Category Archives: Law

Deterring rape and sexual assault

Since writing this a new set of stats has come out (yes, I should have predicted that):

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/crime-stats/crime-statistics/focus-on-violent-crime-and-sexual-offences–2012-13/rft-table-2.xls

New technology appears all the time, but it seemed to me that some very serious problems were being under-addressed, such as rape and sexual assault. Technology obviously won’t solve them alone, but I believe it could help to some degree. However, I wanted to understand the magnitude of the problem first, so sought out the official statistics. I found it intensely frustrating task that left me angry that government is so bad at collecting proper data. So although I started this as another technology blog, it evolved and I now also discuss the statistics too, since poor quality data collection and communication on such an important issue as rape is a huge problem in itself. That isn’t a technology issue, it is one of government competence.

Anyway, the headline stats are that:

1060 rapes of women and 522 rapes of girls under 16 resulted in court convictions. A third as many attempted rapes also resulted in convictions.

14767 reports of rapes or attempted rapes (typically 25%) of females were initially recorded by the police, of which 33% were against girls under 16.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales estimates that 69000 women claim to have been subjected to rape or attempted rape.

I will discuss the stats further after I have considered how technology could help to reduce rape, the original point of the blog.

This is a highly sensitive area, and people get very upset with any discussion of rape because of its huge emotional impact. I don’t want to upset anybody by misplacing blame so let me say very clearly:

Rape or sexual assault are never a victim’s fault. There are no circumstances under which it is acceptable to take part in any sexual act with anyone against their will. If someone does so, it is entirely their fault, not the victim’s. People should not have to protect themselves but should be free to do as they wish without fear of being raped or sexually assaulted. Some people clearly don’t respect that right and rapes and sexual assaults happen. The rest of us want fewer people to be raped or assaulted and want more guilty people to be convicted. Technology can’t stop rape, and I won’t suggest that it can, but if it can help reduce someone’s chances of becoming a victim or help convict a culprit, even in just some cases, that’s progress.  I just want to do my bit to help as an engineer. Please don’t just think up reasons why a particular solution is no use in a particular case, think instead how it might help in a few. There are lots of rapes and assaults where nothing I suggest will be of any help at all. Technology can only ever be a small part of our fight against sex crime.

Let’s start with something we could easily do tomorrow, using social networking technology to alert potential victims to some dangers, deter stranger rape or help catch culprits. People encounter strangers all the time – at work, on transport, in clubs, pubs, coffee bars, shops, as well as dark alleys and tow-paths. In many of these places, we expect IT infrastructure, communications, cameras, and people with smartphones. 

Social networks often use location and some apps know who some of the people near you are. Shops are starting to use face recognition to identify regular customers and known troublemakers. Videos from building cameras are already often used to try to identify potential suspects or track their movements. Suppose in the not-very-far future, a critical mass of people carried devices that recorded the data of who was near them, throughout the day, and sent it regularly into the cloud. That device could be a special purpose device or it could just be a smartphone with an app on it. Suppose a potential victim in a club has one. They might be able to glance at an app and see a social reputation for many of the people there. They’d see that some are universally considered to be fine upstanding members of the community, even by previous partners, who thought they were nice people, just not right for them. They might see that a few others have had relationships where one or more of their previous partners had left negative feedback, which may or may not be justified. The potential victim might reasonably be more careful with the ones that have dodgy reputations, whether they’re justified or not, and even a little wary of those who don’t carry such a device. Why don’t they carry one? Surely if they were OK, they would? That’s what critical mass does. Above a certain level of adoption, it would rapidly become the norm. Like any sort of reputation, giving someone a false or unjustified rating would carry its own penalty. If you try to get back at an ex by telling lies about them, you’d quickly be identified as a liar by others, or they might sue you for libel. Even at this level, social networking can help alert some people to potential danger some of the time.

Suppose someone ends up being raped. Thanks to the collection of that data by their device (and those of others) of who was where, when, with whom, the police would more easily be able to identify some of the people the victim had encountered and some of them would be able to identify some of the others who didn’t carry such a device. The data would also help eliminate a lot of potential suspects too. Unless a rapist had planned in advance to rape, they may even have such a device with them. That might itself be a deterrent from later raping someone they’d met, because  they’d know the police would be able to find them easier. Some clubs and pubs might make it compulsory to carry one, to capitalise on the market from being known as relatively safe hangouts. Other clubs and pubs might be forced to follow suit. We could end up with a society where most of the time, potential rapists would know that their proximity to their potential victim would be known most of the time. So they might behave.

So even social networking such as we have today or could easily produce tomorrow is capable of acting as a deterrent to some people considering raping a stranger. It increases their chances of being caught, and provides some circumstantial evidence at least of their relevant movements when they are.

Smartphones are very underused as a tool to deter rape. Frequent use of social nets such as uploading photos or adding a diary entry into Facebook helps to make a picture of events leading up to a crime that may later help in inquiries. Again, that automatically creates a small deterrence by increasing the chances of being investigated. It could go a lot further though. Life-logging may use a microphone that records a continuous audio all day and a camera that records pictures when the scene changes. This already exists but is not in common use yet – frequent Facebook updates are as far as most people currently get to life-logging. Almost any phone is capable of recording audio, and can easily do so from a pocket or bag, but if a camera is to record frequent images, it really needs to be worn. That may be OK in several years if we’re all wearing video visors with built-in cameras, but in practice and for the short-term, we’re realistically stuck with just the audio.

