A future dictator's guide to disrupting protests

Watching the small-town cops of Ferguson play GI Joe with their Army-surplus machine-guns is scary enough -- but what happens when the tech-smarts of Google trickles down to the Barney Fifes of America? Tom Craver speculates on tomorrow's dissent-suppression tactics, and offers some countermeasures.

I was watching the Google I/O 2014 keynote video in which a couple protesters interrupted things, and that got me thinking how that probably irritated Google. I don't know if Google would -- but what might an organization with hefty technical chops do to render such disruptions ineffective?

We have only to look to the perverse idea of 'free speech zones' to find examples of others who will likely be eager to apply any technologies that help give them more exclusive control over the flow of information. If some 'bad guys' acquire some of the tech savvy of Google, how might they go about suppressing the speech of protesters? What new technologies might protesters use to disrupt official presentations?

Noise cancellation quickly comes to mind - capturing voices and projecting ‘anti-sound' to make a speaker or protester unintelligible if not inaudible to most their intended audience. This might work well if a protester jumps up in a public forum where the organizers control the sound system. Get a microphone up close to isolate the protester's voice, filter out other sounds, and generate the out of phase anti-speech to silence the protester. It wouldn't be perfect -- but mixed with already louder amplified speech from an official speaker, it might be sufficient. Audible disruptions would be kept brief, and no more last defiant shouts would be heard as the protester is dragged from the room.

A related tactic that would work when a speaker's voice can't be cancelled would use delayed audio feedback to induce confusion. Hearing one's own voice with about half a second of delay will cause most speakers to pause and stutter and sound foolishly incoherent. This method may also work on groups of demonstrators trying to chant in unison, if played loud enough to be heard over their chant.

False flag chanting is a slightly more devious technique, and can be a low tech approach to protest disruption. Protests are often only loosely controlled by their organizers, making it fairly easy for skilled provocateurs to get inside the protest group's command and control by applying the OODA method. Agents in the crowd could start chanting catchy slogans that nominally seem to match the protesters' cause -- but make the protesters who pick up the chant sound ill-informed or potentially violent.

But suppose the protesters are too well organized to allow in agents, or arrive unexpectedly. In that case the false flag chant tactic might be applied more stealthily using ultrasound beamed sound that can only be heard in a small spot, to suggest a chant to an enthusiastic protester. The sound beaming technology could be turned on an individual speaker in combination with the half-second delay tactic. Protesters are less likely to take media coverage away from their target, if their representatives seem inexplicably incoherent, while in the background their crowd is reciting stupid or vicious chants. A politician subjected to the 'speech confusion ray' might appear senile or inarticulate to potential voters.

Could a couple hundred smartphones held by protesters be synchronized by a clever app to create a sonic phased array, to target confusing sound at official speakers, or perhaps painful sound at riot police? The positioning and timing precision required may be beyond today's phones, but with future mobile devices optimized for the overlay of augmented reality gaming on the real world -- as Vernor Vinge portrayed in 'Rainbows End' -- an app to do these things may become practical.

On the topic of augmented reality, Microsoft's Illumiroom technology seems applicable in this field. It measures a room to generate a 3D model, which is used to modify projected video to eliminate any distortions from projecting onto a non-flat surface. This appears to work best in dark settings and for a fairly small viewing area. To me, that sounds similar to a darkened theatre, as seen from the speaker's podium. How would an audience react to a speaker that keeps stopping to stare at distractions in the audience that no one else could see, or perhaps ducks to hide behind the podium from some threat only the speaker can see?

If the 3D mapping portion of Illumiroom technology can be accelerated to real time, it should also be possible to project imagery onto a speaker. Subtle shadows might be projected onto the speaker's face to alter their apparent facial expression, making them appear angry or inappropriately amused. Manipulating shadows could also make a politician look very old and unappealing. More simply, graffiti might be projected onto speakers to make them look foolish. Protesters' signs might also be obscured or even modified to read as the opposite of their intent, no matter how vigorously they are waved. Potentially, a technique analogous to the anti-sound technique might be applied, to make protesters nearly vanish from the sight of their intended audience -- projected invisibility.

So is the point of this article to educate 'the bad guys' in how much more they could be doing to suppress protest and confine free speech? Or to give protesters new ideas to torment 'the man'? Both outcomes may happen -- but more likely it is only a matter of time before technologies such as these are independently applied or invented. Perhaps take it as a challenge -- how would you detect and counter these high-tech, free speech disruption tactics?

-Tom Craver

Published 6:30 am Wed, Aug 20, 2014

About the Author

Tom Craver is a software engineer employed for decades at a well-known major corporation, who enjoys speculating on ways 'the future' might be better, worse or just different in interesting ways.

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