The dark side of ‘improved’ people management at airports beckons

A far sighted vision of biometrically managed Australian airports where passports, forms, and human interaction with passengers are unnecessary is the most read story on the Sydney Morning Herald click me, click me media site this morning, and it deserves to be for its implications.

It is followed in clicks by a story about how distrustful Australian society has become, and raises some very important issues that go way beyond the now commonplace use of air travel in much of the world.

This story, by Michael Koziol, is in terms of IT today, far from fanciful or distant. It will ‘come to pass’ in all of its component predictions and ‘come together’ in essentially the manner described, or so airport and air transport visionaries have been saying in recent years.

There are a few barriers to overcome, in terms of the technology. Those that relate to how society should use, or prescribe the use of this technology, will be likely to prove more change resistant, as there are compelling and alarming reasons for concern about where such technology might lead us.

The technological barriers include a need for a three to four magnitude improvement in the reliability of biometric ID and tracking systems, that is somewhere between their being rendered 1000 to 10,000 times more reliable or less prone to failure or data hacking than they are today.

Don’t laugh. Such measures of improvement are far from unattainable, and will run in parallel to the inevitable development of robust and safe driverless cars, the elimination of all traffic lights or costly overpasses on motorways, and the use of registered, banking details linked, retinal scan data bases that remove the need for Opal or Myki transport cards or physical EFTPOS and cash checkouts at supermarkets.

It’s the political and social and privacy risks that could be the killer factors, perhaps literally. At the moment from personal, family and associate experiences, the biometric scanning machines used as passport readers are insufficiently reliable at major airports. Whether the failures are motivated by contemporary Luddites in organised labour or the curse of marketing that far exceeds real world performance, is a matter of opinion. But I have witnessed Sydney Airport just wave people through border protocols because the pressure of incoming passengers versus totally stuffed up scanners, and pathetically undermanned physical check points, was clearly more intolerable than the risk of an undesirable passenger being undetected by the so called Border Force.

As an old white guy I’ve been waved through a number of check points at home and abroad,  and even the Opalcard checkers on Sydney trains flick pass me at times when the Opal Force ambushes a peak hour carriage stuffed full of many more commuters than ever intended.

As the capability of IT technology to deliver fast and efficient checking and tracking of masses of people rises, so does the level of distrust. Given the lies about security of personal data that have been exposed during the last Australian census, the chronic failings of the Centrelink robo data scamming of society’s most vulnerable voters, and the massive 2012 Yahoo data breach (and a few urgent warnings from my own bank after an employee fraudulently garnisheed a huge number of credit cards for a few extra cents per victim per month) trust in the will or ability of IT to put private data security first must be close to zero.

The potential misuse of data by next generation border control protocols could fulfill some of the worst visions of dystopian sci-fi writers and those in IT who manage to see clearly through the fog of group think. It could be used to find and block those who follow Gods and Prophets unacceptable to authority, as well as the provably criminally compromised that infest the ranks of financial advisers, clergy, and those nasty dangerous people practising environmental science as part of Senator Robert’s hysterical ravings about zionist, green, UN supported would be world dominators.

If IT is controlled by ‘people like us’, the really boring, conventional and compliant fools who accept governments at their word, then it can be readily used to suppress or marginalise those who are ‘not like us’, have different coloured skin, or dare to move beyond their expected social station.

(And for those readers who are literal minded, please look up definitions and examples of ‘irony’ or ‘satire’ at this point.)

The technology that will inevitably greatly improve the efficiency and security of using airports, buying groceries, and moving about by road and public transport systems, creates massive amounts of ‘big data’ as well as individually identifiable data.

It is just as important to manage and define the limits and responsibilities of that power as it is to harness its benefits.  So far, little seems to be being done to recognise or deal with abuses that weren’t even foreseen by George Orwell when he published Nineteen Eight Four in 1949.

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