So life-logging technology could record a lot of the events, audio and pictures leading up to an offense, and any smartphone could do at least some of this. A rapist might forcefully search and remove such devices from a victim or their bag, but by then they might already have transmitted a lot of data into the cloud, possibly even evidence of a struggle that may be used later to help convict. If not removed, it could even record audio throughout the offence, providing a good source of evidence. Smartphones also have accelerometers in them, so they could even act as a sort of black box, showing when a victim was still, walking, running, or struggling. Further, phones often have tracking apps on them, so if a rapist did steal a phone, it may show their later movements up to the point where they dumped it. Phones can also be used to issue distress calls. An emergency distress button would be easy to implement, and could transmit exact location stream audio  to the emergency services. An app could also be set up to issue a distress call automatically under specific circumstances, such at it detecting a struggle or a scream or a call for help. Finally, a lot of phones are equipped for ID purposes, and that will generally increase the proportion of people in a building whose identity is known. Someone who habitually uses their phone for such purposes could be asked to justify disabling ID or tracking services when later interviewed in connection with an offense. All of these developments will make it just a little bit harder to escape justice and that knowledge would act as a deterrent.

Overall, a smart phone, with its accelerometer, positioning, audio, image and video recording and its ability to record and transmit any such data on to cloud storage makes it into a potentially very useful black box and that surely must be a significant deterrent. From the point of view of someone falsely accused, it also could act as a valuable proof of innocence if they can show that the whole time they were together was amicable, or if indeed they were somewhere else altogether at the time. So actually, both sides of a date have an interest in using such black box smartphone technology and on a date with someone new, a sensible precautionary habit could be encouraged to enable continuous black box logging throughout a date. People might reasonably object to having a continuous recording happening during a legitimate date if they thought there was a danger it could be used by the other person to entertain their friends or uploaded on to the web later, but it could easily be implemented to protect privacy and avoiding the risk of misuse. That could be achieved by using an app that keeps the record on a database but gives nobody access to it without a court order. It would be hard to find a good reason to object to the other person protecting themselves by using such an app. With such protection and extra protection, perhaps it could become as much part of safe sex as using a condom. Imagine if women’s groups were to encourage a trend to make this sort of recording on dates the norm – no app, no fun!

These technologies would be useful primarily in deterring stranger rape or date rape. I doubt if they would help as much with rapes that are by someone the victim knows. There are a number of reasons. It’s reasonable to assume that when the victim knows the rapist, and especially if they are partners and have regular sex, it is far less likely that either would have a recording going. For example, a woman may change her mind during sex that started off consensually. If the man forces her to continue, it is very unlikely that there would be anything recorded to prove rape occurred. In an abusive or violent relationship, an abused partner might use an audio recording via a hidden device when they are concerned – an app could initiate a recording on detection of a secret keyword, or when voices are raised, even when the phone is put in a particular location or orientation. So it might be easy to hide the fact that a recording is going and it could be useful in some cases. However, the fear of being caught doing so by a violent partner might be a strong deterrent, and an abuser may well have full access to or even control of their partner’s phone, and most of all, a victim generally doesn’t know they are going to be raped. So the phone probably isn’t a very useful factor when the victim and rapist are partners or are often together in that kind of situation. However, when it is two colleagues or friends in a new kind of situation, which also accounts for a significant proportion of rapes, perhaps it is more appropriate and normal dating protocols for black box app use may more often apply. Companies could help protect employees by insisting that such a black box recording is in force when any employees are together, in or out of office hours. They could even automate it by detecting proximity of their employees’ phones.

The smartphone is already ubiquitous and everyone is familiar with installing and using apps, so any of this could be done right away. A good campaign supported by the right groups could ensure good uptake of such apps very quickly. And it needn’t be all phone-centric. A new class of device would be useful for those who feel threatened in abusive relationships. Thanks to miniaturisation, recording and transmission devices can easily be concealed in just about any everyday object, many that would be common in a handbag or bedroom drawer or on a bedside table. If abuse isn’t just a one-off event, they may offer a valuable means of providing evidence to deal with an abusive partner.

Obviously, black boxes or audio recording can’t stop someone from using force or threats, but it can provide good quality evidence, and the deterrent effect of likely being caught is a strong defence against any kind of crime. I think that is probably as far as technology can go. Self-defense weapons such as pepper sprays and rape alarms already exist, but we don’t allow use of tasers or knives or guns and similar restrictions would apply to future defence technologies. Automatically raising an alarm and getting help to the scene quickly is the only way we can reasonably expect technology to help deal with a rape that is occurring, but that makes the use of deterrence via probably detection all the more valuable. Since the technologies also help protect the innocent against false accusations, that would help in getting their social adoption.

