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Technology: Surveillance by machines, not people

November 15, 2011 |  7:59 am

At the Techonomy conference in Tucson this week, Mike Lynch, chief executive of Autonomy, riveted the audience — not with a tale of how he recently sold his Cambridge, Britain-based company to Hewlett-Packard for more than $10 billion, but how a fundamental advance in technology could destroy privacy.

He wasn't talking about how online software monitors people's Web surfing habits. He was talking about people's movements in the real world.

In the past, Lynch said, people could count on a certain level of secrecy and anonymity even in public spaces monitored by video cameras "because there was no one to watch them." The cameras were dumb devices, incapable of recognizing what passed in front of their lenses.

"We're about to hit a fundamentally different situation," Lynch said. Thanks to advances in software from companies such as Autonomy, devices can "start to understand the information" they collect through their lenses "and put it together." The eventual casualty will be "your ability to do anything without it being known."

That's hyberbolic, but he offered an example that was both reasonable-sounding and chilling. You and several of your local Facebook friends could download an application onto your smartphones that reads the license plates of the cars that pass your locations. Voila, "you can track anybody moving around your city."

"There are going to be sensors everywhere," Lynch added, noting the proliferation of sophisticated smartphones that see, hear and detect their location. What protected people in the past was the inability to make sense of all that voluminous data. "Now, there's not going to be that limitation. It's going to be a very different world."

He went on to offer a demonstration of a far more benign use of an iPad's video camera, a variation on the typical augmented reality app. The latter typically relies on barcodes or other visible symbols as triggers, but Lynch said his app automatically recognizes about half a million objects — no symbols needed.

When pointed at a poster of a movie, the app replaced the image with an clickable video advertisement. When trained on the front page of a newspaper, it inserted a video of an updated story. "A completely boring non-interactive object becomes an interactive one," Lynch declared.

"The thing is continually looking around to see if there's stuff it can recognize," he added. "As the processing speed goes up, we can deal with information in completely different ways."

That's cool in the benign context. But it's easy to see how it could be creepy or, worse, suppressive.

Ah, the relentless march of technology.


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Photo: Mike Lynch says there'll be sensors everywhere. Credit: Adrian Dennis / AFP / Getty Images

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