Chip Implants and Mission Creep


My colleague Mike Langberg is ready to get an ID chip implant, but says we need safeguards to protect us from Big Brother. He’s kidding himself if he believes such safeguards will either be written into law or, if any are, will be obeyed.

There is no recorded case in which a surveillance technology created for one purpose has not been used for a wide variety of other purposes. Inevitably we see “mission creep” — the expansion of uses to unintended areas.

I’m in London this weekend, where you can’t walk on the streets very far before you’re under surveillance by this nation’s insidious system of closed-circuit TV cameras. Recently, bureaucrats and policy makers got the idea to use a variant on this idea to enforce a law requiring people to pay extra to drive cars in the city center during busy times, and installed another set of cameras for the purpose. The British are so numbed to their loss of privacy that surveillance is taken for granted, in new and, yes, creepy ways.

Go ahead, Mike, and get your implant. But don’t believe for a second that it won’t be put to uses you didn’t anticipate, or desire. It will.

(Updated to reflect corrections in comments.)


Posted by: on October 23, 2004 02:19 AM

You’re right that people in cities across the UK are on camera almost constantly, and that this growth in surveillance has happened by stealth over many years with no true public debate.

But don’t confuse that with congestion charging. This was a radical and politically extremely risky plan promised by Ken Livingstone as part of his successful campaign to become Mayor of London. If you’ve never heard of him, he’s a true left-wing socialist politician; in the 80s he was called “Red Ken” by tabloid newspapers. Since introducing congestion charging he’s been re-elected as Mayor, and traffic in London has reduced a great deal – the goal of the project. (Revenue from the charges is less than expected, because traffic has reduced more than expected.) Many other UK cities are now considering similar schemes to try to reduce pollution and make cities safer for pedestrians.

The cameras used for congestion charging are not the same CCTV cameras used elsewhere in the city. This isn’t a co-opting of existing technology for new, unwanted purposes. It’s actually a successful use of new technology to try to make London a nicer place to live in – a manifesto promise that was delivered. Not everyone agrees with the scheme, of course, but they tend to disagree on the policy of charging to drive into the city rather than the potential abuse of the technology involved. Overall, in my opinion congestion charging is a net benefit to London and Londoners.

Of course the congestion charging system may be abused in the future. I don’t have an answer for that; but I know that the wrong answer would be to throw away the system entirely.

And despite the lack of privacy and orwellian nature of CCTV, it does have useful purposes. Many people do feel safer walking the streets at night; and when crimes occur, there is often a visual record that can be used in court. Personally I don’t like being on camera as I go about my daily business; but I take heart in the knowledge that there is just too much data and too little information in the system. (At the moment.)

Posted by: Lance Knobel on October 23, 2004 02:29 AM

As Dave explains in the previous comment, I think you have the London experience the wrong way around. There are of course plenty of cameras — too many, you think — installed for But the cameras erected for the congestion charge were put in precisely for that purpose.

The congestion charge has been a hugely successful policy, reducing traffic in central London considerably. I am certain that many other cities worldwide will follow London’s lead in implementing road pricing in this way.

What’s happened is that the congestion charge cameras are also being used when needed for security reasons. And you’re right that the vast majority of people in the UK don’t see this as an important infringement of rights.

Posted by: on October 23, 2004 04:00 AM

Interesting how the law states that no one can require you to give out your Social Security Number. However, nothing says that they have to do business if you don’t. Try getting a credit card without giving it out. If we don’t put strict regulations on chip implant technologies, companies will simply refuse to do business with you if you are not implanted.

Posted by: on October 23, 2004 04:09 AM

“There is no recorded case in which a surveillance technology created for one purpose has not been used for a wide variety of other purposes.”

If only Dan Gillmor would apply this thinking to Gun Control. Or restrictions on Freedom of Speech, as sponsored by his fellow travelers in the form of so-called “Campaign Finance Reform”. Or derision on the basis of fundamental Religious Belief, as applied by Dan to Christians of sincere faith, the same mocking as the Nazi’s applied to the Jews of 1930s Germany.

