We live in a world of total surveillance. Big Brother, as envisioned by Orwell, was an all-powerful state, whose cameras and two-way viewing screens kept constant watch on the populace. The perverse reality of the future Orwell envisioned is that – despite various domestic spying programs – it is not our government keeping the closest tabs on us. No, the most surveillance and reporting on our movements, our interests and our speech is performed by Americans themselves.

Our smartphone cameras see everything – and we are only too happy to upload every detail to social media. The Internet, our public square, has become the means through which we glory in our narcissism, shame our fellow citizens, and promote countless private and public interests. It’s a double-edged sword that cuts most deeply because we ourselves are wielding it. There is no stopping this total surveillance because there is no limit to our interest in ourselves … but technology may soon make it that much easier for us to surveil one another.

Scientists at the University of Stuttgart have invented a camera small enough to be injected into your body with a syringe. Paul Monckton reports in Forbes that this “works by directing ultrashort laser pulses into a liquid which hardens at the absorption of each pulse, gradually forming a microscopic lens element. Excess liquid is then washed away.” He explains, “[The] team has used 3D printing technologies to create a triple-lens camera only 0.1mm wide, smaller than a grain of salt. … This process allows any lens shape to be created, including multi-element lens systems which allow for the correction of optical aberrations and therefore much greater image quality than a single lens.”

It sounds like highly theoretical work, but already, the Stuttgart team is demonstrating results. They have, as Monckton writes, “already demonstrated the full process, from optical design, through to manufacture and performance testing, complete with example images and performance results. One technique involves printing a lens directly onto the tip of a single piece of optical fiber, which could have a dramatic impact on endoscopy, where much smaller optics could dramatically reduce the size of medical instruments. The nano-lenses could also be used to create tiny illumination systems, as well as miniature drones and robots with autonomous vision. [The team] claims camera-equipped drones no larger than a bee would be possible. This opens up exciting, and perhaps scary, possibilities for covert surveillance operations, being considerably smaller than currently-available spy cameras.”

If this technology represents the bleeding edge of what’s possible, it only emphasizes where consumer-ready tech is headed. The furor over Google Glass might pale in comparison to concerns over contact lens cameras. Sebastian Anthony, reporting for ExtremeTech, alerted readers last month that Google has invented a contact lens with a built-in camera. The device would conceivably give anyone “superhuman Terminator-like vision.”

“Google has invented a new smart contact lens with an integrated camera,” he writes. “The camera would be very small and sit near the edge of the contact lens so that it doesn’t obscure your vision. By virtue of being part of the contact lens, the camera would naturally follow your gaze, allowing for a huge range of awesome applications, from the basis of a bionic eye system for blind and visually impaired people, through to early warning systems (the camera spots a hazard before your brain does), facial recognition, and superhuman powers (telescopic and infrared/night vision).”

Anthony explains that the lens would have a complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) camera sensor below the pupil. It would also have a control circuit and some means of wirelessly receiving power. It could conceivably be matched to the color of the iris, making it functionally invisible (although, given paranoia over cellphone radiation, it’s anybody’s guess whether beaming power to your contact lenses is bad for you).

“As you can probably imagine,” Anthony continues, ” there are some rather amazing applications if you have two cameras embedded in your contact lenses. You can’t do much in the way of image processing on the contact lens itself, but you could stream it to a nearby smartphone or head-mounted display ([such as] Google Glass), where a more powerful computer could perform all sorts of real-time magic. Google suggests that the cameras might warn you if there’s oncoming traffic at a crosswalk – useful for a normal-sighted person, but utterly invaluable for a blind or partially sighted person. … [Y]ou can also imagine the possibilities if police were equipped with contact lenses that could spot criminal faces in a crowd, or a bulge under a jacket that could be a concealed weapon.” There are even military applications, according to Anthony – but he downplays the potential privacy concerns.

One of the primary objections to Google Glass frames was and is that someone wearing the device could essentially be pointing a camera – and recording with it – anywhere his head turns. Those being recorded would have no way of knowing. The always-on, always-there technology is both more overt and more discreet than contemporary smartphones. You know the individual is wearing it, but you have no idea what he’s watching, recording, or transmitting. Now put a couple of cameras on the surface of everybody’s eyeballs. Suddenly, the world is a little scarier.

Customer preferences are notoriously fickle and often difficult to predict. If Google Glass cost as much as the average smartphone and could be had in any cellphone store, it might be more common. It’s possible, though, that consumers would balk at the notion of wearing the nerdy frames. When the technology becomes invisible in the form of camera-equipped contact lenses, that’s going to change. People will be lining up to get the latest technology when the user experience becomes transparent.

That’s great for those whom the technology can help. It’s also potentially very dangerous. We are our own worst enemies when it comes to public surveillance. Every point of data we create and make publicly available is one that can be exploited. Quite simply, despite our very valid concerns about government overreach, we have already met Big Brother – and he is us.

Media wishing to interview Phil Elmore, please contact [email protected].

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