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Scott Elder






   
By David ShenkPhotographs by George Steinmetz



In our high-tech world, machines track personal records, see through walls, and screen facial features. Will electronic surveillance mean better security, or an end to privacy?



Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Late one autumn day at the aquatic center in Ancenis, France, something went quietly, horribly wrong. With its two well-kept pools and teaching facilities, the center serves as a modern swimming hole for an entire sector of historic Brittany, attracting 150,000 French villagers a year. An 18-year-old named Jean-François LeRoy was a regular, coming often in the early evenings to swim laps in the 25-meter (82-foot) pool.

Drownings are often difficult to spot; they are rarely the splashy, flailing events depicted on television. Most are near-silent episodes where the victim quickly sinks out of view.

On this particular day maybe the lifeguards weren't paying as close attention as they should have been. Certainly they believed the trim, athletic LeRoy was not a high-risk swimmer.

But on this evening LeRoy was practicing  apnea swimming—testing how far he could swim underwater on one breath—and at some point, without making any visible or audible disturbance on the water's surface, he blacked out. The guards failed to notice as he stopped swimming and descended to the bottom of the deep end of the pool. With his arms crossed over his head and his feet twitching, he was unconscious and drowning. It would take him as little as four minutes to die.

Although the human lifeguards watching the pool were oblivious, 12 large machine eyes deep underwater were watching the whole thing and taking notice. Just nine months earlier the center had installed a state-of-the-art electronic surveillance system called Poseidon, a network of cameras that feeds a computer programmed to use a set of complex mathematical algorithms to distinguish between normal and distressed swimming. Poseidon covers a pool's entire swimming area and can distinguish among blurry reflections, shadows, and actual swimmers. It can also tell when real swimmers are moving in a way they're not supposed to. When the computer detects a possible problem, it instantly activates a beeper to alert lifeguards and displays the exact incident location on a monitor. The rest is up to the humans above the water.

Sixteen seconds after Poseidon noticed the large, sinking lump that was Jean-François LeRoy, lifeguards had LeRoy out of the pool and were initiating CPR. He started breathing again. After one night in the local hospital, he was released with no permanent damage. Poseidon—and, more precisely, the handful of French mathematicians who devised it—had saved his life.

Machines like Poseidon will redefine how we live. Think of your life before the answering machine, the ATM, e-mail. Think of your grandparents' lives before the television and the airplane. Think of your great-grandparents' lives before the telephone. All told, the shift will be that substantial. Machines will recognize our faces and our fingerprints. They will watch out for swimmers in distress, for radioactivity- and germ-laden terrorists, for red-light runners and highway speeders, for diabetics and heart patients.

Imagine devices that monitor the breathing rhythms of infants in cribs, watch toddlers at day care, and track children as they go to and from school; that can keep an eye on our home supply of orange juice and let us know when the milk is sour. Machines might watch our calorie intake and burn-off, monitor air quality in our homes, and look out for mice and bugs.

Envision sensors as large as walls and as small as molecules in your bloodstream sending quiet signals to nearby computers, which will process and relay information to you, your doctor, your lawyer, your grocer, your building manager, your car mechanic, your local fire or police department. As time and technology march on, less and less will escape the attention of sophisticated machines. They'll have us covered.

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Online Extra
Find out how surveillance technology on the U.S.-Mexico border has caused unintended consequences.


Video
See how satellite surveillance can zero in on designated zones anywhere on Earth.
RealPlayer  WinMedia

Video
Take a good look at how facial recognition technology works.
RealPlayer  WinMedia

Courtesy Amit K. Roy Chowdhury, Rama Chellappa and students, University of Maryland, College Park

Forum
Since the attacks of 9/11, the effort to track down perpetrators and thwart future terrorist acts has many concerned about how far surveillance might intrude into our lives. How much privacy are you willing to sacrifice for the sake of security? Voice your opinion.







More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
In 1791 Jeremy Bentham gave the name Panopticon to a circular structure designed to permit a few guards to watch a multitude of prisoners. His design for the Panopticon, or Inspection House, incorporated a ring of single-room cells several stories tall. Each cell was open toward the interior of the ring and had a window in the wall on the outside of the ring.  In the center of the ring stood a watchtower occupied by observers who were completely concealed from the prisoners. The principle behind the Panopticon was that each single-room cell offered its inhabitant no place to hide, while outdoor light coming through the window on the outside wall provided the watchers in the tower with a well-lit silhouette of the inmate's every move. Knowing that any observed misbehavior would bring punishment, but not knowing when any behavior actually was being observed, the thinking inmate had no choice, in Bentham's opinion, except to behave as if always watched. The inmate would monitor his own actions.

Although Bentham's intent was to provide humane and unfettered order to institutions that sometimes used brutal methods to control and intimidate residents, to many modern eyes he devised a surveillance machine so cunning it verged on the diabolical.

—Patricia Kellogg
Did You Know?

Related Links
Urbaneye Project
www.urbaneye.net
Urbaneye is an ongoing research project focusing on the social and political impacts of video surveillance in public spaces in Europe. Papers examine broad issues and the situation in specific countries.
 
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
www.privacyrights.org
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse is a nonprofit consumer information program that was originally established at the University of San Diego's Center for Public Interest Law. The website offers material on identity theft, privacy of financial and medical records, and a long list of fact sheets (in English and Spanish) on privacy protection. The list of Web links is exceptional.
 
Surveillance and Society
www.surveillance-and-society.org
This is a peer-reviewed online surveillance studies journal. Although it is a professional journal for the academic world, it offers good reading to the interested Web surfer. Although sections are still under construction, there is an extensive listing of Web links.
 
The Bentham Project
www.ucl.ac.uk/Bentham-Project
The place to start investigating Jeremy Bentham's Panoptican is at the website of University College London's Bentham Project. The site includes biographical material, links to Bentham's writings, and the Journal of Bentham Studies.

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Bibliography
Monmonier, Mark. Spying With Maps: Surveillance Technologies and the Future of Privacy. University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Norris, Clive, and Gary Armstrong. The Maximum Surveillance Society: The Rise of CCTV. Berg, 1999.

Rosen, Jeffery. The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America.  Vintage Books, 2001.

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NGS Resources
Hawkins, Dana. "Smart Traveler Privacy," National Geographic Traveler (March 2001), 24-25.

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