Dan Gillmor is a hack Leftist extremist. Here, once again, he raises insideous doubts about a new technology that might help defend us against terror. His bizarre — for a purported “tech analyst” — expression of Luddite leanings in this case, so obviously a fraud, is motivated by his sincere hatred of America, and his hope that we surrender in the global war on terror.

Posted by: adamsj on October 23, 2004 05:16 AM

Congestion charging is a darn good policy. The market clearly couldn’t make traffic congestion manageable. It’s one more case where libertarian thinking–the true 21st century Luddism–failes.

Posted by: Dan Gillmor on October 23, 2004 08:53 AM

Good policy if you don’t care about Big Brother…

Posted by: on October 23, 2004 08:59 AM

Chip implants could eventually become compulsory for a wide array of groups; first prisoners, then parolees; then all former prisoners; illegal immigrants who are caught – then all legal immigrants and vistors to the country; babies at birth; and then everyone.

Posted by: James Salsman on October 23, 2004 09:09 AM

Someone please ask Mike Langberg if that “16 digit number” is comprised of binary or hexidecimal digits.

“Your medical request submission failed for the following reasons:

Your request could not be submitted due to a duplication error: record number 65535 already exists in the database.

Please correct the error in your implanted chip, then press POST to submit your request.”

Posted by: on October 23, 2004 09:09 AM

“Good policy if you don’t care about Big Brother…”

That’s pointless absolutism. London congestion charging is an interesting case precisely because it requires interests to be balanced. The reduction in congestion in central Lon
don is a major benefit, delivered after extensive and open political debate. It is hard to see how it could have been achieved without some form of technology-based monitoring of compliance and non-compliance – London’s street patterns and geography would make any simple barrier-based approach impossible.

So in this case saying ‘any kind of surveillance is always bad’ commits you to saying ‘Londoners should not be allowed to control congestion in their city’.

Yes of course we should be concerned about civil liberties, and yes there are aspects of practice in the UK and elsewhere which threaten them. But resorting to big brother as the first line of rhetorical defence is just failing to engage with a complicated issue.

Posted by: lightning on October 23, 2004 10:10 AM

The rationale for all the surveillence camreas is that they reduce crime. Do they? The British should have enough experience by now to be able to tell.

From anecdotes I’ve heard, they don’t. There are too many cameras to monitor effectively, the police still take time to respond, and the image quality isn’t good enough to stand up in court.

Posted by: on October 23, 2004 11:15 AM

Britain needs to rely on Big Brother strategies like universal surveillance, because its citizens have no right to bear arms.

Bush has taken a number of steps to re-envigorate the 2nd Amendment, and a second Bush term will bring these efforts to a new level. Gun owners across the nation will see substantially reduced restrictions on their right to own, and to carry, weapons essential to their own (and their family’s) self-defense.

An armed citizenry, defending itself against crime AND against potential oppression from looney Left gun grabbers, socialists and those who aspire to totalitarian power — basically, the Democrat Party taken collectively — is vital to our liberty. And the Bush Administration understands this.

There will be no major push for universal surveillance in this country, in the next term of Bush Administration. Under Kerry, it’s a *very* different story. Fewer guns, more government intrusion into our daily lives, and Big Brother focusing on the details of our lives.

Posted by: on October 23, 2004 02:29 PM

Guy in England didn’t like the camera across the road from his residence so he dressed up, very effectively, as an alien and went out to water his plants. All very legal.

But he clearly scared the hell out of the cops who were sent to investigate. Their car just did not want to move forward when they actually caught sight of him/it.

Posted by: on October 23, 2004 06:49 PM

One major use of the surveillance cameras, apparently, is to give the guys running the camera room plenty of ‘downblouse’ shots.

Posted by: on October 24, 2004 12:51 AM

Dan, When cameras were first put into certain London neighborhoods with high crime rates, crime *decreased* to the tune of up to 85% in some of those neighborhoods. People were for the first time in years ale to feel safe on the streets of some of those neighborhoods.

London’s deployment of cameras to prevent traffic congestion has worked, and worked fabulously.

I would like to see more traffic cameras to catch scofflaws who slip through red lights, or fine people for speeding more than 15 miles over speed limits, or fine people for not giving the right of way to pedestrians who are trying to cross a stree in a crosswalk. I’d vote for those measures tomorrow if I could. Sure, some mistakes would be made, but the overall effect would be to get bad behavior on the road under control.

