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NEWS & FORTEANA

Warning: Big Brother loves your tats

By chief hack Ignatius Rake

Posted December 04, 2017
Warning: Big Brother loves your tats
Marked for life: US spooks are working on yet another way to track you. Public domain

EFF goes to court over an FBI-sponsored tattoo recognition system that has serious implications for personal freedom.



Whether you like them or not, there was a time when tattoos actually meant something.

An old soldier might roll up his sleeve in the British Legion to show you his Royal Artillery tat or a West Ham fan might get the club's crossed hammers inked on his skin to prove he ain't Millwall.

Similarly, spill the pint of an outlaw biker and you'll likely be floored by an arm and fist heavily bedecked with the symbols of his particular 1% MC.

Then there's the whole world of Russian prison tattoos, and that's not mentioning the genuinely tribal tats that, for example, a Maori or Tongan might sport.

These days, though, any Tom, Dick or Harriet has them.

Thanks to hipsters and other fuckwits, tats have become ubiquitous and meaningless.

And if you don't believe me, just think of Sam Cam's crappy dolphin or the Little Mermaid scrawl in the picture below.


hipster woman tattoos
I want a Little Mermaid tattoo: Because… because… I'm an adult now, mummy! © Ignatius Rake


LOREM IPSUM
It wouldn't be so bad if these trendy modern tats showed any semblance of originality, profundity or artistic merit, but instead it appears that a huge swathe of the younger population just want a tattoo for the sake of having one, to fit in with the herd as opposed to standing out from it.

As such, and unable to think of anything original or worthwhile to scratch into their skin, they might as well get 'lorem ipsum' scrawled all over their bodies.

After all, it would still be a lot better than getting a McDonald's receipt indelibly inked on your arm or the Chinese characters for 'supermarket' on your stomach.

While I certainly don't wish to castigate every tattoo and tattoo-wearer out there (I have plenty of inked friends whose tats have both meaning and worth), the fact remains that in this modern era of highly suggestible kidults, the bulk of today's tats tend to symbolise nothing other than a serious lack of imagination and the inability to think long-term.

Hence the word 'twattoo'.

Where once a tat was something akin to a badge of office or allegiance to a cultural subgroup, they now just signify conformity with everything that is bollocks.

Or as one wag put it, a neck tattoo used to mean 'don't mess'; now it means 'let me tell you about my vegan poetry'.


hipster how original
Hipsters: Get the T-shirt here (prices start at under a UK tenner ($12.95)). © Ignatius Rake


TATTOO RECOGNITION TECHNOLOGY
But while so many modern tattoos are at best the signs of an empty mind, from the point of view of the global surveillance state, they are an absolute goldmine.

Not content with facial recognition software and a plethora of other passive and active biometric data collection and analysis systems, the Central Scrutinizer is now keen to pore all over your tramp stamps and whoremarks to boot.

And thanks to there being CCTV everywhere, you won't first need to send in a snap of your tats to be studied and tracked like a laboratory rat.

Indeed, according to a press release sent to the Rake & Herald, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) – an organisation we very much support – has just filed suit against the US Department of Justice (DOJ), the US Department of Commerce (DOC) and the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), "demanding records about the agencies' work on the federal Tattoo Recognition Technology programme".

This "secretive programme", the EFF reports, "involves a coalition of government, academia and private industry working to develop a series of algorithms that would rapidly detect tattoos, identify people via their tattoos and match people with others who have similar body art – as well as flagging tattoos believed to be connected to religious and ethnic symbols".

This type of surveillance, it continues, "raises profound religious, speech and privacy concerns".

Furthermore, "the limited information that EFF has been able to obtain about the programme has already revealed a range of potentially unethical behaviour, including conducting research on prisoners without approval, adequate oversight or safeguards".

Mind you, it wouldn't be the first time the US government experimented on inmates without their consent.


big brother follows you
Big Brother follows you: Now he wants to track you by your tats. © Ignatius Rake


SERIOUS CONCERNS
A National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) project sponsored by the FBI, the Tattoo Recognition Technology programme has commendably been on the EFF's radar for some time.

Consequently, since January 2016, the organisation has filed a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on the matter.

However, while the agencies in question have surrendered some records, "they withheld others and heavily redacted some of the documents they released".

As a result, the EFF is now taking the DHS, the DOJ and the NIST's parent agency, the Commerce Department, to court to get this important information out to the public.

"These new automated tattoo recognition tools raise serious constitutional concerns," says EFF Stanton Fellow Camille Fischer.

"Tattoos have served as an expression of the self for thousands of years and can represent our innermost thoughts, closely held beliefs and significant moments."

"If law enforcement is creating a detailed database of tattoos, we have to make sure that everyone's rights to freedom of expression are protected."


compass tattoo
Compass or white power symbol? Either way, it's a shit tattoo. Public domain


BIG DANGER
One "big danger" of this surveillance programme, the EFF says, is that in the US it can create First Amendment freedom of association concerns "when people are matched with others who have similar tattoos – sometimes incorrectly".

For example, the EFF notes, someone who wears a Star of David tattoo could be confused with belonging to a Chicago street gang whose members also wear six-pointed-star tattoos.

Indeed, an immigrant to the US was recently "fast-tracked for deportation because immigration officials claimed he had a gang tattoo".

The said immigrant, however, argued that the tattoo simply signified his place of birth.

"Federal researchers say they want to 'crack the code' of tattoos and speech, creating a powerful programme that will encourage police to make assumptions about tattoo-wearers," says EFF staff attorney Aaron Mackey.

"But the reality is that body art is much more complex than that."

"The government must disclose more about this programme so we can ensure that it doesn't violate our rights."

The thing is, if they're doing this in the States, how long will it be before the same system is rolled out across the UK, mainland Europe and elsewhere?

Quicker than it takes for a squiggle of ink to dry, probably.

Anyway, for more information on tattoo recognition technology, have a click of this and this.

In the meantime, here's Half Man Half Biscuit.

God bless the EFF.

Oh, and if you're thinking about getting your eyeball tattooed, you might want to read this first.




See also The smart person's guide to the future, posted 3/12/17, Secrets of Cornwall: Communications, posted 14/11/17, and Cory Doctorow takes on DRM, posted 25/1/15, among others.


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Ignatius Rake is a journalist, geographer, artist, lyricist and life-long fortean who blew the lid on the 2017 Eden UFO hoax. His hobbies include sitting, eating and drinking. He has so far visited more than 70 countries on six continents. You can view some of his Dada-inspired art here.


Engage with the Rake & Herald on FaceBook here and Twitter here. Better still, buy a T-shirt here.


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