Well-read conservatives, and those who embody true liberalism, may have had flashbacks to Ayn Rand’s seminal novel Atlas Shrugged when they read a recent headline. Townhall’s iteration of the story was titled as such:
‘State Department Considers Closing Embassy in Cuba Over Sonic Attacks on Diplomats’
These ‘sonic attacks,' when described in more detail, are not far off– though they are somewhat less destructive in their capability– from Project Xylophone in Rand’s novel. According to one description, “The Xylophone is aptly named, because its purpose is to destroy things by using ultrasonic sound.”
As the writings of Orwell and Rand in many ways predicted, we are finding that once fantastical technologies– for which taxpayers most often fund developmental research– can be, and are being, abused by the state. The Cuba case is interesting in and of itself, but the Castro government is not alone in its use of Big Brother-like tech for malevolent purposes.
We know about the NSA’s collection of telephone metadata. And we should understand that, despite a 2015 act amending this collection of Americans’ data in theory, their surveillance systems continue to pose a great threat to Americans’ privacy and liberties. Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian explains how the NSA’s activities go beyond even Orwell’s frightening imagination. The ACLU lists some more abuses, many the direct result of increasing technological capability by the state. And this only goes back to 9/11.
While Americans tend to paint Russia as a surveillance state, ignoring their own nation’s violations in the process, they are not wrong. In the wake of the Sochi Olympics, Americans were warned of Russia’s System of Operative-Investigative Measures, known as SORM. The system, according to the World Policy Institute is ‘Russia’s national system of lawful interception of all electronic utterances.’ According to the same institute, the use of SORM is only becoming more prevalent:
‘Over the last six years, Russia’s use of SORM has skyrocketed. According to Russia’s Supreme Court, the number of intercepted telephone conversations and email messages has doubled in six years, from 265,937 in 2007 to 539,864 in 2012.’
And, the targets whose sensitive information becomes exposed publicly– notice I did not say collected, because all information is collected under the SORM system– are also quite predictable:
‘In 2011-2012, while protesters flooded Moscow’s streets, the phones of a number of Russian opposition leaders and members of the State Duma were hacked. Recordings of their private telephone conversations were even published online. On December 19, 2011, audio-files of nine tapped phone calls of Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and now a prominent opposition leader, were posted on the pro-government site lifenews.ru.’
Meanwhile, Communist China, which has an estimated 170 million state-controlled cameras throughout the country, is integrating facial recognition technology into citizens’ daily lives, including law enforcement. China has become a Minority Report-like embodiment of what a surveillance state will increasingly look like. Make your own conclusions, but keep in mind Apple’s increasingly invasive means of unlocking your phone. They already have most users’ fingerprints, and their next iteration of the iPhone will, according to the plan, incorporate the facial recognition technology as a necessary means of unlocking your device.
To understand the immense potential abuses in China’s– and likely America’s– expanded use of facial recognition technology, we need not look any further than our own investigative agency, arguably the most powerful in the world: the FBI.
According to CBS News, ‘the FBI said it has the capability to analyze everything from a suspect's scars and tattoos to their voices to their eyes - remember the iris scanners in the movie "Minority Report."’
And, experts in the field of privacy and personal rights fear the worst. While it is a matter of how you view human nature and the agenda of the vast, often undefinable ‘government agency,' history (looking at you, KGB) shows us that granting these abilities to surveil are not wise:
‘The expanded reach of the system has alarmed some privacy advocates, who fear the power of the technology could lead to abuses like mass surveillance or tracking innocent people,’ CBS News added.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is an organization described as defending peoples’ rights in the virtual realm, and they feel that the widening usage of facial recognition will breach the barriers of purposes we are told they will be used for; law enforcement, easier and more secure access to our devices, etc.:
"NGI (the FBI’s newly implemented Next Generation Identification system) will result in a massive expansion of government data collection for both criminal and noncriminal purposes," EFF Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch, who testified before the U.S. Senate on the privacy implications of facial recognition technology in 2012, said in a statement last year.
"Biometrics programs present critical threats to civil liberties and privacy. Face-recognition technology is among the most alarming new developments, because Americans cannot easily take precautions against the covert, remote, and mass capture of their images."
Have you seen Minority Report? It’s just a movie, you’ll surely say. But as technology emerges that renders the movie closer and closer to what we– or more appropriately, the government– are capable of in reality, we must heed its warnings. Not to mention the warnings of its predecessors, sages like Orwell and Rand.
Which brings us to Cuba. Cuba is not an outlier when it comes to government abuse of technology. They are just one of the more inept, obvious cases of it. But, despite their inability– or lack of concern– to see that they would be caught red-handed, they were able to use sonic warfare to inflict irreparable damage on American officials. This case illustrates how far technology has come, and how it can, and has, been weaponized.
The Atlantic describes how inaudible (that is a truly frightening aspect of this) sound waves can inflict often irreparable damage on its targets, and those who may be inadvertently exposed to their effects. Cuba is not the first case of this sonic damage on record, though the case cited here did not conclude that it was intentionally inflicted.
‘The health effects of exposure to inaudible sonic waves are also real. In 2001 after residents of Kokomo, Indiana, began reporting symptoms including “annoyance, sleep disturbance, headaches, and nausea,” the U.S. National Institutes of Health investigated the issue. The result was a dossier on the toxicology of “infrasound”—acoustic energy with wavelengths of 17 meters or more. The agency couldn’t pin down the cause of the Indiana residents’ symptoms as infrasound, but the report did confirm that infrasound can cause fatigue, apathy, hearing loss, confusion, and disorientation.’
This is the technology that the Cuban government apparently deployed within housing they provided to American diplomats and other officials, resulting in these symptoms:
‘The American Foreign Service Association, a union for U.S. diplomats, said earlier this month that it has spoken with 10 of the affected and that “diagnoses include mild traumatic brain injury and permanent hearing loss, with such additional symptoms as loss of balance, severe headaches, cognitive disruption and brain swelling.”’ (WSJ)
Debate continues as to how to punish Cuba. They are considering closing the embassy in Cuba. That seems like an obvious step, because after all, who in their right mind would work there?
The U.S. expelled two Cuban diplomats from its Washington embassy in August, and others have suggested expelling the 19 remaining ones. Not to bring Obama into this, but this is the same government– the tyrannical regime still under the Castro name– that he attempted to open borders and expand relations with. And Barry himself ran the same government that implemented the expansion of NSA spying, a bureaucratic behemoth which we are entrusting with greater and greater access to our data, thumbprints, and faces.
We have already witnessed abuses of technology across the globe, including our beloved USA. Yet, we seem more and more willing to grant more and more personal information– including our own facial structures, which itself has the massive potential for disaster– in the name of…what exactly?
Most cannot articulate why we need face-scanning tech, on a personal-benefit level. Is it for convenience? Apple itself could not get the technology to work in its first public exhibition.
Our own security? If anything, the widespread adoption of this technology has made us less secure, and more traceable, than ever.
Cuba, Russia, the United States have all proven untrustworthy when granted access to unprecedented levels of our data, and the technology that allows for its collection. In different ways, each has been found to be using once-fantastical technology for malevolence, from blackmail to sonic warfare on foreign officials.
And yet, we continue to grant government greater powers, greater levels of access to our personal information. It started with emails, escalated to text messages, evolved into phone-transmitted fingerprints, and impending facial data that has likely already been collected anyway.
If you are still willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt, in the form of your facial structure, then you may as well hop in a confessional with your local government law-enforcement official.