This is a new world – surveillance is going to be part of it.

Now on to your concern about Big Brother. Yes, that’s a real concern, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. You’re right to bring it up. In fact, bringing it up and making as many people aware of the dangers of unsupervised surveillance – including the foward dangers of surveillance – should lead to the protections that we all want (or most of us want) – *if* we’re diligent. We will get the laws we deserve; if we’re not diligent, surveillance will be abused.

Someone said that Democracy requires “eternal vigilance”. That’s true. It’s also true that times change due to historical and cultural shifts that are non-linear at best.

I suggest listening to Michael Krasny’s interview with Stephen Flynn (an ex-Coast Guard Commander – the interview was this last Thursday, Oct. 21); FLynn has written a book on how our current Homeland Security systems are misguided.

In the interview he talks about how security of all kinds can be insinuated into a culture in ways that don’t threaten people. It’s an enlightened interview that addresses many other weaknesses of this administration’s handling of homeland security.

Here’s the web page – link from there to the stream

Lastly, world cultures have evolved from small tribal groups and centralized empires to distributed, anonymous systems. The only way we’re ever going to get a grip on the dangers of *malicious* anonymity is to deploy massive surveillance – there is simply no other way around this. Enlightened leadership and careful vetting of the law by citizens and their representatives will help prevent abuse.

Short of a complete change in the human condition, there are always going to bad people who want to do harm.

Now that bad people who want to do harm can do more harm than ever before, we are going to have to find a way to ensure members of societies that those bad people are more likely to be found and/or thwarted, rather than not.

We are going to eventually have to have some forms of meta-surveilance put into law – this WILL happen if Americans are kept aware of the dark side of surveillance (what you’re rightfully pointing out). By meta-surveillance I mean the ability of any citizen to know – in real time – who is doing surveillance on him/her, why, for how long, etc. etc. – with a right to challenge surveillance in open court if it becomes overbearing or misused. This will happen if citizens are permitted input to law through their representatives, and journalists and others keep shining a light on real and potential abuse.

Tere is no stopping this trend, but there ARE ways to insure that these systems don’t get abused, just as we have (mostly) prevented everyday abuse coming from our law enforcers. It’s not a perfect system, but it does work for the most part – with flaws reported by the press, and society kept open because of that.

Posted by: adamsj on October 25, 2004 05:38 AM


When you say, “Good policy if you don’t care about Big Brother…” you confuse means and ends.

I don’t think you can make a case, consistent with what I, as a reader of yours for the last decade, think you believe, that congestion charging, in and of itself, is anything other than good policy, an end, and a good one. The use of automatic cameras to enforce that policy isn’t something I’m nuts about, but it’s a means, and is independent of the merits of congestion charging.

Three thoughts on Big Brother:

1) Much of the power of the Orwellian totalitarian state is in
its unaccountability. The systems under discussion are under public control, exercised through the government.

2) The alternative to publicly-controlled surveillance is privately-controlled surveillance, which by its nature in unaccountable except to those who wish to profit from its deployment.

3) We have to develop new norms and social standards, and law to enforce them, to meet the undeniable existence of surveillance devices which are pervasive and undetectable.

Special bonus points:

4) Social liberals who have bought into market democracy are headed for a head-on in their heads.

5) The war for privacy is not much more winnable than the war on terrorism, if any more at all.

I’m not nuts about travelling on (for example) Oklahoma highways with my PikePass. I carry it in a static bag, and only take it out to register toll payment. Still, the PikePass is associated with a license plate number, and there is a camera as well as an RF sensor, and there’s nothing physically stopping cross-checks to see whether I travel a lot in rental cars (which I do).

Posted by: on October 26, 2004 05:56 AM

I’m looking forward to collecting the RFID tages from rich, but obsecure dead people (or perhaps just outright making them dead before I take them).

Is this the mission creap you speak of, Dan?

Posted by: M. Mortazavi on October 26, 2004 09:02 AM

I’ve also written about it here: . Identity theft issues also come into play: .

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