The Guardian today ran a front page story on tech company Raytheon’s RIOT search tool, which promises to integrate social media data to build a complete picture of people’s movements, using geotagged pictures, FourSquare check ins and and other means.
There has been some slightly offputting hyperbole about the software’s potential ability to “predict crime”, with frequent mentions of the Philip K Dick story and later Tom Cruise film Minority Report, in which psychics are used to predict potential crime, allowing police to arrest people before any damage is done.
This is largely down to the Raytheon representative’s boast in the promotional video obtained by the Guardian that RIOT can predict where people will be, based on previous behaviour.
When one looks at what he actually says and demonstrates, it’s seems to me that the programme can not really predict anything. It can identify patterns, from which users can make assumptions.
The example used in the video is that by far the most frequent time and place for the surveillance subject (a Raytheon employee) to “check in” on FourSquare is 6am at the gym. From here, a human user can reasonably assume that the subject will be at his gym at 6am most days. Not quite seeing into the future then.
And not exactly revolutionary, but merely a way of presenting data that users themselves have already volunteered into the public sphere.
Nonetheless, this technology is disquieting. More and more of our lives are recorded, day-to-day, online and publicly. Technology such as RIOT shows how easy it is to build up a very detailed picture of someone’s life, movements, interests etc. All this freely available data could have huge implications for users in the present and the future.
The UK government is currently in the process of redrafting the Communications Data Bill, which faced heavy criticism (not least from Index) for its far-reaching provisions which would force communications companies to retain data, and allow government agencies to track vast amounts of users traffic – not just publicly available social media messages, but emails, text messages phone calls and even letters. Should such a bill eventually go through with similar powers, it’s likely that other countries will follow suit.
Of course, some states are ahead of the game: yesterday it was reported that journalists working in Burma had received warnings from Google of potential email security breaches. Though the Burmese authorities have denied being behind the hacking, suspicions remain.
Surveillance inevitably has an effect on free expression, as people will not speak freely if they fear they are permanently watched and recorded. But we live in an age where tracking has become so easy, and so cheap, that without a principled stand against it, surveillance will become the norm.
Padraig Reidy is senior writer at Index on Censorship. He tweets at @mePadraigReidy