Big Brother to Watch Over Island
2:00 AM May. 04, 2004 PT
If you have ever seen the cult '60s British television program The Prisoner, in which captured Cold War spies live on an island under constant surveillance, you can imagine what life may soon be like on Ayers Island, on the Penobscot River near the University of Maine.
In coming years, visitors to Ayers Island, the site of an abandoned paper and textile mill in Orono, Maine, will be spied upon by a comprehensive network of video cameras, motion detectors and sensors. Lurking behind all of those sensors will be an artificial intelligence system that will decide who can be trusted and who is deserving of greater scrutiny.
The engineers, drawn largely from the nearby University of Maine, will use the network to test the reliability of new sensors. They will also attempt to demonstrate that AI, combined with ubiquitous sensors, may be able to provide civil authorities with comprehensive, real-time intelligence about the whereabouts of individuals and cars, and the status of buildings and other structures within a particular geographical area.
Ayers Island will be open to the public, who are expected to visit the island for its nature trails, amphitheater, sculpture garden and museum, all part of a planned renovation project for the island. A contemporary arts festival on Ayers Island is scheduled for this summer. Many cameras and motion detectors will be in place by that time, according to the company that owns the island, Ayers Island LLC.
The island's initial monitoring systems will be rudimentary, made from off-the-shelf parts and store-bought alarm systems.
But eventually, ubiquitous cameras and biometric readers, backed by a central computer, will recognize and record faces and license plates, and make it possible for someone sitting at a computer monitor to track individuals everywhere they go on the island, said George Markowsky, president of Ayers Island LLC.
"This is going to push the envelope on a lot of fronts," said Markowsky. "The goal is to detect anyone coming onto the island at any point, and to follow them if they exhibit suspicious behavior."
The central computer will pay special attention to individuals who seem to be trying to avoid detection, such as those slipping quietly onto the island in kayaks, for example. (The island is accessible via a one-lane bridge.)
The surveillance system will learn to recognize and trust regular visitors to Ayers Island, such as a woman who walks her dog on the island every morning, said Markowsky. "But if it sees three big guys it has never seen before, it will take notice," he said.
The system, called Intelligent Island, would also make Ayers Island less welcoming to visitors with nothing to hide, said a privacy lawyer who specializes in video tracking. Surveillance cameras put people on edge, and people learn to change their behaviors to avoid suspicion, or to conform to social norms, said Cedric Laurant, policy counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C.
"People start fitting in to what they think is good social behavior," Laurant said. "And that leads to increased discrimination against those that don't conform to those norms."
Markowsky is aware that the Intelligent Island system evokes the Big Brother scenario. He said he hopes his project sparks more discussion about surveillance and privacy rights. The Intelligent Island system, while intrusive, may also serve as a deterrent to crime, he said.
"It cuts both ways," Markowsky said, of the concern many have about being constantly monitored. "Which is worse? Knowing that a computer is tracking your movements, or walking around looking over your shoulder, being afraid someone is going to attack you?"
The Intelligent Island system will do more than follow individuals: Sensors embedded inside Ayers Islands' renovated and new buildings will monitor their structural integrity and tell rescue workers in a disaster if any people are inside the buildings.
"Firemen risk their lives rushing into burning buildings, because they don't know if any people are in them," said Markowsky. "It would be nice to know that a building is actually empty."
Markowsky has used funds from the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up Ayers Island and the old mill, which was shut down in the 1990s. His company is now seeking funds from the Department of Homeland Security to help pay for the Intelligent Island system.
Markowsky plans to make Ayers Island a showcase for homeland security technologies when he opens the island to public visitors and startup technology companies, which he hopes will rent office space on the island.
Ayers Island is already used for homeland security exercises by a Maine National Guard team specializing in nuclear, biological, chemical and explosive materials. The island will also be used this summer by scientists testing cargo-shipping containers from the Middle East and Asia for signs of tampering.
But Markowsky said participation by members of the public will be essential to the success of the Intelligent Island project. Signs will inform visitors they are being monitored.
"People everywhere are being watched a lot more than they realize," said Markowsky. "But here, there will be no doubt. This will be a huge surveillance project."
Be a shame if somebody cut all power to the island and tore up all that Brave New World trash.