So much for what we could do with existing technology. In a few years, we will become accustomed to having patches of electronics stuck on our skin. Active skin and even active makeup will have a lot of medical functions, but it could also include accelerometers, recording devices, pressure sensors and just about anything that uses electronics. Any part of the body can be printed with active skin or active makeup, which is then potentially part of this black box system. Invisibly small sensors in makeup, on thin membranes or even embedded among skin cells could notionally detect, measure and record any kiss, caress, squeeze or impact, even record the physical sensations experiences by recording the nerve signals. It could record pain or discomfort, along with precise timing, location, and measure many properties of the skin touching or kissing it too. It might be possible for a victim to prove exactly when a rape happened, exactly what it involved, and who was responsible. Such technology is already being researched around the world. It will take a while to develop and become widespread, but it will come.

I don’t want this to sound frivolous, but I suggested many years ago that when women get breast implants, they really ought to have at least some of the space used for useful electronics, and electronics can actually be made using silicone. A potential rapist can’t steal or deactivate a smart breast implant as easily as a phone. If a woman is going to get implants anyway, why not get ones that increase her safety by having some sort of built-in black box? We don’t have to wait a decade for the technology to do that.

The statistics show that many rapes and sexual assaults that are reported don’t result in a conviction. Some accusations may be false, and I couldn’t find any figures for that number, but lack of good evidence is one of the biggest reasons why many genuine rapes don’t result in conviction. Technology can’t stop rapes, but it can certainly help a lot to provide good quality evidence to make convictions more likely when rapes and assaults do occur.

By making people more aware of potentially risky dates, and by gathering continuous data streams when they are with someone, technology can provide an extra level of safety and a good deterrent against rape and sexual assault. That in no way implies that rape is anyone’s fault except the rapist, but with high social support, it could help make a significant drop in rape incidence and a large rise in conviction rates. I am aware that in the biggest category, the technology I suggest has the smallest benefit to offer, so we will still need to tackle rape by other means. It is only a start, but better some reduction than none.

The rest of this blog is about rape statistics, not about technology or the future. It may be of interest to some readers. Its overwhelming conclusion is that official stats are a mess and nobody has a clue how many rapes actually take place.

Summary Statistics

We hear politicians and special interest groups citing and sometimes misrepresenting wildly varying statistics all the time, and now I know why. It’s hard to know the true scale of the problem, and very easy indeed to be confused by  poor presentation of poor quality government statistics in the sexual offenses category. That is a huge issue and source of problems in itself. Although it is very much on the furthest edge of my normal brief, I spent three days trawling through the whole sexual offenses field, looking at the crime survey questionnaires, the gaping holes and inconsistencies in collected data, and the evolution of offense categories over the last decade. It is no wonder government policies and public debate are so confused when the data available is so poor. It very badly needs fixed. 

There are several stages at which some data is available outside and within the justice system. The level of credibility of a claim obviously varies at each stage as the level of evidence increases.

Outside of the justice system, someone may claim to have been raped in a self-completion module of The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), knowing that it is anonymous, nobody will query their response, no further verification will be required and there will be no consequences for anyone. There are strong personal and political reasons why people may be motivated to give false information in a survey designed to measure crime levels (in either direction), especially in those sections not done by face to face interview, and these reasons are magnified when people filling it in know that their answers will be scaled up to represent the whole population, so that already introduces a large motivational error source. However, even for a person fully intending to tell the truth in the survey, some questions are ambiguous or biased, and some are highly specific while others leave far too much scope for interpretation, leaving gaps in some areas while obsessing with others. In my view, the CSEW is badly conceived and badly implemented. In spite of unfounded government and police assurances that it gives a more accurate picture of crime than other sources, having read it, I have little more confidence in the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW)  as an indicator of actual crime levels than a casual conversation in a pub. We can be sure that some people don’t report some rapes for a variety of reasons and that in itself is a cause for concern. We don’t know how many go unreported, and the CSEW is not a reasonable indicator. We need a more reliable source.

The next stage for potential stats is that anyone may report any rape to the police, whether of themselves, a friend or colleague, witnessing a rape of a stranger, or even something they heard. The police will only record some of these initial reports as crimes, on a fairly common sense approach. According to the report, ‘the police record a crime if, on the balance of probability, the circumstances as reported amount to a crime defined by law and if there is no credible evidence to the contrary‘. 7% of these are later dropped for reasons such as errors in initial recording or retraction. However, it has recently been revealed that some forces record every crime reported whereas others record it only after it has passed the assessment above, damaging the quality of the data by mixing two different types of data together. In such an important area of crime, it is most unsatisfactory that proper statistics are not gathered in a consistent way for each stage of the criminal justice process, using the same criteria in every force.

Having recorded crimes, the police will proceed some of them through the criminal justice system.

Finally, the courts will find proven guilt in some of those cases.

I looked for the data for each of these stages, expecting to find vast numbers of table detailing everything. Perhaps they exist, and I certainly followed a number of promising routes, but most of the roads I followed ended up leading back to the CSEW and the same overview report. This joint overview report for the UK was produced by the  Ministry of Justice, Home Office and the Office for National Statistics in 2013, and it includes a range of tables with selected data from actual convictions through to results of the crime survey of England and Wales. While useful, it omits a lot of essential data that I couldn’t find anywhere else either.

