Red Scare

This is Dallas, a conservative bastion. But the county government is setting up a system for spying on private citizens that would have turned old Joe Stalin green with envy.

The county has signed a $40 million contract with a French multinational corporation to take over all of its information technology, from property tax payments to court files to election records. The company, SchlumbergerSema of Paris, is an international pioneer in the technology of "smart cards"--chips embedded in plastic ID cards and in machinery, even surgically embedded, to enable the minute monitoring of individual behavior.

Schlumberger is one of several companies competing to develop smart cards that will marry biometrics with miniprocessors. The goal is a chip containing the bearer's photograph, fingerprints, lip kiss prints, iris recognition image, even DNA. The chip would exchange information about the bearer with reader machines connected to vast national databases.

In a New York press release announcing the agreement, Schlumberger promised it would help make Dallas "Homeland Security compliant, providing both physical and logical [information] security.

"For example," the company said, "SchlumbergerSema is creating a bio-terrorism tracking system, which will help gather and disseminate information for the county. Furthermore, SchlumbergerSema is streamlining the county's law enforcement/court system with a new system designed by SchlumbergerSema."

SchlumbergerSema said it would talk to me about its contract but then backed out after I breathed the word "privacy." Dallas County officials said they would provide a copy of the contract then changed their minds after a similar conversation.

That left me to do some reading on my own about the state-of-the-art smart cards and about the federal government's push for "Total Information Awareness" as an anti-terrorism tool. Let's play this out in simple terms:

Imagine that two years from now Schlumberger, whose primary business is oilfield services, hits a really bad patch financially and finds a way to avoid ruin by aggressively marketing some of the data it has mined as an IT consultant to companies and governments. Imagine that your own longtime employer is on hard times as well. And let's imagine that you are four years from retirement and have been diagnosed with a very early cancer that is affecting your kidneys.

Your company decides it needs to deep-six anybody who's going to incur major medical expenses any time soon. They drop a nickel in the Schlumberger information jukebox, and out pops the fact that you have been flushing your toilet a lot between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.

They also notice that you've been making cell calls to an oncology practice. But the really irritating thing they find is that last year, after you were told to vote for the Work, Family and Discipline candidate for governor, you voted for that weak-kneed Republican they hate.

Too weird? Some of it's real right now. The rest is just around the corner.

The Jacksonville, Florida, Electric Authority, called JEA, which serves 350,000 electric customers and 227,000 water customers in northeast Florida, is under contract with Schlumberger to set up wireless metering of all residential accounts. The system, under construction as we speak, will send in reports on an individual home's electric and water consumption every five minutes. An article in City and County magazine gushes that "The wireless fixed network will allow engineers and planners to take an instant true-load snapshot by house, by area or by town."

Right now they can minutely monitor the load for your whole house. Tomorrow they will put chips in every outlet and at each faucet.

Smile. You're on Candid Camera.

During the 2001 Super Bowl in the Ybor City district of Tampa, Florida, Tampa police tried to use a biometric system based on facial characteristics to monitor vast crowds. Computers were to search for matches between faces in the crowd and a database of bad people. The system didn't work at all, because of problems with lighting and anomalies that occur when people change their hairdos or alter their facial expressions.

But they'll get there. How long ago was it that you almost had to stop your car at the Tollway so that the machine could read your tag? Now you can do it at 70 mph, right?

When these systems are perfected, you will be asked to expose your eye to an iris recognition reader, or to press your fingerprint against a pane of glass, or submit a fluid, or perhaps kiss a portrait of your corporate leader: When the reader agrees that you are the proper bearer of your card, and when the card agrees that it works for the reader, then the card and the reader will exchange all sorts of information about you. You will not know what they're talking about.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze