Tag Archives: Surveillance

One Cam Net To Rule Them All?

The costs of surveillance hardware is falling rapidly. Soon it will be very cheap to install dense networks of cameras and microphones, to record what everyone does and says. (And the potential of vector microphones is neglected and huge.) So which networks are installed and used where will mainly come down to property rights – who is allowed to install and operate such networks where? And property rights will depend a lot on enforcement costs – how easy is it to detect and punish violations?

Governments who want to install and operate such networks would seem to face few obstacles. Decentralized attempts to sabotage those nets face the problem that the nets makes it easy to identify and track saboteurs.

What about private networks? Clearly they could work, if the government fully supported them. But what if the government opposes them? Some have argued that it would be too hard to enforce rules against unapproved surveillance networks. They argue that if everyone has a cam and mic in their phone, eyeglasses, etc., the government can’t control them all. But it is one thing to have a camera and mic available, and quite another thing to make those function effectively as part of a shared surveillance network.

Imagine that some community tried to pool their cameras, mics, etc. to make a service that continually broadcasted the sight and sounds from a large set of locations. You could go to their website, pick a location, and then see and hear what was happening there now. And imagine that the authorities wanted to stop this, at least for particular times and locations. What happens then?

If the authorities can go to this same website, they can not only see what others can see, they can also use that view to figure out where the cams and mics are. Even if those cams and mics are moving around, a continual broadcast should make it easy to find and disable them.

So how can private surveillance networks function in the face of official disapproval? One approach is to only broadcast with a long delay. The delay must be long enough so one can afford to move or replace the cam/mics without revealing who helped. Another approach is to only rarely offer widespread access – the net turns on only for rare special events. A third approach is to process the raw cam/mic info into new versions that hide their exact location origins, but still convince outsiders of their accuracy. That seems hard to me, but maybe it could work eventually.

All of these approaches seem to result in substantial reductions in the value of the surveillance info offered, and substantial increases in the cost to maintain the net. I conclude that governments can give themselves big cost and value advantages in the use of surveillance networks. If they choose, governments can see and hear much more than can the rest of us.

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Freedom As Identity

At a big wonk dinner last night there was a long discussion of NSA policy. People seemed to agree that such policies are unlikely to change due to concrete publicized examples of specific resulting harms. Instead, people argued that changing technologies require us to change laws and policies in order to uphold basic principles such as that policies should be accountable to the public, avoid possibilities for corruption, and offer some substantial limits on government powers. But I wondered: how strongly does the public really support such principles?

You may recall I posted on survey results saying a US majority thought Snowden was wrong to expose NSA intelligence-gathering efforts. Also, Robert Rubin’s favorite graph of 2013 is one showing that the US public trusts the military and police far more than the courts, media, congress, or even the president. At the dinner many talked about wanting to avoid the abuses uncovered by the Church committee, but I’ll bet few in the public even remember what that was, and even fewer remember the Church committee as the good guys.

It occurs to me that what support the US public does have for principles of a limited and accountable government may be largely a side effect of war and patriotism propaganda. During the cold war we were often told that what made them bad and us good is that we had freedoms, while their governments had and used arbitrary powers. We were also told similar things about why the Nazis were bad. And in support of all this, schools tell kids that the US started because we objected to England’s arbitrary powers over us.

But as the cold war and WWII fade into history, we define ourselves less in opposition to enemies whose governments have arbitrary powers. We instead fall back more onto presuming that our status quo laws and policies are sufficient to support whatever principles we might have. Because in fact we don’t really support abstract principles of governance. We instead support the general presumptions that they are bad and we are good, and that our existing laws and policies are good unless someone can show otherwise via specific demonstrated harms. If today “they” are terrorists, then we assume that whatever we do to hurt them under existing policies is probably good too.

If there is a hope here, it would be that political elites feel a much stronger attachment to political principles, and that the public will over time come to adopt elite beliefs. But for now that seems a slim or distant hope. World of mass government surveillance, here we come.

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Every Move You Make

Soon the police will always be watching every public move you make:

A vast system that tracks the comings and goings of anyone driving around the District. … More than 250 cameras in the District and its suburbs scan license plates in real time. ..

With virtually no public debate, police agencies have begun storing the information from the cameras, building databases that document the travels of millions of vehicles. … The District [of Columbia] … has more than one plate-reader per square mile, the highest concentration in the nation. Police in the Washington suburbs have dozens of them as well … creating a comprehensive dragnet that will include all the approaches into the District. … The data are kept for three years in the District. … Police can also plug any license plate number into the database and, as long as it passed a camera, determine where that vehicle has been and when. …

The tag readers … cost about $20,000 each. … The District has 73 readers; 38 of them sit stationary and the rest are attached to police cars. D.C. officials say every police car will have one some day. … The District’s … officers make an average of an arrest a day directly from the plate readers. … There are no laws governing how or when Washington area police can use the tag reader technology. … 37 percent of large police agencies in the United States now use license plate reader technology. (more; also)

As prices rapidly fall, this will be widely deployed. Unless there is a public outcry, which seems unlikely at the moment, within twenty years most traffic intersections will probably have tag readers, neighboring jurisdictions will share databases, and so police will basically track all cars all the time. With this precedent, cameras that track pedestrians and people in cars via their faces and gaits will follow within another decade or two.

If firms tried to set up camera networks to collect and sell similar info, I would expect an outcry and regulations to stop them. But police will be not only be allowed to continue, they’ll probably also usually succeed in intimidating citizens away from recording police interactions with citizens, no matter what the official rules say.

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