Surveillance Society

A quick search for surveillance society on this site will bring up a disheartening numbers of posts. Here’s yet another one from the omnipresent security guru Bruce Schneier:

ID checks were a common response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but they’ll soon be obsolete. You won’t have to show your ID, because you’ll be identified automatically. A security camera will capture your face, and it’ll be matched with your name and a whole lot of other information besides. Welcome to the world of automatic facial recognition. Those who have access to databases of identified photos will have the power to identify us. Yes, it’ll enable some amazing personalized services; but it’ll also enable whole new levels of surveillance. The underlying technologies are being developed today, and there are currently no rules limiting their use…

The critical technology here is computer face recognition. Traditionally it has been pretty poor, but it’s slowly improving. A computer is now as good as a person. Already Google’s algorithms can accurately match child and adult photos of the same person, and Facebook has an algorithm that works by recognizing hair style, body shape, and body language ­- and works even when it can’t see faces. And while we humans are pretty much as good at this as we’re ever going to get, computers will continue to improve. Over the next years, they’ll continue to get more accurate, making better matches using even worse photos.

Matching photos with names also requires a database of identified photos, and we have plenty of those too. Driver’s license databases are a gold mine: all shot face forward, in good focus and even light, with accurate identity information attached to each photo. The enormous photo collections of social media and photo archiving sites are another. They contain photos of us from all sorts of angles and in all sorts of lighting conditions, and we helpfully do the identifying step for the companies by tagging ourselves and our friends. Maybe this data will appear on handheld screens. Maybe it’ll be automatically displayed on computer-enhanced glasses. Imagine salesclerks ­– or politicians ­– being able to scan a room and instantly see wealthy customers highlighted in green, or policemen seeing people with criminal records highlighted in red.

This is no longer fiction. High-tech billboards can target ads based on the gender of who’s standing in front of them. In 2011, researchers at Carnegie Mellon pointed a camera at a public area on campus and were able to match live video footage with a public database of tagged photos in real time. Already government and commercial authorities have set up facial recognition systems to identify and monitor people at sporting events, music festivals, and even churches. The Dubai police are working on integrating facial recognition into Google Glass, and more US local police forces are using the technology…

Today in the US there’s a massive but invisible industry that records the movements of cars around the country. Cameras mounted on cars and tow trucks capture license places along with date/time/location information, and companies use that data to find cars that are scheduled for repossession. One company, Vigilant Solutions, claims to collect 70 million scans in the US every month. The companies that engage in this business routinely share that data with the police, giving the police a steady stream of surveillance information on innocent people that they could not legally collect on their own. And the companies are already looking for other profit streams, selling that surveillance data to anyone else who thinks they have a need for it.

This could easily happen with face recognition…

Already the FBI has a database of 52 million faces, and describes> its integration of facial recognition software with that database as “fully operational.” In 2014, FBI Director James Comey told Congress that the database would not include photos of ordinary citizens, although the FBI’s own documents indicate otherwise. And just last month, we learned that the FBI is looking to buy a system that will collect facial images of anyone an officer stops on the street.

In 2013, Facebook had a quarter of a trillion user photos in its database. There’s currently a class-action lawsuit in Illinois alleging that the company has over a billion “face templates” of people, collected without their knowledge or consent.

One of the more depressing take-aways here is that America’s unique legal fruit of the poisoned tree concept –though evidence of a crime is at hand, it may not be used if it was obtained by illegal means– is about to be obviated by the extra-legal entities providing “evidence” to the authorities. More, such arrangement will break any remaining trust in the legal system, making said “evidence” less than trustworthy, “reasonable doubt” a certainty.

Outsourcing these activities to skirt legislation specifically designed to hold our Government in check is both abhorrent and easily abused. It also speaks volumes to the scorn with which our politicians view us.

Sam Lowry: My name’s Lowry. Sam Lowry. I’ve been told to report to Mr. Warrenn.

Porter – Information Retrieval: Thirtieth floor, sir. You’re expected.

Sam Lowry: Um… don’t you want to search me?

Porter – Information Retrieval: No sir.

Sam Lowry: Do you want to see my ID?

Porter – Information Retrieval: No need, sir.

Sam Lowry: But I could be anybody.

Porter – Information Retrieval: No you couldn’t sir. This is Information Retrieval.

Further reading on the matter can be found here and here.

Surveillance Society

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