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"Big Brother" is Getting Better at Tracking You


All of my readers know about police investigators collecting fingerprints from crime scenes, and the very large collections of fingerprints and other crime-related data on file. In the United States, the National Crime Information Center is a repository that stores and shares information from law enforcement agencies throughout the country (NCIC, 2018). Quoting from the NCIC website:

The Files: The NCIC database currently consists of 21 files. There are seven property files containing records of stolen articles, boats, guns, license plates, parts, securities, and vehicles. There are 14 persons files, including: Supervised Release; National Sex Offender Registry; Foreign Fugitive; Immigration Violator; Missing Person; Protection Order; Unidentified Person; Protective Interest; Gang; Known or Appropriately Suspected Terrorist; Wanted Person; Identity Theft; Violent Person; and National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NCIS) Denied Transaction. The system also contains images that can be associated with NCIC records to help agencies identify people and property items. The Interstate Identification Index, which contains automated criminal history record information, is accessible through the same network as NCIC.

How NCIC is Used: Criminal justice agencies enter records into NCIC that are accessible to law enforcement agencies nationwide. For example, a law enforcement officer can search NCIC during a traffic stop to determine if the vehicle in question is stolen or if the driver is wanted by law enforcement. The system responds instantly. However, a positive response from NCIC is not probable cause for an officer to take action. NCIC policy requires the inquiring agency to make contact with the entering agency to verify the information is accurate and up-to-date. Once the record is confirmed, the inquiring agency may take action to arrest a fugitive, return a missing person, charge a subject with violation of a protection order, or recover stolen property.

However, there are many crime scenes where the perpetrator does not leave fingerprints, but may leave DNA samples. In recent years, some very large databases of DNA have been collected. The technology of examining/using such DNA samples has reached the point that, if the DNA of a distant relative of the perpetrator is on file, the relative can be located and that can sometimes lead to the identification and apprehension of the suspect. Here is an example quoted from The MIT Review (Regalado, 5/21/2018):

        Another arrest shows no one can hide from genetic detectives

For the second time this year, investigators used a public DNA database to solve a cold case.

The bust: A 55-year-old truck driver, William Talbott, was arrested Friday in Washington State after being fingered in a 30-year-old double murder.

How they found him: According to Buzzfeed, investigators located Talbott’s family members after uploading old crime scene DNA to GEDMatch, a crowdsourced database that genealogists use to compare DNA and build family trees (the same one used to locate the Golden State Killer).

Nowhere to hide: DNA databases are now so large that nearly everyone has a relative who has joined one.

When I read such articles, I am impressed by the progress being made in DNA analysis. However, this is still another example of “Big Brother is watching you.” Face recognition technology has improved enough that it is feasible (and is happening) to scan the face of each person attending a large event such as a football game and check the results against databases such as the NCIC databases. China is well ahead of the United states in making use of this technology (Mitchell & Diamond, 2/2/2018). What this technology does is to allow someone—a governmental agency, a retail store, a school, etc., to track the comings and goings of very large numbers of people. I find that scary!

Just imagine, for example, walking into a store and being greeted by a Robot that says:

“Good morning, Ms. Jones. Welcome back to our store. I see that when you were here last Thursday you bought some school supplies for two children. Today we are having a special sale on school supplies and other items you might want for your family. May I show these to you?”

Or, here is a still scarier imaginary version.

Good morning, Ms. Jones. Welcome back to our store. I see that when you were here last Thursday you had two young children with you, and you bought school supplies for two children. Are these children ill today? My school records indicate they are absent from school this morning.

Notice that the robot does not assume that the children are Ms. Jones’ children. Notice also that the store’s surveillance cameras have captured pictures of Ms. Jones and the children. By looking up the pictures of the children in a school attendance database, the robot is able to determine that the children were not in school this morning.

Where Does It End?

We are just at the beginning of such surveillance activities. There are many “Big Brothers” watching you, and many of these exchange data with each other. As we examine the results of investigations into companies such as Alphabet (owner of Google and other subdivisions), Amazon, and Facebook, we are learning more about the extent of such personal data being collected and used to help companies to increase their profits.

And, of course, we see frequent stories of data being stolen from the companies that collect it. We also are seeing a rapid increase in “crank calls.” It isn’t just “Big Brother.” Even individual criminals can make use of computer technology in attempts to scam millions of people.

What You Can Do

There are innumerable sources of information on the Web and elsewhere that provide warnings and advice. If there were simple solutions to such problems, it is likely that we would have found them by now and they would be widely implemented.

I don’t have any advice that has not already been offered many thousands of times. However, in brief summary:

  1. Be aware of the problem of these many “Big Brothers” and small-scale criminals.
  2. Take the obvious precautions.
  3. Continue to educate yourself and others, including your children, students, relatives, and friends.

References and Resources

Mitchell, A., & Diamond, L. (2/2/2018). China's surveillance state should scare everyone. Retrieved 5/21/2018 from

NCIC (2018). National Crime Information Center. Retrieved 5/21/2018 from

Regalado, A. (5/21/2018). Another arrest shows no one can hide from genetic detectives. The MIT Review. Retrieved 5/21/2018 from

Regalado, A. (5/11/201). I lost a bet, and now I am going to let millions of strangers check whether we’re related. Retrieved 5/21/2018 from

Wikipedia (2018). Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Retrieved 5/21/2018 from

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Monday, 12 April 2021

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