The Panopticon Awakes

I wrote some quick reactions to New York’s and Microsoft’s new spy computer when the news first broke, and the National Catholic Register asked me to expand on these ideas in a column. An excerpt:

 “The head of Argus (as with stars the skies) / Was compass’d round, and wore an hundred eyes.”

So writes Ovid about Argus Panoptes, the many-eyed god and sleepless watcher who sees everything. Too bad Microsoft and the New York Police Department aren’t of a literary (or ironic) bent. They missed out on a cool handle for their slightly terrifying new spy computer, which is saddled with a rather mundane name: the Domain Awareness System (DAS).

The exact capabilities of DAS are still a little sketchy right now. I requested details from Microsoft, but they were still assembling them at press time. What little we know comes from a press conference in which Mayor Michael Bloomberg crowed, “We’re not your mom-and-pop police department anymore. We are in the next century. We are leading the pack.”

It was probably too much to expect that man — who thinks your salt, soda, fat and breast milk intake is of intense concern to his city — could resist ushering New York into the bold new world of 21st-century surveillance states.

And they’ll even be able to make a boatload of money at the same time. The NYPD developed the program in cooperation with Microsoft, so New York gets its system for free. If Microsoft is able to sell the system to other police departments, New York scoops up 30% of each sale. Nice work, if you can get it.

But what exactly does DAS do? Right now, it sorts through the feeds from the city’s 3,000 closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras and compares them to databases on criminals and potential terrorists. Most of these cameras are in Lower and Midtown Manhattan (the areas south of Canal and between 30th and 60th Streets, from river to river), but the NYPD is already expanding the coverage into the boroughs.

Read the whole thing.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.