Civil liberties, tracking and Moore's Law

If you are reading this now, stop what you are doing and look at this. Technological guerrillas iFixit have teamed up with Wired to get their hands on what they claim is a GPS tracking device designed for use by the US federal cops, the FBI. How...

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If you are reading this now, stop what you are doing and look at this. Technological guerrillas iFixit have teamed up with Wired to get their hands on what they claim is a GPS tracking device designed for use by the US federal cops, the FBI.

How they got their hands on the tech is an interesting story in itself, and is chronicled in this separate piece at Wired. Of course, this is the kind of thing that us lowly citizens are not supposed to be able to see, so peering through the cracks in the infallible state facade has a charm all of its own.

But that’s not the most important thing about this story. What I find fascinating is that virtually all of the components in the device are available off the shelf. The GPS signal processing module is virtually an antique, having been released way back in the misty days of 1999.

The implications are startling. What was once the exclusive preserve of governments, police departments and international spy organisations with cool-sounding acronynmic monikers is now accessible to anyone with an internet connection, postal address and a modicum of technical know-how.

Want to know where your spouse has been, who they’ve been talking to and what they’ve been doing? No problem!

If installing listening devices seems a little too much like Gene Hackman in The Conversation for you, then how about an iPhone, Android and BlackBerry application that lets you listen in on every phone call and text message thread?

All this is possible without even tapping the biggest goldmine of personal information ever accumulated - Facebook.

People are (sometimes literally) laying bare the details of what used to be considered their private lives in a very public forum, often with little understanding or concern for the consequences of so much honesty. Checking in everywhere you go on FourSquare, minutely cataloguing your daily activities on Twitter or geo-tagging your latest snaps shared on Flickr leaves you wide open to inspection.

Perhaps this doesn’t worry you. I know most of my friends, who are educated and socially conscious people, can’t see the problem there.

But I can’t shake the feeling that perhaps the impulse to candidness, married with the increased availability and complexity of the tools of forced openness, is leading us towards a society in which privacy is an aberration, something that arouses suspicion. And that’s not something I look forward to with much enthusiasm.

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