The Journal of
Cognitive Liberties

This article is from Vol. 2, Issue No. 3 pages 55-67
All rights reserved worldwide.  ISSN: 1527-3946





On The Use and Proliferation
Advanced Surveillance Systems

Patrick Gunkel

No matter how hard or even disturbing it may be for us to do so, it is important for all of us to try to visualize in advance—from a broad, imaginative, and philosophical perspective—what such Pandoran technology and socio-political innovations as this may be and mean, so that we can keep them from happening in an insidious way, through inattention or naiveté, for simple reasons of efficiency or in response to the narrow interests of certain parties, or because of the pernicious fallacy that everything that becomes practical should also be welcomed by society.

After rotating all aspects of this issue in my mind, in a neutral, fair, and technically knowledgeable way, my own thoughtful conclusion is that the employment of facial recognition technology in our society in the future for most, though not all, police purposes, would be imprudent and should be opposed, simply owing to the extreme risk-to-benefits ratio associated with it, the myriad dangers it would pose for the country over the long term, and the grave injury it would do to basic American ideals, and to a subtle but crucial form of privacy. It is not a possibility, it is an inevitability, that once this sort of technology is implemented it will be used in ever widening ways until the limits of its applicability have been reached.

The second thing to be kept in mind is the reality that the forms of technology that can and will be created in the future for identification, surveillance, and control of populations will be fantastically diverse and sophisticated.

The third thing to keep in mind, or to ponder now, is that the variety of ways in which such technology can be abused, and will be abused if the opportunities are not denied to governments and other organizations, later or preferably now by preclusion, are also extraordinarily diverse, and that it is the sum of these, and their consequences for the proper relation of the State to the Citizens who are its sole reason for existing, that is the one thing that must be considered in advance, because it is the greater danger or the real threat to human freedom and our way of life.

In effect, you and I hold the future in trust. It is in our power to protect it or to give it away through a lack of imagination, care, and responsibility.

On Police Monomania and Facial Recognition Systems

To place this issue in perspective, the face recognition technology for use by police for general identification and surveillance of citizens that is under discussion was created in England. I was watching a news story about it a few days ago on the BBC.

What astonished me, as an MIT neuroscientist with a particular interest in visual pattern recognition, was the supposed capacity of this system in the English case. It was said to be able to recognize 50 million faces per second. What immediately flashed through my mind was that this is roughly the total population of England.

What is therefore ultimately implicit in this heinous technology is the ability of a government to monitor the identity and whereabouts of every single citizen of a country from second to second. It is said that in London, where of course a constant threat from the Irish Republican Army exists, there are already of the order of 500 video cameras for the identification of people per square kilometer (an interesting figure to scale-up for the total area of the vast metropolis of Greater London). But what one sees here, in a far more general way, is the danger to all of us from what now is a common disease, notably in government and public policy. I am referring to monomania, in the sense of the forgetful and destructive obsession of some institution, social group, or individual with a single concern to the exclusion of all others and typically with a blind disregard for the harm that can easily result from such pathological single-mindedness, a condition in which it may seem that all the universe is reducible to one narrow matter, and that the lives of all of us depend upon it.

I suggest that such political and social monomania, with its egregious philosophical imbalances, is the real Devil that all of us need to be wary of, and constantly on the watch for and determinedly opposed to, if we are to keep this world sensible and sane.


On The Paramount Need For Psychological Privacy

I have no objection to face recognition technology being used by the police, in appropriate ways; on the contrary, I approve of it.

What I would tentatively proscribe is the creation and use of a massive automated face recognition system with ubiquitous cameras for constantly monitoring the whereabouts and identities of the general population on our streets or outdoors across the country; either its use to monitor, or to be able to monitor in an instant ad libitum a particular person, or, far more horrendously, vast numbers of, or literally all, people simultaneously. No one has access to or has built such a network as yet, and, tentatively, I would say that none of us ever should. The psychic need for privacy, for not being watched or watchable at all times by others (even by unmanned robots), has a profound evolutionary, paleopsychic, and neurological basis, that is essentially inalterable and should be inviolable.

If I was able to observe you at any time I wished, or merely in your public peregrinations, you would sooner or later, if not even ab initio, feel anxious, self-conscious, angry, insecure; you would sense an interference in your life, be distracted, and feel uncertain what it all meant, was being used for, could lead to, or who or who all was doing it. Such an intrusion would be particularly bothersome to certain classes of people: the neurotic, mentally ill, persons liable to develop such an illness as a result such mass surveillance, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, paranoia, or simply a vivid and active imagination, physically homely, ugly, or unsightly people, persons of great physical beauty or sexual attractiveness, the elderly, etc.

