If you want to see scary science fiction in real life, watch this video. For the first time, the U.S. Department of Defense gives us a glimpse into its new surveillance system—one that puts George Orwell’s to shame. This big brother is capable of some serious spying, and his name is Argus.
Argus is actually a pretty clumsy acronym: Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System. But there’s nothing clumsy about its capabilities. Argus has the world’s highest resolution camera, which records 1.8 billion pixels in real-time. The sensor itself is classified, but the DoD gave PBS a bit of a teaser for the NOVA special “Rise of the Drones.”
It all started when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of new imaging instruments for cancer screening, despite some FDA scientists who thought that the machines produced excessive radiation. Five scientists blamed flaws in the review process, and began drafting complaints to other authorities, such as members of Congress and oversight committees. Worried that the employees were leaking information and undermining the FDA, officials began secret surveillance of the scientists’ government laptops, which they used both at work and at home. Spy software recorded keystrokes, snapped screen images, and copied personal e-mails and documents, including communications between the scientists and members of Congress, journalists, and lawyers.
Eric Lichtblau and Scott Shane reported on the FDA’s surveillance in the New York Times.
While federal agencies have broad discretion to monitor their employees’ computer use, the F.D.A. program may have crossed legal lines by grabbing and analyzing confidential information that is specifically protected under the law, including attorney-client communications, whistle-blower complaints to Congress and workplace grievances filed with the government.
These days, our artificial ears and eyes are better than ever—and more ubiquitous than ever. A business recently profiled by the New York Times seems to embody both what’s most promising about such pervasive surveillance and also what’s potentially disturbing.
ShotSpotter sells and helps run an automated gunshot-reporting system to police departments, for a cost of $40,000 to $60,000 per square mile. Recording equipment is installed in neighborhoods and linked software that records sounds that could be gunfire, analyzes them to identify which are actually shots, and then submits its findings for review by a trained employee in the company’s Mountain View office. If a human verifies that the sounds are indeed gunfire, the police are notified with the location of the shots, pinpointed to within 40-50 feet. All this can happen in well under five minutes, meaning police can be there right away.
The next time you enjoy the sight of a hummingbird in a garden, you might want to look twice–because it could be the government’s new avian-inspired drone. Dubbed “Nano Hummingbird,” this camera-toting, remote-controlled surveillance tool is the latest gadget to fly out the doors of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency).
Commissioned by the Pentagon in 2006 and designed by AeroVironment, this bird-drone’s abilities match its $4 million price tag: It flies forward, backward, and sideways, and it can even hover in mid-air. That’s not bad for a battery-powered, 6.5-inch long bundle of communication systems and motors that weighs in at two-thirds of an ounce. “We’ve achieved what our customer asked us to,” AeroVironment Vice President Steve Gitlin told TIME Magazine. But with the robot’s maximum speed clocking in at 11 miles per hour, natural hummingbirds can fly circles around this bot.
DARPA hopes Nano Hummingbird could eventually be used as an extra eye on the battlefield.