The report and its tables can be accessed from:

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/crime-stats/an-overview-of-sexual-offending-in-england—wales/december-2012/index.html

Another site gives a nice infographic on police recording, although for a different period. It is worth looking at if only to see the wonderful caveat: ‘the police figures exclude those offences which have not been reported to them’. Here it is:

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/crime-stats/crime-statistics/period-ending-june-2013/info-sexual-offenses.html

In my view the ‘overview of sexual offending’ report mixes different qualities of data for different crimes and different victim groups in such a way as to invite confusion, distortion and misrepresentation. I’d encourage you to read it yourself if only to convince you of the need to pressure government to do it properly. Be warned, a great deal of care is required to work out exactly what and which victim group each refers to. Some figures include all people, some only females, some only women 16-59 years old. Some refer to different crime groups with similar sounding names such as sexual assault and sexual offence, some include attempts whereas others don’t. Worst of all, some very important statistics are missing, and it’s easy to assume another one refers to what you are looking for when on closer inspection, it doesn’t. However, there doesn’t appear to be a better official report available, so I had to use it. I’ve done my best to extract and qualify the headline statistics.

Taking rapes against both males and females, in 2011, 1153 people were convicted of carrying out 2294 rapes or attempted rapes, an average of 2 each. The conviction rate was 34.6% of 6630 proceeded against, from 16041 rapes or attempted rapes recorded by the police. Inexplicably, conviction figures are not broken down by victim gender, nor by rape or attempted rape. 

Police recording stats are broken down well. Of the 16041, 1274 (8%) of the rapes and attempted rapes recorded by the police were against males, while 14767 (92%) were against females. 33% of the female rapes recorded and 70% of male rapes recorded were against children (though far more girls were raped than boys). Figures are also broken down well against ethnicity and age, for offender and victim. Figures elsewhere suggested that 25% of rape attempts are unsuccessful, which combined with the 92% proportion that were rapes of females would indicate 1582 convictions for actual rape of a female, approximately 1060 women and 522 girls, but those figures only hold true if the proportions are similar through to conviction. 

Surely such a report should clearly state such an important figure as the number of rapes of a female that led to a conviction, and not leave it to readers to calculate their own estimate from pieces of data spread throughout the report. Government needs to do a lot better at gathering, categorising, analysing and reporting clear and accurate data. 

That 1582 figure for convictions is important, but it represents only the figure for rapes proven beyond reasonable doubt. Some females were raped and the culprit went unpunished. There has been a lot of recent effort to try to get a better conviction rate for rapes. Getting better evidence more frequently would certainly help get more convictions. A common perception is that many or even most rapes are unreported so the focus is often on trying to get more women to report it when they are raped. If someone knows they have good evidence, they are more likely to report a rape or assault, since one of the main reasons they don’t report it is lack of confidence that the police can do anything.

Although I don’t have much confidence in the figures from the CSEW, I’ll list them anyway. Perhaps you have greater confidence in them. The CSEW uses a sample of people, and then results are scaled up to a representation of the whole population. The CSEW (Crime Survey of England and Wales) estimates that 52000 (95% confidence level of between 39000 and 66000) women between 16 and 59 years old claim to have been victim of actual rape in the last 12 months, based on anonymous self-completion questionnaires, with 69000 (95% confidence level of between 54000 and 85000) women claiming to have been victim of attempted or actual rape in the last 12 months. 

In the same period, 22053 sexual assaults were recorded by the police. I couldn’t find any figures for convictions for sexual assaults, only for sexual offenses, which is a different, far larger category that includes indecent exposure and voyeurism. It isn’t clear why the report doesn’t include the figures for sexual assault convictions. Again, government should do better in their collection and presentation of important statistics.

The overview report also gives the stats for the number of women who said they reported a rape or attempted rape. 15% of women said they told the police, 57% said they told someone else but not the police, and 28% said they told nobody. The report does give the reasons commonly cited for not telling the police: “Based on the responses of female victims in the 2011/12 survey, the most frequently cited were that it would be ‘embarrassing’, they ‘didn’t think the police could do much to help’, that the incident was ‘too trivial/not worth reporting’, or that they saw it as a ‘private/family matter and not police business’.”

Whether you pick the 2110 convictions of rape or attempted rape against a female or the 69000 claimed in anonymous questionnaires, or anywhere in between, a lot of females are being subjected to actual and attempted rapes, and a lot victim of sexual assault. The high proportion of victims that are young children is especially alarming. Male rape is a big problem too, but the figures are a lot lower than for female rape.

Free-floating AI battle drone orbs (or making Glyph from Mass Effect)

I have spent many hours playing various editions of Mass Effect, from EA Games. It is one of my favourites and has clearly benefited from some highly creative minds. They had to invent a wide range of fictional technology along with technical explanations in the detail for how they are meant to work. Some is just artistic redesign of very common sci-fi ideas, but they have added a huge amount of their own too. Sci-fi and real engineering have always had a strong mutual cross-fertilisation. I have lectured sometimes on science fact v sci-fi, to show that what we eventually achieve is sometimes far better than the sci-fi version (Exhibit A – the rubbish voice synthesisers and storage devices use on Star Trek, TOS).