Many people who were subjected to such a system for omnipresent spying upon their public and even some of their private moments (even as mere citizens), would ultimately be driven to attack or to try to subvert it, or to punish those who ran it or might use it. Indeed, such a bizarre network of cameras and perhaps even microphones—a common element of science fiction stories about crazy dystopias and totalitarian states—could easily, or might inevitably, fertilize mass paranoia. Many persons and groups would be tempted to break into, or to become part of, or a high officer in, such a system, variously in order to use it for their own petty, retaliatory, vindictive, manipulative, or criminal purposes, or for political gain or personal power. Many others would simply regard the technical or personal problems resented by trying to gain access to such a mysterious, secret, powerful, and forbidden system, or by an attempt to cripple or thwart it, as being an absolutely irresistible challenge or amusement.

It is disturbingly, and in fact dangerously, impossible to foresee all the (near infinity of) possible uses and abuses that such a general system might sooner or later lead to.


On The Human Mind, 
Evolution, and Omnipresent Surveillance

The human or animal brain was designed by biological evolution so that such animals could and would be in states of vigilance to constantly search for, detect, characterize, and counter-observe any and all creatures who might be watching them (from the dark, brush, cliffside, overhead trees, flank, rear, air, a great distance, etc) or who might be predators they are being stalked by (or who might detect or attack them at a later time).

Predators themselves needed to be vigilant, not just to uncover prey but to detect and counter their own detection and monitoring by potential or stalked prey. Parents of young animals had to be on guard.

As a result of all of this fierce and interminable evolutionary training, experience, natural selection, specialization, and competition, parents and potential prey have acquired instincts—or acute, hyperactive, deeply emotional, and highest-priority brain mechanisms—to insure privacy, invisibility, security, invulnerability, etc.

In short, you and I are not so much human beings as animals with a patina of higher knowledge, intelligence, and training superimposed upon our ancient emotional and instinctive core. And it is this primitive core of our evolutionary being which will be aroused, disturbed, and offended by the future omnipresence of mechanical busybodies and trackers, the equivalent of ten or even a hundred million surrogate policemen, or a government that wishes or demands to know everything about everybody whenever they take a walk, drive a car, walk in or out of a door, meet an acquaintance, purchase an item; or, for that matter, use a computer, make a telephone call, talk in a public place, try on clothes in a haberdasher's, shout too loud, enter a subway or board a bus, buy lunch in a diner, walk into a public toilet, pass by a school, enter a courthouse, rent an apartment or purchase a house, go to a football stadium, attend a public meeting, join a political protest, or reach into their pocket for a handkerchief, cross state lines or leave or enter a city, go to see a doctor, buy a slingshot or BB gun (both of which now require a license from the police in at least the state of Massachusetts), buy a bag of fertilizer, mail a parcel or deposit an envelope at a post office, or stroll about in a park.


On Analyzing the Future, 
the Neutral State and Aggregate Change

[Today it is not uncommon to find] a Pollyannaish embrace of scientific, technologic, and social possibilities without a counterbalancing appreciation—or equal depiction—of the darker side of future possibilities and probable developments. No man or woman can see the whole, or appreciate the real world and human nature for what they are, whose sight is limited to just the color blue or the color pink.

As a neuroscientist, I find such a constitutional imbalance easy to understand. The nervous system of any given individual, in its anatomy and physiology, and subsequent effects upon his mind, is generally skewed in a way that favors either affirmation or negation, optimism or pessimism, or love or fear. This contributes to the delightful Dickensian diversity of our race, and ordinarily it can only be welcomed.

But in the case of an analysis of the future, the situation is complicated by the need for a more general appraisal of, and wisdom about, possibilities. Thought, in the case of such forecasts, must not be truncated at the recognition and statement of one or two implications of a given thing, or in admiration of its mere utility or novelty, or in the good it can do. Instead, it must ramify to embrace in its speculative vision whatever may be the total consequences of the thing for good and evil, and the mixture of both that is the most likely result, in this textured and complex world in which human virtue, sense, and wish, alas, play only a very small part.

The state is not a good institution, it is a neutral one. Whenever it has been provided with great means that allow great abuse, sooner or later it has shown a ten- dency to make use of them for dastardly purposes. The abuses tend to be limited and temporary, but even so they can be exceedingly cruel and they are always dangerous.

