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Excerpt from Welcome to the Machine

National Emergency Number Association (p. 122)

From chapter "The Panoptic Sort"

Ninety-nine percent of the U.S. population can dial 911 in an emergency. A third to half of the 911 calls are now made using cell phones. But in one test, 15 percent of the 911 calls made on cell phones didn’t get through. And only 1 percent of the agencies in charge of responding to emergencies can identify the location of a 911 call made from a cell phone.

To better protect and serve us, in 1999 the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that 911 operators should be able to identify cell phone numbers just like they do land line numbers—and that new cell phones should include global positioning system (GPS) technology so that a phone call made on a cell phone could be pinpointed within one hundred yards. The rules were to be in effect by 2005 but the need to upgrade both cell phone design and 911 center technology has slowed implementation of the new rules.

The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) would like to change that. Who is NENA? They’ve been around for twenty years, and have seven thousand members and forty-six chapters. Their purported mission is to “foster the technological advancement, availability, and implementation of a universal emergency telephone number system.” The “protection of human life, the preservation of property and the maintenance of general community security are among NENA’s stated objectives.”But we might wonder at their real objectives when we learn that NENA’s partners in public forums include representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Congress, and the FCC. The NENA Business Alliance includes Nortel, Lucent, SBC, ATX Technologies, Motorola, Tel Control, and other high-tech telecommunications corporations. Do you believe these corporate personhoods have your security interests at heart?

No cell phone? Not a problem for those in power. Do you drive a car? The new black boxes in cars are a classic example of technological innovation, function creep, the obsession for security, the drive toward standardization, bureaucratic compartmentalization, and the impotence of privacy law. Twenty-five million cars in the United States have event data recorders in them. The original and ostensible purpose of the recorder was to “monitor sensors and decide whether to fire air bags.” So far so good. But we’ll go step by step through what happened next to illustrate a process that happens with technology after technology. First, technological innovation: a new feature allows some data to be stored, such as the speed of the vehicle just before a crash. Next, function creep: General Motors has been gathering statistics from the recorders since the 1990s—always with the owner’s permission, they say, since consumer privacy is a “top concern” with GM. Then, more function creep: the Vetronix Corporation sells machines that give outsiders the ability to read the recorders. Insurance companies and police agencies are interested. Then, the drive toward standardization: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is considering whether the auto industry (and the allied industries of insurance, police, highway construction, and so on) should standardize the equipment. Bureaucratic compartmentalization: NHTSA says the standards are years away, and that it is the courts that should decide who can use the data in the recorders. Impotence of privacy law: personal injury attorneys, as well as police, are pointing out that your driving affects us all, and anyone on the road can see how fast you’re driving, so you can’t expect any privacy here. They say, “the privacy claim is just an excuse for keeping people from knowing the truth.”It’s the same old glass houses argument of W. L. George. And it’s the same old sleight of mind that rationalizes revealing more information about those lower on the hierarchy while concealing it about those higher: do you think you’d be allowed to peek at a CEO’s or a politician’s black box recorder anytime you wanted?

Meanwhile, it’s not just black boxes that store data on how fast you’re driving: autos can be equipped, or planted, with GPS devices. Cops put GPS devices on cars to follow suspects. Stalkers put GPS devices on cars to follow victims. “Experts who train victims’ advocates, law enforcement and prosecutors recommend that you check underneath the hood of your car and look for suspicious-looking parts.”But you don’t need stalkers or cops to install your GPS for you. There are people who do it themselves. Some of the more expensive cars now include “Onboard Assistance” GPS systems so that you know where you’ve been. And foreign business executives and diplomats, both at risk for kidnapping, are being urged to use implanted chips and GPS devices to prepare for a possible rescue.

Of course letting everyone know where everyone else is isn’t the goal here. The cells of the Panopticon must always be lit, while the guard stations must always be dark. The military, which developed GPS, has the ability to turn off GPS signals. They call it “selective availability” to “degrade the quality of GPS available to civilians.” That ability has been denied by a May 2000 executive order that states the military has to pinpoint areas if it decides to degrade GPS quality. So far the news reports that only unsavory characters (such as the Taliban) have been denied the benefits of GPS technology.

The point is that we should never be deceived that technologies are neutral. They are controlled by those in power, which means those in power have the ability to gain access to information about those under their power, whether or not those under their power desire this information known. This information is then used to reward those the powerful choose to reward, and to harm those they wish to harm. At the same time, those not in power do not have access to the same sort of information about those in power. Within this rubric, information, like power, is a one-way street, and a dead-end one, at that.