why so serious?

Having recently watched The Dark Knight, the one thing that stuck out for me was when, in an effort to track down the elusive Joker, Batman turns every cell phone in Gotham into a type of sonar device. The system worked kind of like a submarine sonar would work, so when the cell phones were in use, sounds and images around the phone were picked up. The signals were then captured and projected onto a huge cell phone wall monitor.

Now on leaving the theatre I thought that it was another one of those classic Batman toys, so one that doesn’t actually exist! However this toy is different. The cell phone wall monitor is said to be derived from an art installation called ‘The Listening Post.’ The art installation was created by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin of Ear Studio, and featured pieces of text gathered from different outlets (like public forums, unrestricted internet chat rooms) in real time. The text was then spoken by a voice synthesizer and put across a grid of over 200 tiny electronic displays, similar to what was seen in The Dark Knight.

Now I have discussed mobile surveillance in a previous blog post, but the idea that The Dark Knight put forward, of a global sonar system operated by mobile phones is insane! It basically means that anyone would be traceable, privacy would not be an option anymore.

However, while obviously there is always the potential for this type of technology, today the reality is that there are a few kinks in Batman’s plan, the main issue being that you would not know the direction that the echo came from, which is obviously an essential feature of a sonar system. A cell phone is basically unable to detect direction, and would definitely not be able to give such detailed pictures as show in the movie.

There are also the smaller issues like actually forcing people’s cell phones to become an echo transponder, which would entail having an ultrasonic beep being generated on the phone. This is an issue because cell phone transmission is extremely low (less than 10 kHz). There is also an issue of sound, as the microphones used on a cell phone do not have a great range on them, and then also when played back the quality of sound is not always that clear.

So our privacy is safe for the moment, but the question is for how long?


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