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Future Imperative

What if technology were being developed that could enhance your mind or body to extraordinary or even superhuman levels -- and some of these tools were already here? Wouldn't you be curious?

Actually, some are here. But human enhancement is an incredibly broad and compartmentalized field. We’re often unaware of what’s right next door. This site reviews resources and ideas from across the field and makes it easy for readers to find exactly the information they're most interested in.

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The future is coming fast, and it's no longer possible to ignore how rapidly the world is changing. As the old order changes -- or more frequently crumbles altogether -- I offer a perspective on how we can transform ourselves in turn... for the better. Nothing on this site is intended as legal, financial or medical advice. Indeed, much of what I discuss amounts to possibilities rather than certainties, in an ever-changing present and an ever-uncertain future.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How Facebook and Cell Phones Can Stop Street Crime and Corruption in Egypt, and Everywhere Else...

Street level crime, especially the corruption of law-enforcement, is a common concern reported from the streets of Cairo, as mentioned here. But in the wake of a revolution organized by cell phones, Facebook and Twitter, Egyptians may find their phones and Facebook accounts could prove potent tools against such criminal activity.

The solution is a simple one. Most cell phones now have the ability to take pictures, and quite a few are able to take video as well. Criminals in a high-density city -- such as Cairo or Alexandria -- are unable to watch in every direction at once, much less to notice every open cell phone on the sidewalk, or in doorways or windows. When you see someone demanding a bribe or committing a major crime (such as violent assault, or robbing a home or store), take a video if you can, or a photo if you can not. Most crimes are best recorded using video, preferably with understandable sound if words are exchanged (especially threats and demands for bribes). But even a photo begins to build evidence against someone. Still, this act is only the beginning.

Most users of Facebook have noticed that when they show up in photos on other people's pages, the system can automatically recognize their features and connect them to those images. The same facial-recognition technology could be used to connect people in one photograph or video after another. This tracking would connect criminals with not just one crime, but every crime for which you had video or photographic evidence. (Images taken from the best moments (or "frames") of a video would give the software the picture from which it would scan the criminal's face.) In effect, you would have created a "dossier" on this individual, linking them to misdeeds throughout the city, the country, or potentially even the world.

What you need once you have these photos is a host to maintain the images gathered on a particular individual, and a source of facial-recognition software that could link them and file them in the first place. Obviously, if Facebook cooperated in this endeavor, that would be the easiest and most obvious solution. Without Facebook's permission, however, the company would probably look dimly upon people signing up an account for a named or unnamed criminal in order to post incriminating photos about them. Google, of course, can offer facial recognition of your pictures through its free Picasa software, though it obviously does not maintain the equivalent of Facebook pages as an easily browsed summary of them. Though more laborious, iPhones iPhoto software can tag images that can then be searched using Spotlight. Finally, Sony's free Picture Motion Browser can also search through video images and link recognized individuals. OpenCV, free software that include facial recognition, is another option, though also lacking Facebook's autotagging of images. Other organizations, however, could maintain such a dedicated site and database, if they had the identified and tagged images. Another option, of course, would be to have people employed as law enforcement sign up willingly for their own Facebook account, and to post a photo of themselves on their profile.

Obviously, local "citizens watch" groups in Egypt could have their own servers capable of processing and storing this data, and of putting it up on a website. There are advantages, however, to placing the core of such an operation (or at least a copy) beyond the reach of any local criminal, no matter how well connected. Hence, cooperation with one or more international organizations, such as a few human rights groups in a number of different countries, under the oversight of different governments, would help you to archive your information through site mirrors, even if you decided to have one or more databases maintained in-country.

Such cooperation might prove surprisingly easy to arrange. You see, if you can make this work, then it could become popularized around the world and then could be duplicated by people and organizations tracking major human rights violations all over the planet, as well as those opposed to crime and corruption on the local scale. Cell phones are nearly ubiquitous, and Internet access is becoming more common all the time. Once you have proved the concept, it can spread.

What do you do with this information once you have it?

Well, once you have this kind of information about an individual, especially a serial offender, you can bring this to the attention of any number of authorities, human-rights groups, and international observers. Ordinary criminals will likely be brought down by any honest law enforcement you may have, or by anyone trying to at least appear to be honest and diligent. Where official corruption is concerned, your most egregious officers and officials are apt to fall first, as few people responsible to the public will risk much for individuals caught again and again in videos, blatantly demanding bribes or otherwise abusing their positions. Bringing these people to international attention, especially on websites where everyone from diplomats to officials approving foreign-aid money can see them, will exert a steady, powerful influence over the long-term. Even if every dishonorable person is not brought down, everyone involved in extorting money and other questionable acts will understand they are being watched, and that their deeds could be recorded and go out internationally at any time.

And rest assured, they will notice.

Meanwhile, links to the pages that sum up their activities can be sent to judges, their superiors, Parliamentary investigations, community groups and other interested parties. Again, the worst will fall first, but everyone will take notice. 



Regarding Interruptions in Internet Access

Needless to say, the above plan relies on being able to access the Internet at least sporadically, and ideally whenever you need it. Given that blackouts and other disruptions can easily cut off Internet access at inconvenient times, I am including links to three different resources that could enable cooperating people to maintain their own Internet locally and even, if necessary, internationally. These three articles -- from PC World, Wired, and Anonymous -- all discuss options that could be used to either circumvent normal interference and/or to build an alternate local Internet using, say, meshed wireless networks. This list covers open source ad-hoc network and routing protocols and platforms, though these are all still works in progress.

One Final Note

Acquiring facial-recognition technology adequate for this purpose is trickier without Facebook's cooperation, Google searches, or Apple or Sony software, but it is by no means impossible, or even necessarily that difficult. The open-source software movement puts together basic technologies such as this all the time, especially when they have been around for years, and the Egyptian revolution is exactly the kind of crowd-sourced, Internet-organized kind of drama that would be apt to galvanize these volunteer programmers. Still, I would try the other options first, especially the free ones, as they are already built and ready to go, and you can find plenty of people who will already know the advantages and disadvantages of each.

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