Glyph

Liara talking to her assistant Glyph.Picture Credit: social.bioware.com

In Mass Effect, lots of floating holographic style orbs float around all over the place for various military or assistant purposes. They aren’t confined to a fixed holographic projection system. Disruptor and battle drones are common, and  a few home/lab/office assistants such as Glyph, who is Liara’s friendly PA, not a battle drone. These aren’t just dumb holograms, they can carry small devices and do stuff. The idea of a floating sphere may have been inspired by Halo’s, but the Mass Effect ones look more holographic and generally nicer. (Think Apple v Microsoft). Battle drones are highly topical now, but current technology uses wings and helicopters. The drones in sci-fi like Mass Effect and Halo are just free-floating ethereal orbs. That’s what I am talking about now. They aren’t in the distant future. They will be here quite soon.

I recently wrote on how to make force field and floating cars or hover-boards.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/06/21/how-to-actually-make-a-star-wars-landspeeder-or-a-back-to-the-future-hoverboard/

Briefly, they work by creating a thick cushion of magnetically confined plasma under the vehicle that can be used to keep it well off the ground, a bit like a hovercraft without a skirt or fans. Using layers of confined plasma could also be used to make relatively weak force fields. A key claim of the idea is that you can coat a firm surface with a packed array of steerable electron pipes to make the plasma, and a potentially reconfigurable and self organising circuit to produce the confinement field. No moving parts, and the coating would simply produce a lifting or propulsion force according to its area.

This is all very easy to imagine for objects with a relatively flat base like cars and hover-boards, but I later realised that the force field bit could be used to suspend additional components, and if they also have a power source, they can add locally to that field. The ability to sense their exact relative positions and instantaneously adjust the local fields to maintain or achieve their desired position so dynamic self-organisation would allow just about any shape  and dynamics to be achieved and maintained. So basically, if you break the levitation bit up, each piece could still work fine. I love self organisation, and biomimetics generally. I wrote my first paper on hormonal self-organisation over 20 years ago to show how networks or telephone exchanges could self organise, and have used it in many designs since. With a few pieces generating external air flow, the objects could wander around. Cunning design using multiple components could therefore be used to make orbs that float and wander around too, even with the inspired moving plates that Mass Effect uses for its drones. It could also be very lightweight and translucent, just like Glyph. Regular readers will not be surprised if I recommend some of these components should be made of graphene, because it can be used to make wonderful things. It is light, strong, an excellent electrical and thermal conductor, a perfect platform for electronics, can be used to make super-capacitors and so on. Glyph could use a combination of moving physical plates, and use some to add some holographic projection – to make it look pretty. So, part physical and part hologram then.

Plates used in the structure can dynamically attract or repel each other and use tethers, or use confined plasma cushions. They can create air jets in any direction. They would have a small load-bearing capability. Since graphene foam is potentially lighter than helium

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/05/could-graphene-foam-be-a-future-helium-substitute/

it could be added into structures to reduce forces needed. So, we’re not looking at orbs that can carry heavy equipment here, but carrying processing, sensing, storage and comms would be easy. Obviously they could therefore include whatever state of the art artificial intelligence has got to, either on-board, distributed, or via the cloud. Beyond that, it is hard to imagine a small orb carrying more than a few hundred grammes. Nevertheless, it could carry enough equipment to make it very useful indeed for very many purposes. These drones could work pretty much anywhere. Space would be tricky but not that tricky, the drones would just have to carry a little fuel.

But let’s get right to the point. The primary market for this isn’t the home or lab or office, it is the battlefield. Battle drones are being regulated as I type, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be developed. My generation grew up with the nuclear arms race. Millennials will grow up with the drone arms race. And that if anything is a lot scarier. The battle drones on Mass Effect are fairly easy to kill. Real ones won’t.

a Mass Effect combat droneMass Effect combat drone, picture credit: masseffect.wikia.com

If these cute little floating drone things are taken out of the office and converted to military uses they could do pretty much all the stuff they do in sci-fi. They could have lots of local energy storage using super-caps, so they could easily carry self-organising lightweight  lasers or electrical shock weaponry too, or carry steerable mirrors to direct beams from remote lasers, and high definition 3D cameras and other sensing for reconnaissance. The interesting thing here is that self organisation of potentially redundant components would allow a free roaming battle drone that would be highly resistant to attack. You could shoot it for ages with laser or bullets and it would keep coming. Disruption of its fields by electrical weapons would make it collapse temporarily, but it would just get up and reassemble as soon as you stop firing. With its intelligence potentially local cloud based, you could make a small battalion of these that could only be properly killed by totally frazzling them all. They would be potentially lethal individually but almost irresistible as a team. Super-capacitors could be recharged frequently using companion drones to relay power from the rear line. A mist of spare components could make ready replacements for any that are destroyed. Self-orientation and use of free-space optics for comms make wiring and circuit boards redundant, and sub-millimetre chips 100m away would be quite hard to hit.

Well I’m scared. If you’re not, I didn’t explain it properly.

Deep surveillance – how much privacy could you lose?

The news that seems to have caught much of the media in shock, that our electronic activities were being monitored, comes as no surprise at all to anyone working in IT for the last decade or two. In fact, I can’t see what’s new. I’ve always assumed since the early 90s that everything I write and do on-line or say or text on a phone or watch on digital TV or do on a game console is recorded forever and checked by computers now or will be checked some time in the future for anything bad. If I don’t want anyone to know I am thinking something, I keep it in my head. Am I paranoid? No. If you think I am, then it’s you who is being naive.

