Strom Thurmond, have been recorded.

Still, there's more to surveillance than scare stories. Every system can mess up, and the biggest systems often mess up most.

Mike Frost, a former employee of Canada's Communications Security Establishment, maintains that in 1981, a serendipitous Canadian intercept of a foreign ambassador's conversation revealed a huge grain deal that the ambassador's country was about to close.

Using its inside knowledge, he says, Canada quietly caught its competitor flat-footed and won a wheat contract worth nearly $4-billion in today's money, he says.

The public realm isn't the only one with horror stories: Private surveillance can be just as spooky. Dozens of companies offer employers Dial-a-Snoop, software that lets their clients check warehouses and cubicles (and the employees therein) from cellphones 24/7. Spouses track each other through private investigators. Parents spy on their children's caregivers through "nanny-cams" disguised as statues, flower arrangements, or books.

There's an interesting footnote to this. Using inexpensive, readily available COTS technology, a U.S. journalist recently cruised the streets of a prosperous, lily-white suburb in an unmarked van. From inside his vehicle, he was able to pick up every nanny-cam signal: The houses he passed were broadcasting sound and video to him. The nanny-cams, installed to increase security, were unwittingly sending intimate household details to the world.

In fact, it's probably time for a thorough public debate on surveillance. Those who use it quote Edmund Burke that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance." Those who think Big Brother has gone more than far enough say the same thing, but their vigilance is on the invigilators, guarding us from our self-appointed guardians.

Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and the Canada Research Chair for electronic commerce and Internet law, is particularly concerned about legislation being considered by the federal government that would effectively lay open the entire Net to covert surveillance.

"Not only does the proposal . . . create new surveillance powers, but it actually reduces the level of privacy protection and oversight associated with that surveillance," Dr. Geist says.

"One proposal floated in the spring would require ISPs [internet service providers]to disclose subscriber information within 30 minutes to law-enforcement authorities on a 24-hour, seven-day-per- week basis. Incredibly, law-enforcement authorities could make such a request with only a phone call under certain circumstances."

How would Dr. Geist sum up this all-embracing proposal? It's simple, he says. "No judicial oversight. No advance paperwork. No privacy."

William Illsey Atkinson, a frequent contributor to The Globe and Mail on science and technology, is writing a book for Doubleday on video games' effects on the human brain.

Report an error
Tickers mentioned in this story
Unchecking box will stop auto data updates
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter
To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies