Technology has no inherent value by itself. Just like any tool, it sits neutrally in the middle of value spectrum. Such neutrality however does not prevent any technology from being utilized towards specific value, be it for better or worse. Nuclear technology for instance could be harnessed to provide humanity with electricity or as weapon, to strike terror to us all. Such duality is no different when it comes to closed-circuit television (CCTV) and radio frequency identification (RFID) in public space.

Both CCTV and RFID technologies are beneficial in many ways. Within private commercial spaces, both are used to make processes safer or more efficient or both. CCTV could be installed in places where no human could operate safely while RFID makes traceability of goods far easier. On the other end, if applied in public spaces, both infringe privacy.

CCTV perhaps needs no introduction. Between CCTV and RFID, the former has entered public consciousness far earlier in the 1990s. As a teenager, it was common for me then and even now to spot cameras in large stores. And I do remember there was a huge hype when CCTV was introduced along Malaysian expressways to discourage speeding. Despite public familiarity with CCTV, it is only until recently it has proliferated public sphere; the state is central to the proliferation. Cameras are installed in so many places by the state in the name of crime fighting that it chokes innocent but liberty-conscious persons.

I suppose, the first case of massive installation of cameras within public realm occurred in London. Given how frequent London is cited in any debate regarding CCTV and privacy, I would venture to say that London might have been the pioneer in the introduction of CCTV within public space. That might not be true and might be the result of a biased observation because I used to visit Samizdata — a UK-based libertarian group blog — frequently.

Nevertheless, from London or whatever it might originate from, the idea of CCTV within public space has reached Kuala Lumpur. While in the UK, the introduction has met some resistance, in Malaysia, I have yet to meet any protest at all, apart from myself. The image of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four has been recalled again and again by those that oppose the installation of cameras in public areas but I do believe Oceania fits Malaysia better due to what I perceive as the willing acceptance of Malaysians of CCTV. I definitely refuse to accept CCTV in public space, more so if the operator of the CCTV is an illiberal state. The moral police would especially cherish the idea of electronic Mat Skodeng.

While CCTV could be a threat to privacy, RFID could be as many times more hostile to civil liberties.

I might have encountered RFID far earlier than I thought I had but my first conscious exposure to it was during a consulting competition at Michigan. During a research, I learned how RFID is used to record inventory and through such information, the realization of just-in-time philosophy that Wal-Mart practices. Despite the positive aspect of it, just like CCTV, the utilization of RFID within public realm is questionable from civil liberty point of view.

Malaysian passport for instance uses RFID. In fact, it is the first RFID-passport in the world. The RFID chip within the passport contains sensitive personal information and that information could scanned and read from afar. Many advocates of RFID insists that information within the chip is secured. Nevertheless, there are reports that point to the contrary. At a blog by Reuters:

With the debate over genetic cloning in full swing, hackers could not have cared less at a conference in New York City, where two presenters demonstrated the electronic equivalent of making a copy of an implanted RFID or radio frequency ID chip.

The point was to show just how easy it is to fool a detection device that purports to uniquely identify any individual.

As time progresses, it is all too possible to track everybody with RFID. At the hand of illiberal bureaucrats that respect no right, RFID could be the tool to suppress civil liberties. This used to belong in the realm of science fiction. Soon, too soon, it will be science.

Despite the rant, I am not an anti-technology or back-to-the-primitive preacher. On the contrary, I believe technology should be used to enhance our living experience. Technologies such as carbon sequestering to reduce carbon emissions and life-saving stem cell technology are essential to build a bright future for us and our children. But when any technology is used at the expense of certain ideals, it is only right to oppose such application.

3 Responses to “[1110] Of liberty-threatening technology applications”

  1. on 25 Feb 2007 at 21:32 Adam

    It will be definitely a boon for companies but as you rightly mention, technology can be misused – is always misused for other purposes. In the end we might end up not having any privacy at all.

  2. on 26 Feb 2007 at 16:03 Mat Merah

    I think that goes without saying which is a reason for not even linking one’s atm card or Touch’n’Go to the MyKad for fear of Big Brother tracking one’s movements.

    But that’s technology for you as in the Penang case where CCTV was used to peer/leer at a woman’s thighs rather than as a security tool.

    The people using the technology matter most, not just the technology. I can’t say that I have faith in these people at this point in time.

    Sad, isn’t it!

  3. […] With two high-profile kidnapping cases along with perception of high crime rate, the Malaysian authority is advocating mass installation of closed circuit TV to fight crime. Advocates of CCTVs are convinced that the device will help in bringing crime rate down. While that may be so — there are debates on whether presence of CCTVs reduces or merely displaces crime — I am not too keen on the plan. Given authority’s reputation in disrespecting individual liberty, I fear that the authority will misuse the cameras installed in public spaces for other purposes. […]

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