Any good student of the future of science, technology, and society ought to be conscious of the transcendent fact that eventually there will be discoveries, inventions, opportunities, and knowledge whose exploitation is too dangerous to permit, or which, were it to be allowed, would in the end inevitably be fatal to civilization.

Yet ultimately I think the supreme threat to our welfare may lie, not in singular developments, but in the total effect of innumerable small heterogeneous innovations, changes, oversights, and abuses that will take us insidiously, subtly, unconsciously, and helplessly from one world into another, from an epoch of safety into an epoch of intolerable hazard, compromise, insecurity, and corruption.


On the Technologically 
Omnipotent State and Fearless Rulers

No one and no thing must ever be allowed to be omniscient and omnipotent, through the introduction of a technological system or a great machine that confers such powers, mastery, and advantages upon either. The genius, point, and first need of democracy, in its essence, is to maintain all of its actors and factors within some narrow range of varying but common scales; and in particular, to prevent the emergence of any grotesque and uncontrollable disproportion of the state itself—or of organizations within a society—to citizens, in their respective shares of power, authority, knowledge, wealth, devices, and capabilities.

Thus by analogy, a judge or statesman should never be provided with such protection and anonymity that he is transformed into an invulnerable being who can effectively do whatever he pleases without the implicit risk of suffering, or falling victim to, the physical wrath of the citizens whose affairs and lives he oversees. Such perfect protection, forms of which we have already seen being put in place in our day—via the superficially innocuous devices of metal detectors at the doors of courthouses, bullet-proof limousines, unlisted addresses and telephone numbers, judges deliberately recruited for courts located far from the judges’ actual towns of residence, statesmen constantly protected by bevies of secret and visible guards and highly selective and orchestrated public appearances, confinement of prisoners, or even persons who are merely being accused or arraigned, to sealed glass cells in courtrooms, concentration of statesmen's public remarks to merely televised appearances, the barbaric forcing of prisoners or defendants who have misbehaved in court into wired body suits so that if they continue to be difficult they can be electrically shocked into silent and craven submission—will inevitably kindle an arrogant and contumelious detachment in judges, politicians, and other public officials that is antithetic to that humility and sense of mortality and common humanity which these men must have before the people they serve, if they are not to become tyrants, machines in flesh, corrupt villains, or a class of aristocrats whose very existence is entirely incompatible with the principle, health, and continuity of a democracy.

I have simply used this case to provide a parallel perspective, and as a single example of a hundred classes of other changes in the way the world is, each of which individually may not be of much importance or pose much of a threat or do much mischief, but which if realized together, or in substantial number, could collectively and synergistically be something altogether different, and a fatal endangerment to the integrity of the world as we know it and to the maintenance of that necessary balance, that I began by referring to, between a democratic state and its citizens, both individually and in their sum powers.


On Implanted Chips, Irreversibility, and Baobobs

What is of particular interest are two things here: (1) The many (seductively but deceptively) persuasive arguments that could be made in favor of people having surgically implanted in themselves, or being forced to do so, or having, or being required to have, installed in their children at birth a passive radio identifier chip that could be read by a handheld or stationary device—such as is now being inserted in pets, for which it may soon be mandatory under some governments. (2) The surprising fact, as I could easily illustrate if I had the time here, but which you can probably mentally work out yourself, that between the complete use or requirement at some future time of such devices, and, by contrast, their complete absence in present-day society, a whole chain of intermediate forms of devices, and of continuously intergrading and evolving warrants, uses, and human and governmental prompts, can be imagined, ones that are not only plausible but which upon careful thought can be seen to possess an insidious and irresistible inevitability, as well as a certain irreversibility after the fact.

The pertinent point being that it is precisely such hybrid, subtle, concatenated, indirect, and almost thermodynamically inexorable and irreversible developments, in science, technology, and society, that threaten us all—if we do not all exercise profound judgment and care in advance—with being swept into a nightmarish future by seemingly innocent technological seeds germinating over time into progressively more ambiguous, questionable, hazardous, and deadly trees of unforeseen, unwelcome, and intolerable consequences.

Thus, one of the two most important lessons which the little Prince learned on his tiny asteroid, in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s wise novel, was “Remember the baobobs!” Baobobs would begin as innocent little seeds almost unnoticeable in the soil, but they had a way of growing soon enough into immense trees that could swallow his entire world up and devastate it.

The famous early twentieth-century French aviator's moral was undoubtedly personal and for adults. Ideologies start life as cute little seeds, but once they are allowed to take root they may sprout up practically overnight into a totalitarian regime fatal to a whole nation.