I know that if some technically competent spy with lots of time and resources really wants to monitor everything I do day and night and listen to pretty much everything I say, they could, but I am not important enough, bad enough, threatening enough or even interesting enough, and that conveys far more privacy than any amount of technology barriers ever could. I live in a world of finite but just about acceptable risk of privacy invasion. I’d like more privacy, but it’s too much hassle.

Although government, big business and malicious software might want to record everything I do just in case it might be useful one day, I still assume some privacy, even if it is already technically possible to bypass it. For example, I assume that I can still say what I want in my home without the police turning up even if I am not always politically correct. I am well aware that it is possible to use a function built into the networks called no-ring dial-up to activate the microphone on my phones without me knowing, but I assume nobody bothers. They could, but probably don’t. Same with malware on my mobiles.

I also assume that the police don’t use millimetre wave scanning to video me or my wife through the walls and closed curtains. They could, but probably don’t. And there are plenty of sexier targets to point spycams at so I am probably safe there too.

Probably, nobody bothers to activate the cameras on my iphone or Nexus, but I am still a bit cautious where I point them, just in case. There is simply too much malware out there to ever assume my IT is safe. I do only plug a camera and microphone into my office PC when I need to. I am sure watching me type or read is pretty boring, and few people would do it for long, but I have my office blinds drawn and close the living room curtains in the evening for the same reason – I don’t like being watched.

In a busy tube train, it is often impossible to stop people getting close enough to use an NFC scanner to copy details from my debit card and Barclaycard, but they can be copied at any till or in any restaurant just as easily, so there is a small risk but it is both unavoidable and acceptable. Banks discovered long ago that it costs far more to prevent fraud 100% than it does to just limit it and accept some. I adopt a similar policy.

Enough of today. What of tomorrow? This is a futures blog – usually.

Well, as MM Wave systems develop, they could become much more widespread so burglars and voyeurs might start using them to check if there is anything worth stealing or videoing. Maybe some search company making visual street maps might ‘accidentally’ capture a detailed 3d map of the inside of your house when they come round as well or instead of everything they could access via your wireless LAN. Not deliberately of course, but they can’t check every line of code that some junior might have put in by mistake when they didn’t fully understand the brief.

Some of the next generation games machines will have 3D scanners and HD cameras that can apparently even see blood flow in your skin. If these are hacked or left switched on – and social networking video is one of the applications they are aiming to capture, so they’ll be on often – someone could watch you all evening, capture the most intimate body details, film your facial expressions while you are looking at a known image on a particular part of the screen. Monitoring pupil dilation, smiles, anguished expressions etc could provide a lot of evidence for your emotional state, with a detailed record of what you were watching and doing at exactly that moment, with whom. By monitoring blood flow, pulse and possibly monitoring your skin conductivity via the controller, level of excitement, stress or relaxation can easily be inferred. If given to the authorities, this sort of data might be useful to identify paedophiles or murderers, by seeing which men are excited by seeing kids on TV or those who get pleasure from violent games, so obviously we must allow it, mustn’t we? We know that Microsoft’s OS has had the capability for many years to provide a back door for the authorities. Should we assume that the new Xbox is different?

Monitoring skin conductivity is already routine in IT labs ass an input. Thought recognition is possible too and though primitive today, we will see that spread as the technology progresses. So your thoughts can be monitored too. Thoughts added to emotional reactions and knowledge of circumstances would allow a very detailed picture of someone’s attitudes. By using high speed future computers to data mine zillions of hours of full sensory data input on every one of us gathered via all this routine IT exposure, a future government or big business that is prone to bend the rules could deduce everyone’s attitudes to just about everything – the real truth about our attitudes to every friend and family member or TV celebrity or politician or product, our detailed sexual orientation, any fetishes or perversions, our racial attitudes, political allegiances, attitudes to almost every topic ever aired on TV or everyday conversation, how hard we are working, how much stress we are experiencing, many aspects of our medical state. And they could steal your ideas, if you still have any after putting all your effort into self censorship.

It doesn’t even stop there. If you dare to go outside, innumerable cameras and microphones on phones, visors, and high street surveillance will automatically record all this same stuff for everyone. Thought crimes already exist in many countries including the UK. In depth evidence will become available to back up prosecutions of crimes that today would not even be noticed. Computers that can retrospectively date mine evidence collected over decades and link it all together will be able to identify billions of crimes.

Active skin will one day link your nervous system to your IT, allowing you to record and replay sensations. You will never be able to be sure that you are the only one that can access that data either. I could easily hide algorithms in a chip or program that only I know about, that no amount of testing or inspection could ever reveal. If I can, any decent software engineer can too. That’s the main reason I have never trusted my IT – I am quite nice but I would probably be tempted to put in some secret stuff on any IT I designed. Just because I could and could almost certainly get away with it. If someone was making electronics to link to your nervous system, they’d probably be at least tempted to put a back door in too, or be told to by the authorities.

