You just got a call that your sister is in critical condition in the hospital, so you jump in your car and hit the gas. Trouble is, the speed limit is 30 miles per hour, and your car won't let you drive any faster. Or maybe you're lucky enough to have a vehicle that still lets you drive at the speed you choose. A cop pulls you over and demands a saliva sample, so he can instantly match your DNA to a data bank of criminals' genes. You refuse, and are arrested. After booking you, the authorities force you to submit to "brain fingerprinting," a technology that can tell if memories of illegal events are in your mind.
By this point, you're thinking this is a worst-case scenario, a science-fiction dystopia. Well, wake up and smell the police state, because all of this technologyand moreis already being implemented.
Britain is funding trials of "speed limiters," which track your car's whereabouts via Global Positioning Satellites, then refuse to let you drive faster than the limit for that stretch of road. Results from initial trials, according to the Guardian of London, were so promising the government is forking over money for more research, with an eye toward fitting all cars in Britain with speed limiters by 2006.
"Law enforcement technology developed in any country will soon be deployed in all countries," says reporter Jim Redden, author of Snitch Culture: How Citizens Are Turned Into the Eyes and Ears of the State. "If speed limiters work in England, we'll see them here before too long. My understanding is that the [U.S.] government is currently looking at requiring carmakers to install computer chips which would allow the police to remotely shut off any car's motor."
And what about roadside DNA tests? The New York City Police Department has expressed interest in the mobile kits from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, of Cambridge, Massachusetts. They're expected to hit the market within two years.
U.S. police already have a sneaky new breathalyzer that can measure your blood-alcohol level without your knowledge. The PSA III Sniffer is built into flashlights, which are routinely shone in drivers' faces during nighttime traffic stops. "All you have to do is breathe once, and, without so much as a search warrant or a warning, police can administer a drunk-driving test that is unreliable, underhanded, and unconstitutional," warns Steve Dasbach, national director of the Libertarian Party. No probable cause. No consent. And no guarantee of accuracy. "According to some tests, the PSA III Sniffer generates false positive readings from 20 percent to 75 percent of the time." The Sniffer can also get confused by an alcoholic beverage spilled in your caror by mouthwash, cologne, and perfume.
Still, having your breath secretly analyzed might be better than having your mind violated by brain fingerprinting. This technology, developed by former Harvard neuroscientist Lawrence Farwell, is based on the theory that your gray matter lets loose with distinctive brainwaves when presented with details of something you've done, whether a crime or a chore. Farwell says the process is 100 percent accurate, a claim disputed by other scientists; an Iowa judge will soon be ruling on the technique's admissibility in court.
Even if it works as advertised, this technology raises hard questions. How much weight will be given to brain fingerprinting evidence? Could you be convicted solely because your brainwaves spiked on some key words? Farwell's Web site (www.brainwavescience.com) ominously mentions the possibility of corporations using the technology. You already have to give your bosses a vial of piss whenever they ask. Are you going to have to let them strap electrodes to your head and peer into your brain?
If you get a creepy sensation of being intensely observed when you go through airports, it's not your paranoid, fingerprinted brain playing tricks on you. Many American airports are using an experimental machine that scans passengers' boarding passes and other documents they've handled for trace amounts of explosives and drugs. The same company that makes the document scanner is almost ready to unveil a walk-through version that will detect forbidden molecules on your body and clothing. And what about those times when an alarm goes off because it detected the nitroglycerin you use for your heart or the poppy-seed bagel you had for lunch? Well, you'll probably be allowed to board your flight after a body-cavity search.
People doing something as innocent as going to this year's Super Bowl later learned they were videotapedall 100,000 of themas they went through the turnstiles. Face-matching software then compared each image to a database of mug shots maintained by the FBI and other agencies. As usual in this type of situation, authorities claim the digital portraits have been properly deleted.
Those of you who try to stay one step ahead of the police state shouldn't get too cocky just because you use PGP or some other bullet-proof encryption on your e-mail and sensitive files. In a federal racketeering trial in New Jersey, the FBI recently introduced evidence obtained through a keystroke-logging device, a small piece of hardware that captures everything typed on a keyboardeven characters you delete. After breaking into the suspect's home and installing the device, the feds were able to get his PGP password and traipse through his files. "Anything he typed on that keyboarda letter to his lawyer, personal or medical records, legitimate business recordsthey got it all," his lawyer told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
New Scientist magazine recently provided confirmation of another Big Brother technology"X-ray vision spray." Just spritz some on an envelope, and you can read what's inside. Fifteen minutes later, the James Bond-ian gunk has dried, leaving no trace of tampering. The company that developed it assures us that it will only sell "See-Through" to law enforcement agencies, as if that were a comforting thought.
And this is only the beginning. Author Redden lists a stream of devices with disturbing powers. Heat-detecting devices look through walls for marijuana grow-lights. The Federal Intrusion Detection Network, now in development, will search the Web for criminal activity. "And let's not forget Digital Angel," he says, "the patented microchip that can be placed under the skin and traced by GPS satelliteseven after you're dead."
Remember, these are just the tools that have been reported. "The FBI had been using Carnivore for over a year before the press stumbled onto it," Redden says, referring to the government system that can secretly scan and store all e-mail sent or received by a person being targeted. "A year is many lifetimes in today's technology market. We're probably already being watched by the 10th-generation Carnivore and don't have a clue."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.
- New York City's Food Pantries Are Struggling to Keep Up With a Growing Demand For Meals
Sat., Nov. 28, 12:00am
Sat., Nov. 28, 12:00pm
Sat., Nov. 28, 1:30pm
Sat., Nov. 28, 7:30pm
- As Islamophobic Rhetoric Gets Louder, NYC Muslims Fear for Their Mosques
- Forget Big Chain Theaters — Watch Movies at These Cool NYC Spots Instead