Sun Ra - Column for 2/12

Private Eyes

Recently I’ve been reading the Harry Dresden novels by Jim Butcher. They’re fun, and although the author occasionally does frustrating things they make for excellent, page-turning BART reading.

One of the offhand comments made in one of the books was that, in the United States, some 900,000 people disappear every year. This made me boggle a little – that’s roughly one in every three hundred people. The book is fiction, of course, but it’s ostensibly set in the real world, and the number was presented as a real fact.

Seemed strongly improbable. Now, I had heard that a great many people went missing each year, largely teenagers. But 900,000 seems almost ridiculously high.

So I checked with the FBI, who have made available the statistics on missing persons for 2005. And what do you know - “During 2005, 834,536 missing person records were entered into NCIC, an increase of 0.51 % from the 830,325 entered in 2004.”


That startling statement is followed, however, by the next sentence: “Missing Person records cleared or canceled during the same period totaled 844,838.”

In other words, almost all of the people who went missing were found again. Now, some of those may be folks who turned up dead. But most of them are doubtless people who were simply found again, having run away from home or simply stayed out too long while the dog ate the note they left.

There were, at the end of 2005, 109,531 outstanding missing person records – the ongoing total since 1975.

That is actually a pretty large number, but much more in line with my expectations, and nothing akin to 900,000 people vanishing every year, never to return.

I’m of two minds about it. One the one hand, kidnapping and murder are frightening things – even more if you are a parent, when the victim might be someone more emotionally valuable than yourself – and, obviously, it’s much worse when the victim never turns up and the criminal gets away with it. See also Natalee Holloway. I daresay we would all like for this to never, ever be the case – kidnap victims should always be found, murderers should always be caught, etc.

On the other hand, I’m an American. Which means that the idea of the frontier, the fresh start, the new life, has a particular resonance for me. And thus I appreciate the fact that a person can disappear. Sure, it’s an escape valve used almost entirely by criminals and debtors and generally the worst sort of person. But that doesn’t obviate the fact that I, and I daresay a great many of my countrymen, can easily postulate a situation where it might be me that needs to get away from evil men or evil circumstance or evil authority.

A Total Surveillance Culture is coming. The UK is taking the lead, at the moment, with one surveillance camera for every fourteen people. A number which is steadily growing. Throw in mandatory national ID cards, and your chances of dropping off the radar – at least, while remaining in the country - become vanishingly small.

Britain’s example aside, what will really lead us into the TSC are two developments, both of which are clearly visible but neither of which is quite here yet:

1) Truly inexpensive, light, cheap wireless videocameras.
2) Really good image recognition/tracking software.

The reason that number one is critical is that, in my opinion, it’s not going to be the government that puts us under total surveillance. If they want to completely monitor any individual, they can do that already, and what I’m referring to is watching everyone all the time.

No, it will be private citizens. Put a cheap wireless videocamera on your lapel and suddenly mugging you – and getting away with it - is a much harder proposition. Throw cheap wireless videocameras all around your neighborhood and apprehend vandals, or shoplifters, or… well anyone, really. Enough cameras, in enough places, and you can always go back to see what happened.

And of course all this video will be available to the police for the asking. After all, they’ll need it to see who scratched your car.

Once one has that level of video surveillance, one needs computers, to sort through the massive amount of video data. Once you have that – once a computer can track a person from one end of the mall to the other with no human attention required – then surveillance will become the norm, and privacy the exception. To anyone who can review the data, there will be no anonymous strangers. And disappearing in that sort of environment will be nigh-impossible.

It’s coming. Hell, I expect to see it in my lifetime. Because putting up the cameras is the smart decision for the individual. You want to know what happens on your property. And so does everyone else. And if a stolen car whips down your street, are you going to tell the police they can’t see your footage of the driver’s face?

It’s coming, all right. And it worries me.

- Sun Ra

Columns by Sun Ra