Cameron utters the old line: “if you are innocent, you have nothing to fear”. Only idiots believe that. Do you know anyone who is innocent? Of everything? Who has never ever done or even thought anything even a little bit wrong? Who has never wanted to do anything nasty to a call centre operator? And that’s before you even start to factor in corruption of the police or mistakes or being framed or dumb juries or secret courts. The real problem here is not what Prism does and what the US authorities are giving to our guys. It is what is being and will be collected and stored, forever, that will be available to all future governments of all persuasions. That’s the problem. They don’t delete it. I’ve said often that our governments are often incompetent but not malicious. Most of our leaders are nice guys, even if some are a little corrupt in some cases. But what if it all goes wrong, and we somehow end up with a deeply divided society and the wrong government or a dictatorship gets in. Which of us can be sure we won’t be up against the wall one day?

We have already lost the battle to defend our privacy. Most of it is long gone, and the only bits left are those where the technology hasn’t caught up yet. In the future, not even the deepest, most hidden parts of your mind will be private. Ever.

Future gender equality – legally recognise everyone’s male and female sides

My writing on the future of gender and same-sex reproduction now forms a section of my new book You Tomorrow, Second Edition, on the future of humanity, gender, lifestyle and our surroundings. Available from Amazon as paper and ebook.

or

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-humanity-belongings-surroundings/dp/1491278269

Weapons on planes are everyday normality. We can’t ban them all.

I noted earlier that you can make a pretty dangerous Gauss rifle using a few easily available and legal components, and you could make a 3D-printed jig to arrange them for maximum effect. So I suggested that maybe magnets should be banned too.

(Incidentally, the toy ones you see on YouTube etc. typically just use a few magnets and some regular steel balls. Using large Nd magnets throughout with the positions and polarities optimally set would make it much more powerful). 

Now I learn that a US senator (Leland Yee of San Francisco), HT Dave Evans for the link http://t.co/REt2o9nF4t, wants 3D printers to be regulated somehow, in case they are used to make guns. That won’t reduce violence if you can easily acquire or make lethal weapons that are perfectly legal without one. On the ground, even highly lethal kitchen knives and many sharp tools aren’t licensed. Even narrowing it down to planes, there is quite a long list of potentially dangerous things you are still very welcome to take on board and are totally legal, some of which would be very hard to ban, so perhaps we should concentrate more on defence and catching those who wish us harm.

Here are some perfectly legal weapons that people carry frequently with many perfectly benign uses:

Your fingers. Fingernails particularly can inflict pain and give a deep scratch, but some people can blind or even kill others with their bare hands;

Sharp pencils or pencils and a sharpener; pens are harder still and can be pretty sharp too;

Hard plastic drink stirrers, 15cm long, that can be sharpened using a pencil sharpener; they often give you these on the flight so you don’t even have to bring them; hard plastics can be almost as dangerous as metals, so it is hard to see why nail files are banned and drinks stirrers and plastic knives aren’t;

CDs or DVDs, which can be easily broken to make sharp blades; I met a Swedish ex-captain once who said he always took one on board in his jacket pocket, just in case he needed to tackle a terrorist.

Your glasses. You can even take extra pairs if the ones you’re wearing are needed for you to see properly. Nobody checks the lenses to make sure the glass isn’t etched for custom breaking patterns, or whether the lenses can be popped out, with razor-sharp edges. They also don’t check that the ends of the arms don’t slide off. I’m sure Q could do a lot with a pair of glasses.

Rubber bands, can be used to make catapults or power other projectile weapons, and many can be combined to scale up the force;

Paperclips, some of which are pretty large and thick wire;

Nylon cord, which can be used dangerously in many ways. Nylon paracord can support half a ton but be woven into nice little bracelets, or shoelaces for that matter. Thin nylon cord is an excellent cutting tool.

Plastic zip ties (cable ties), the longer ones especially can be lethally used.

Plastic bags too can be used lethally.

All of these are perfectly legal but can be dangerous in the wrong hands. I am sure you can think of many others.

Amusingly, given the Senator’s proposed legislation, you could currently probably take on board a compact 3d printer to print any sharps you want, or a Liberator if you have one of the templates, and I rather expect many terrorist groups have a copy – and sometimes business class seats helpfully have an electrical power supply. I expect you might draw attention if you used one though.

There are lots of ways of storing energy to be released suddenly, a key requirement in many weapons. Springs are pretty good at that job. Many devices we use everyday like staple guns rely on springs that are compressed and then suddenly release all their force and energy when the mechanism passes a trigger point. Springs are allowed on board. It is very easy to design weapons based on accumulating potential energy across many springs that can then all simultaneously release them. If I can dream some up easily, so can a criminal. It’s also easy to invent mechanisms for self assembly of projectiles during flight, so parts of a projectile can be separately accelerated.

Banned devices that you could smuggle through detectors are also numerous.  High pressure gas reservoirs could easily be made using plastics or resins and could be used for a wide variety of pneumatic projectile weapons and contact or impact based stun weapons. Again, precision release mechanism could be designed for 3D printing at home, but a 3D printer isn’t essential, there are lots of ways of solving the engineering problems.

I don’t see how regulating printers would make us safer. After hundreds of thousands of years, we ought to know by now that if someone is intent on harming someone else, there is a huge variety of  ways of doing so, using objects or tools that are essential in everyday life and some that don’t need any tools at all, just trained hands.

Technology comes and goes, but nutters, criminals, terrorists and fanatics are here to stay. Only the innocent suffer the inconvenience of following the rules. It’s surely better to make less vulnerable systems.

