Welcome to Surveillance Nation: what happens when spy camera data is merged with online profiles

There’s a lively debate underway about the erosion of privacy in digital media, focusing lately on the careless handling of Facebook data by bottom feeder RapLeaf.   This is a useful discussion but it does not address the proliferation of surveillance technologies that now pervade the real world around us.
I’m not referring to your web browsing habits (there is already a multi-billion dollar industry of tracking your online behavior).   I’m talking about your daily activity in the city where you live.
Whether you know it or not, your public life is being converted into somebody else’s digital data.   For control.   For profit.  For entertainment.
Ubiquitous spy cameras convert your public presence into digital information that can be matched with other databases to build a composite profile of an individual, down to facial recognition.
What’s changed since 9/11:  beyond CCTV
Since 9/11, there has been a massive surge in the number of rich-media surveillance systems deployed by federal, state, local governments as well as private corporations, educational institutions and private residences.   Today, with miniaturization and wireless networking, the number of invisible cameras is likely to soar.
Old school CCTV systems were contained within a closed circuit, which means the video is not distributed externally and, typically, not recorded.   Those days are over.
Previously the cost of recording spycam video was prohibitive, but  now plummeting costs for storage mean that this information will increasingly be recorded and archived for subsequent analysis by sophisticated pattern-detection software.
And once the data is on a digital network, the likelihood of the video migrating from the closed circuit to the open web will increase.
The potential for abuse is obvious.  In 2005 it was revealed that New York City police used high tech snooping gear mounted on a helicopter to record a couple having sex in the privacy of their own home.  The camera was able to peer through the cover of darkness and the shrubs of a rooftop garden to capture an intimate moment.
A new generation of consumer grade gear
The price of home surveillance systems has plummeted along with the price of every other digital gizmo.  And, predictably, a new crop of service providers have emerged to help beleaguered homeowners maintain the security cameras.
For a low monthly fee, you can hire real live humans to watch the security system you installed.  Check out smsvideoguard and iviewcameras for example.
This so-called “IP CCTV” video data travels over the Internet.  Which means it is just a matter of time before surveillance footage leaks out of the closed network and gets combined with the other information accumulated in the vast databases of consumer data aggregators.
Cookies for the real world?
The combination of timestamped location data, smart sensors, CCTV and machine vision will make it possible to construct an accurate timeline of one’s activity in public places, especially in cities.
This profile could be enhanced by cross referencing credit card and debit card data, biometric security log-ins,  a record of cell phone calls and GPS enabled apps (“check ins”), near field computing, RFID tags, and vehicle-tracking systems like OnStar.
In the not-too-distant future, surveillance tech will be enhanced with new pattern-detection capabilities such as gait recognitionbody temperature and facial recognition.
If you think this is all in the service of improved homeland security, think twice.
  • In Singapore, Brunei, China, and other parts of Asia, the major airports have installed automated body temperature detectors to spot the SARS infection.   These detectors can also be useful to flag sweat and elevated temperature of political activists, smugglers or anyone who happens to be nervous or agitated.   If you’ve traveled in Asia during flu season, you have probably noticed the giant flat screen displays that show the real-time scan of travelers.  Anyone with a high temperature is isolated immediately.
You may not realize it, but you leave a trail of data smog behind you that a diligent cyber snoop can reassemble into a composite profile of your real world activity.
It’s not hard to imagine a cookie that tracks the real world activity associated with your profile, just like the hundreds of cookies already installed by websites, ad servers and data aggregators in your web browser?   All that’s required is a unique identifier, like a fingerprint:  that might be your face, your gait, or your DNA.
London: the surveillance capital of the world
Ten years ago, I met with executives from Dutch electronics giant Philips who proudly informed me that they had installed a network of 30,000 spy cameras in London.  It struck me as a absurdly huge number at the time, but that was just the beginning.
Today that figure has increased by an order of magnitude.
An estimated 500,000 surveillance cameras are now deployed in London, and nearly 5 million CCTV cameras in use throughout the UK.  By some estimates, there is one security camera for every ten citizens of the UK.
The British capital has more spy gear monitoring its citizens than any other city in the world.
There is scant evidence to support the claim that the cameras are effective tools for crime-fighting. The ubiquitous cameras have not proven effective at preventing or solving crimes.
According to the BBC, only one out of a thousand cameras provides useful information for solving crimes.  And CCTV contributed to the arrest of just eight of 269 suspected robbers in a given month.
British tabloids routinely cover the Keystone Cops antics of bumbling policemen who use the cameras to check out women.  Or unfairly zero in on minorities.
In New York, where thousands of cameras were installed after 9/11, the system has proven unreliable.  Nearly half of the NY Subway system’s 4,313 security cameras do not work.
The shortcomings of these systems, and the potential for abuse are not new.  The ACLU made the case for better supervision more than a decade ago.  So did the European Parliament.
So what is the point of the massive investment?
Some might make the case that the cameras are there to provide a greater feeling of security (despite lack of evidence to demonstrate any significant improvement).  Analyst Bruce Scheier coined the term “security theater” to describe highly-visible apparatus that creates the illusion of security without conferring any increase in prevention or detection of crime or terror.
Others might speculate that homeland security is a smokescreen for further government intrusion and control over citizens.   Even if this isn’t the express intent behind such deployments, it seems almost inevitable as a byproduct.
And some might claim that ubiquitous cameras have a deterrent effect, although there is little evidence to support this notion.
And, finally, some people are coming to the conclusion that such systems aren’t worth the massive investment after all.
Last month, the city of New Orleans decided that the crime cameras just aren’t worth maintaining. So the cameras will remain in place but they won’t be actively monitored.   The dead cameras will serve as useless props to preserve the illusion of security … and an unsubtle reminder of government intrusion into private lives.
Once again, digital technology is galloping far ahead of a much-needed debate between two important things, personal privacy and public security.  By the time our political leaders turn their attention to this matter, it may be a moot point.

Posted via email from Think Twice