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Safety or Privacy: New Technology Will Make Us Choose

Should we allow the government to use our cell phones to track potential dirty bombers?

by
N.M. Guariglia

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May 7, 2010 - 12:00 am
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Not content with regulating home-baked cookie sales, the federal government is now attempting to take upon itself the authority to monitor the various locations of the citizenry by using an individual’s cell phone as a tracking mechanism.  As usual, the government is saying this power will help authorities track down bad guys — drug dealers, criminals, and the like.  But there may yet be another reason, even if the government hasn’t realized it.

Researchers at Purdue University have been working on developing a technology that could detect nuclear radiation in cities and metropolitan areas. Theoretically, this technology would work most advantageously if it were placed in mobile phones. The government would therefore be able to use the cellular network as a “grid,” thereby tracing the location of a possible dirty bomb.

Before decrying the excesses of Big Brother, civil libertarians should give this concept some consideration. However legitimate one’s opposition to the “surveillance state,” the thinking person ought to concede three unassailable truths: 1) there are tens of thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of individuals throughout this world who consider it a solemn religious obligation to destroy American cities; 2) these individuals are sincere in their warped convictions and determined to pursue their heinous objective; they cannot be deterred or dissuaded; 3) these individuals will soon have the atomic means to achieve their apocalyptic ends — likely within the decade, certainly within most of our lifetimes.

Martin Shubik, the Yale economist, liked to draw a curve of the number of civilians ten determined men could kill before they were killed themselves. Throughout history, the change in this number is sobering. Crassly put, as time goes on, fewer men have always been able to kill more people. Consequently, it is not fatalistic or paranoid to assume that we will likely one day witness ten men with ten suitcases attempt to vaporize ten of our cities. The intent is there. The technology is there, increasing exponentially. This isn’t a possibility. It’s a probability.

So at face value, Purdue University’s development of this technology is a good thing. “The likely targets of a potential terrorist attack would be big cities with concentrated populations, and a system like this would make it very difficult for someone to go undetected with a radiological dirty bomb in such an area,” said Andrew Longman, the consulting scientist who is helping develop the system. Longman goes on: “The more people are walking around with cell phones … the easier it would be to detect and catch the perpetrator. We are asking the public to push for this.”

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