Wind farm compensation claims undermine their investment potential.

I don’t make many recommendations on investments, but when something comes along that has clear effects, I sometimes do. I am not a financial adviser, and you aren’t paying for my advice, so I make my argument as a futurist and you make your own decision whether to take it on board or not. I take no responsibility for your financial decision, though please feel free to pass on any credit.

I have often advised against anything other than very short term investment in the green industry, and still do. It is volatile at best, with many bankruptcies already, and shows especially poor long term prospects as the poor quality science underpinning it is shown up for what it is – often worthless and counter-productive. This time it is even clearer to me. Avoid investing in wind farms, even more than yesterday.  Here’s why.

Finally there is a proper peer-reviewed scientific study proving what most people suspected already, that wind farms cause health problems and depression in people living near them. Easy-to-read summary of the key bits in the Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/energy/windpower/9653429/Wind-farm-noise-does-harm-sleep-and-health-say-scientists.html

The study’s finding were about sleep loss and increased depression, both of which were found to be much greater in communities close to wind turbines. However, these are both known to cause other serious health problems and reduce life expectancy. Suicide links with depression too, so there may also be a measurable impact on suicide rate near wind farms, another study waiting to be done. If as has been proven, wind farms cause loss of sleep and depression, it is therefore reasonable to expect a scientific study to prove a link between wind farms and serious health problems and even early death or suicide.

Separately, the industry has tried to bury and misrepresent the conclusions of a previous proper study that showed their negative effects on house prices. The results however remain valid, there is a proven effect. Erecting a wind farm lowers nearby property values.

Where people have their health or their financial state damaged by a company, and in this case often both, it surely can’t be long before class action suits follow for damages. Once the courts and claim companies get past dealing with the PPI mis-selling compensation claims, there will likely be another swathe based on loss of house value and damage to health attributed to proximity to wind farms.

What is less clear is whether the taxpayer will have to fork out instead. Since the proof of damage is recent, earlier ones could be except from reasonable blame. Since the farms have been commissioned by government, government might be considered to blame and the farm owners and manufacturers only liable for extras caused by specific circumstances or specific designs. Those who recommended, commissioned, housed, built and ran the farms, and who received all the financial benefits even in full knowledge of the harm they were causing, can be expected to deny any wrongdoing and to try to shift blame to avoid  facing the consequences. The taxpayer might well have to pick up much of the bill for damage done in spite of protesting loudly and being ignored all along. However, it will be a brave investor who ignores the risk that justice might actually work against the guilty parties. Justice happens sometimes.

My conclusion is simple: wind farms are now proven to cause damage to property value and health and large compensation claims are likely to follow sometime. Further scientific studies are likely to add weight to the evidence, making compensation payouts highly likely, and there is no provision for this in the tariff guarantees. In the extreme, farms could even be forced to close, eradicating future income (and related production-related tariffs) while leaving the up-front costs and there is no certainty that government will compensate farms for the loss. These prospects therefore obviously damage the value of investments in wind farms.

Blocking Pirate Bay makes little sense

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/9236667/Pirate-Bay-must-be-blocked-High-Court-tells-ISPs.html Justice Arnold ruled that ISPs must block their customers from accessing Pirate Bay. Regardless of the morality or legality of Pirate Bay, forcing ISPs to block access to it will cause them inconvenience and costs, but won’t fix the core problem of copyright materials being exchanged without permission from the owners.

I have never looked at the Pirate Bay site, but I am aware of what it offers. It doesn’t host material, but allows its users to download from each other. By blocking access to the Bay, the judge blocks another one of billions of ways to exchange data. Many others exist and it is very easy to set up new ones, so trying to deal with them one by one seems rather pointless. Pirate Bay’s users will simply use alternatives. If they were to block all current file sharing sites, others would spring up to replace them, and if need be, with technological variations that set them outside of any new legislation. At best judges could play a poor catch-up game in an eternal war between global creativity and the law. Because that is what this is.

Pirate Bay can only be blocked because it is possible to identify it and put it in court. It is possible to write software that doesn’t need a central site, or indeed any legally identifiable substance. It could for example be open-source software written and maintained by evolving adaptive AI, hidden behind anonymity, distributed algorithms and encryption walls, roaming freely among web servers and PCs, never stopping anywhere. It could be untraceable. It could use combinations of mobile or fixed phone nets, the internet, direct gadget-gadget comms and even use codes on other platforms such as newspapers. Such a system would be dangerous to build from a number of perspectives, but may be forced by actions to close alternatives. If people feel angered by arrogance and greed, they may be pushed down this development road. The only way to fully stop such a system would be to stop communication.

The simple fact is that technology that we depend on for most aspects of our lives also makes it possible to swap files, and to do so secretly as needed. We could switch it off, but our economy and society would collapse. To pretend otherwise is folly. Companies that feel abused should recognise that the world has moved on and they need to adapt their businesses to survive in the world today, not ask everyone to move back to the world of yesterday so that they can cope. Because we can’t and shouldn’t even waste time trying to. My copyright material gets stolen frequently. So what? I just write more. That model works fine for me. It ain’t broke, and trying to fix it without understanding how stuff works won’t protect anyone and will only make it worse for all of us.