NY Times: Walk This Way

May 21, 2003

Walk This Way By MAUREEN DOWD

WASHINGTON

Call me a civil liberties prude, but I don't want John Poindexter tracking my body part contours.

Or my silhouette pixels, for that matter.

Not since Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks has a government devoted so much money and study to watching our steps.

Admiral Poindexter, who supervised the strutting Oliver North during the Iran-contra machinations, is now supervising the Pentagon's attempt to create an Orwellian "virtual, centralized grand database," which could put a spyglass on Americans' every move, from literally the way Americans move to their virtual moves, scanning shopping, e-mail, bank deposits, vacations, medical prescriptions, academic grades and trips to the vet. (Sometimes pets are the first to go in biological warfare.)

One of the technologies the Pentagon is working on, as The A.P.'s Michael Sniffen reported, is a radar-based device that can identify people by the way they walk for use in a new antiterrorist surveillance system.

"Operating on the theory that an individual's walk is as unique as a signature, the Pentagon has financed a research project at the Georgia Institute of Technology that has been 80 to 95 percent successful in identifying people," he wrote.

The Pentagon, which wants to be able to identify people at 500 feet, has also enlisted the help of Carnegie Mellon University. Researchers there in biometrics are developing a video recognition method of gait analysis, which could be used by embassy security officers to check out shadowy figures.

Researchers, who are just beginning to test their method with campus cameras, say it has a laboratory success rate of 90 percent for identifying people far away by observing their walk — and not just people who walk as distinctly as Ronald Reagan, Marilyn Monroe or Hannibal Lecter.

"People have different styles of moving due to their individual idiosyncrasies as well as the differences in physical dimensions and weights of body limbs," the Carnegie-Mellon team says on its Web site, which features "spatio-temporal gaits" and "3-D body tracking."

When libertarians, civil and otherwise, learned about Admiral Poindexter's grandiose plan to invade our privacy with the spooky Total Information Awareness system, they yelped so much that Congress demanded a report before allowing further research.

With the terrorist level at orange, and Al Qaeda replicating faster than the villainous Agent Smith in "The Matrix Reloaded," the Pentagon delivered the plan yesterday to Senator Ron Wyden, the alarmed Oregon Democrat who pushed through legislation requiring the report and forbidding the use of the Big Brother system without a new law governing it.

Showing typical bureaucratic flair, the crowd at Total Information Awareness tried to calm fears by changing its name to Terrorist Information Awareness. The part about walks is on Page 10 of the report, buried in technical language about "multimodal fusion," "biometric signatures" and "human kinematics."

"The goal of this program," it says, "is to identify humans as unique individuals (not necessarily by name) at a distance, at any time of the day or night, during all weather conditions, with noncooperative subjects, possibly disguised."

Not quite as colorful as the report of the Ministry of Silly Walks, which had research on "the Anglo-French Silly Walk (La Marché Futile)" and confirmed intelligence reports that the "Japanese have a man who can bend his leg back over his head and back again with every single step."

The Mr. Roboto of the Village Voice, Brendan Koerner, said it might be easy to fool "this creepy brand of surveillance. . . . Try it out yourself — how hard is it to affect a little limp, walk on your insteps a smidgen more or simply don a heavy overcoat? (Yes, that last strategy works.) And what if a basketball injury suddenly gives you the gait of a wanted Iraqi biochemist?"

Gene Greneker, the head of the research project at Georgia Tech, admitted some kinks to The A.P.: "A woman switching from flats to high heels probably wouldn't change her signature significantly. But if she switched to combat boots, that might have a difference."

As he sinks millions into the technology, Admiral Poindexter had better be careful. He wouldn't want to get caught up in a Gait-gate scandal.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company


This article can be found at http://www.refuseandresist.org/police_state/art.php?aid=801.