On DNA Scanners, Robotic Olfactory
Detectors, and Evading Facial Recognition Systems

Let me comment briefly on the witty and breezy proposal that if anyone in the future does not wish to be watched and identified by an automated panoptic network of police cameras, he will always have the option of simply wearing sunglasses to defeat the system.

There are scores of problems with this idea, but they include:

(a) If everyone wears dark glasses, normal social communication via eye movement will be less, we will be robbed of the great pleasures of and lessons from watching one another in this way and in observing passing strangers, and of the instantaneous and ever-changing self-insights this gives one via ‘inter-ocular reflections,’ and even walking on crowded sidewalks will become more difficult and dangerous.

(b) Such glasses would have to be worn constantly in public, since for most police purposes it might suffice to simply find a (or every) wanted person in a week, year, or lifetime.

(c) If a vast majority of people felt the glasses unnecessary and always left their eyes exposed, but I did not, his would still concern me, or have reason to concern me, because my (protective) society would be more vulnerable to improper uses of state authority, and the minority of us who preferred to wear the glasses would feel, and be, more socially and politically conspicuous and suspicious.

(d) Police cameras could and would simply be modified to employ other parts of the 85-octave electromagnetic spectrum (or even ultrasound) that sunglasses would not stop and no glasses (or ski masks or anything else) could block comprehensively.

(e) Future police surveillance systems will undoubt-ably be of a wholly different and far more sophisticated type. For example, ones that project an invisible (scanning) laser beam onto any point on one’s skin, and then instantly read out and identify one’s panhumanly unique DNA (or protein) pattern. Or robotic olfactory detectors that identify one’s (endogenous) unique general or MHC (major histocompatibility complex) odor. Or devices or networks of sensors that recognize one’s idle voiceprint. Or devices whose transmitted energies penetrate one’s clothes, wallet, or purse, in order to locate, study, and read computer-readable identity cards.

(f) It is a common, but childish and costly, fallacy that all laws ought to be perfectly enforced or every infraction punished, and that laws should never be broken.

For instance, in a flat open countryside, when there are no cars or pedestrians about, a motorist who encounters an intersection which has stop signs or stop lights should pass through it without halting, and no future robot camera should be made to ticket for not doing so. Absolutely rigid (Germanic) laws, and an automated panoptic system that detected, cited one for, and punished every violation, would make Law—and society—inefficient, inhuman, stupid, obnoxious, too costly, overburdened, and insensitive to the infinite diversity of situations, needs, people (their varied abilities, limitations, and styles), human creativity, and the physical structure of the world.


On a comprehensive universal personal data system

There is an important and highly instructive analogy that needs to be drawn between a future universal network of public identification cameras for the constant monitoring by the police and state of the identity and whereabouts of all of a country's citizens; and another technological development, which, by contrast, has in large part already occurred or at least had a chance to reveal its ugly Medussan heads, to wit the creation of universal commercial and governmental personal data banks for the collection, systematization, and provision of information about every citizen (all of his purchases, health data and records, and other physical and mental characteristics, residences and telephone numbers, financial and personal history, wealth, employments, legal involvements, educational accomplishments and failures, family members’ data, etc).

My attitude 2-3 decades ago, when I was anticipating the future creation of the latter, was that its existence would not bother me a feather's-worth. I genuinely thought, and would always remark, that it would prove to be almost entirely innocent and benign, and in many ways a great blessing for everyone.

But in retrospect, I am ruefully and abashedly conscious of how naive I was, how ignorant of the real world and its ways, how foolishly idealistic, how uninformed about human nature and the variety of men and institutions, and the great wickedness they do daily and whenever some new and different opportunity comes bobbing along in the great polluted river of material and social progress.

I have also seen friends who once championed the emergence of such universal data banks, one by one succumb to the same doubts, anxieties, disgruntlement, disenchantment, and emergent apostasy, as their own train of empirical experiences, of personal realizations of first the possible and then the actual vices of such systems, poisoned their enthusiasm, re-colored their attitudes, brought epiphanies, re-natured the landscape, brought home the gamut of misuses and abuses of such data, and dramatized how radically a comprehensive universal personal data system can upend society as we know it—by changing the relationships between individuals, classes of people, institutions, citizens and governments, the distribution of power, intelligence, wealth, privilege, opportunities, and rights, by expanding the opportunities for criminal organizations, by destroying old institutions, by accelerating the rates of change not just beyond an optimal but to pathological levels.


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Patrick Gunkel is a neuroscientist at MIT. His larger project is the development of ideonomy . For more information, visit: