Big Brother Gets a Brain

The Pentagon's Plan for Tracking Everything That Moves

Still, watching your data trail just isn't the same as actually watching your physical tail. You can change your e-mail address, and start paying cash. But you can't run away from yourself. And that's the missing piece CTS could provide—an almost instant ability to track, moment by moment, where you are and what you're doing.

"Before, there was a reasonable expectation of privacy when you were walking down the street," Lewis said. "Now that's something that will have to be adjusted."

That's not all that will change. As everybody who's ever mugged for the camera knows, people act differently when they're being watched.

Illustration by Richard Borge
Illustration by Richard Borge


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Sometimes, that's not such a bad thing. Web-surfing habits are monitored on the job, so you wait until you're home to download porn. On the street, you can be a little less skittish, knowing your neighbors, your beat cops, your corner store owners are keeping an eye on you.

But being watched by a faceless, inaccessible government minder, that's something altogether different.

In 1791, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed a jail, circular in shape. The warden would sit in a dark observation booth in the middle; the prisoners would sit in well-lit, inward-facing cells along the circumference. Under the constant threat of being watched, the jailed would change their behavior, Bentham theorized, bending their activities to the warden's rules.

Two centuries later, England has 2.5 million security cameras spread throughout the country, by some estimates. Several cities, like the port town of King's Lynn, are covered by the lenses.

"It's exactly what Bentham predicted," said Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, a British civil liberties group. "The kids there are giving up going onto the street. They say it's almost like being in a glass-paneled room, with their parents on the other side. They're forced into smaller and smaller areas so they can be kids in private."

Putting people under electronic watch induces a kind of split personality, said Bill Brown, who leads tours of Manhattan's spy cams as part of his duties with the Surveillance Camera Players. The authorities want people to obey the law, to behave rationally. But video surveillance does the exact opposite. It makes people feel—correctly—like they're constantly being watched, like they're paranoid.

"And that's not a rational state at all," Brown said. "It's a mental condition."

Stalin and Saddam did their best. They tried hard to keep under surveillance as many of their citizens as they could. But these efforts could never succeed completely. There was always a "fundamental barrier—the ratio of watchers to the watched," said John Pike of

"You couldn't have everybody working for the secret police," he continued. "The thing that's so singularly seductive about automatic video surveillance is that it breaks that fundamental barrier down."

CTS will keep watch by equipping each camera with a processor, like the one in your computer. The chips will have programmed into them "video understanding algorithms" that can distinguish one car from another. At each checkpoint, the car's speed, time of arrival, color, size, license plate, and shape are all instantly passed on to a central server. If the early tests identifying cars go well, software that recognizes a person's face and style of walk could also be added.

By sharing only this refined data—instead of the raw video itself—CTS should keep fragile computer networks from becoming overloaded with hours and hours of meaningless footage. Everybody knows how much of a pain it can be to get a video clip in your e-mail inbox, instead of a simple text message. Now imagine how much worse the problem would get if thousands and thousands of such clips were being sent back and forth, all day, every day. CTS would help government networks avoid that burden, with each camera transmitting a mere 8 kilobits per second, instead of the 200 or so kilobits needed for high-resolution video.

CTS would also keep the snoops who stare at the monitors from being overwhelmed. "We have enough cameras, but not enough people to watch the video feeds," said Tom Strat, who's heading up CTS for DARPA's Information Exploitation Office.

If all's well, CTS cameras might send back to headquarters only basic data or the occasional low-resolution image. But when there's something fishy going down—like a car speeding away unexpectedly, or a briefcase left in a train station—the images could come sharper, and more quickly. Proto-CTS programs from contractors Northrop Grumman and the Sarnoff Corporation would interrupt the gray monotony of surveillance footage, setting red boxes aflash around the suspect person or object.

"It focuses your attention right there," said Bruce De Witte of Northrop.

But CTS would do more than change what investigators see. It would also give them a record of everything that happens in a city's public places, potential evidence for prosecutors and terrorist hunters.

In its presentation to industry, DARPA said it wanted CTS to be able to find the common threads between a shooting at a bus stop one month and a bombing at a disco the next.

In theory, CTS could take an inventory of all of the cars around the bus stop and near the disco immediately before and after the incidents. Then it could examine where those cars went, to see if there were any vehicles in common—or if a car acted as a sort of messenger between two others.

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