Technology: our servant, or our master?

News editor

A good mate of mine has a very big problem with authority and the following should serve to show you the extent of his contempt.

A few years ago the flat we shared was burgled and a police officer was despatched to dust for prints where the burglar was thought to have made good his or her escape.

Much to our incredulity, the police officer suggested we let her take our fingerprints, the theory being that we’d be eliminated from the Met’s enquiries.

I duly gave up my fingerprints as I was confident I’d not burgled my own flat during a bought of drunken somnambulism. My flatmate, however, refused politely and the WPC went on her way.

He later explained that, on principle, he didn’t like the idea of his biometric details being recorded on a national fingerprint database.

Similarly, he baulked a couple years back when airports began trials of backscatter scanners and the like, arguing that airport security was tight (and tedious) enough without machines capable of taking pictures that reveal an intimate level of anatomical detail.

How do we know those images are deleted once through security, he argued.

It isn’t a point I’d thought of, thinking instead of the airline that’s invested $X billion in its fleet and wants to turn a profit each year, the airport operators that want their passengers to safely embark on their flight (and repeat the process as often as possible) and the local authorities who’d rather their emergency services weren’t called upon to deal with an aircraft that’s exploded over their municipality.

Similarly, I’ve no problem with security checks as I’ve no desire to cause harm and finding those that do is surely not such a bad thing?

Clearly, my friend and I take a different view on these issues and its interesting to note the role of technology in helping us form our opinions: in these instances, I see technology as a liberating tool, freeing me from suspicion and allowing me to go about my business. For my friend, technology has the potential to be abused and is therefore viewed with mistrust.

Similar issues to these were raised last night at the Royal Academy of Engineering, which hosted a Battle of Ideas event entitled ‘Can technology set you free?’

No adequate definition of ‘freedom’ was offered and the concept of ‘technology’ seemed to orbit Planet Internet but a number of attendees did raise obvious but valid points about technology and how we choose to use it.

One gentleman opined that humanity can use fissile materials to create nuclear reactors that help sustain life or build nuclear missiles that have the potential to obliterate it.

It was suggested also that technology, and how we use it, amounts to nought without the political will to initiate change for the good of all.

Then it was argued that there’s a danger in over reliance on technology; that the fruits of human invention are mistakenly seen as a panacea for a host of ills, which brings me back to airport security.

All the screening machines in the world can’t account for human fallibility, an example being the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian dubbed the Underwear Bomber following a failed attempt to detonate an explosive device on board Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on December 25, 2009.

He was able to board the flight despite being on the radar of UK and US intelligence and exhibiting behaviour that should’ve aroused suspicion; the date and destination of travel, the one-way ticket purchased using cash and specification of a seat (19a) near the aircraft’s fuel tanks.

His own father, a successful businessman, is said to have approached the CIA at the US Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria expressing his concerns that his son had ‘gone rogue’.

A failure to share data meant that he appeared on certain US security databases but not others, bringing us back to the idea that political failings (as they apply outside of the legislature) led to Abdulmutallab almost succeeding in his mission.

He managed also to take explosives on board aircraft despite clearing security on flights from Ghana to Amsterdam and then onto Detroit.

This is sobering stuff and brings my mindset closer to that of my old flatmate who dislikes the various forms that technology takes in restricting his liberty and freedom of movement.

After all, technology is no more than a tool and the tool is useless when used incorrectly. What’s the point of screening millions of well-meaning travellers when one young man, already known to security services, can slip through the net?