Big Brother Surveillance Expands Worldwide
by Tom Olago
Surveillance is becoming big business worldwide, largely in the name of anti-terrorism and law enforcement. And as could be expected, privacy rights advocates are continually up in arms, arguing that there is inadequate control and independent supervision over the potential abuse of these systems by unscrupulous businesses and law enforcement agencies.
Unfortunately, with limited transparency or accountability to the general public, there is no telling for the most part when and how individual privacies are unnecessarily compromised. The NSA/Snowden saga is still fresh in the minds of people who are yet to be convinced that government can be trusted not to abuse privacy rights or confidential information belonging to innocent parties.
So the public in general may need to become resigned to the fact that surveillance continue to be a part of everyday life – which may be well-intentioned from a security management standpoint but wide open to potential abuses beyond that. Consider the extensive ways in which surveillance has become commonplace in society today (examples from Galesburg.com extracted below):
• Airborne wide-area surveillance: A manned, small aircraft equipped with an array of cameras to monitor a small city-sized area in real time and record images of the movements of vehicles and people.
- Automated license plate readers: High-speed cameras capable of capturing photos of every passing license plate and compare them to lists of wanted suspects or stolen vehicles. The cameras may be mounted on police squad cars, bridges, overpasses or utility poles.
- Body cameras: Thought of more as a tool for police oversight than citizen surveillance, these pager-sized wearable cameras can record high-definition video for up to 12 hours.
- Closed network video surveillance: A system of cameras spread across a city that actively monitors certain areas and records video for future viewing. Some systems include intelligent analytics to identify suspicious behavior, such as leaving a parked car or package near a critical piece of infrastructure, and alert those monitoring the cameras.
- Drones: Unmanned drones with cameras/videos can vary in size, from large fixed-wing commercial-size planes to aircraft as small as birds.
- Facial recognition: Computer software can scan a person’s face, measuring the size and distance between key facial features, and automatically match it against a database of mug shots or other known faces for identification.
- GPS tracking: A global positioning system (GPS) tracking device can be attached to a suspect’s vehicle and programmed to transmit a signal via cell tower, allowing police to determine the location of a vehicle and what direction it is headed.
- Gunshot detectors: A network of sensors placed around the city can detect gunfire, record the audio, map the location and send an alert to patrol officers in less than half a minute.
- StingRay: This device, also known as a cell-site simulator, can mimic a wireless cell tower and trick nearby phones into connecting to it. This allows investigators to locate, track or intercept data from a cell phone.
- Squad-car cameras: Digital cameras mounted to squad cars can be activated manually by officers or be programmed to turn on automatically the moment a patrol car’s sirens are activated or when the vehicle reaches a predetermined speed. Like body cameras, these are often used as a tool for oversight into police interactions with the public during traffic stops.
- Traffic cameras: Traffic enforcement cameras are triggered to automatically photograph vehicles that break certain rules of the road. Red-light cameras capture pictures of vehicles that enter an intersection despite a red light. Speed cameras photograph vehicles that exceed a posted speed limit. Law enforcement typically reviews the photograph and mails the driver a citation.
All pretty “cool” from the law enforcement perspective, if used correctly – and there are no guarantees about that. Most public discomfort and suspicion however, seems to be directed towards network video/camera surveillance. For example, in St. Louis, Missouri, a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri finds the city of St. Louis is doing a poor job preserving the privacy rights of residents and visitors as it expands its network of surveillance cameras.
This information, recently published by St. Louis Public Radio, was extracted from a report compiled by John Chasnoff, a former ACLU employee. It “uncovered a variety of civil liberties concerns,” including confusion about how many cameras there are and who monitors them, as well as lax policies around who can access the footage and how it can be used.
The gist of the ACLU concern seems to be captured in the statement: “Unification of surveillance systems opens the door for an increase in the government’s invasion of privacy…And anyone who did gain access to the system (including hackers and other non-authorized persons, as well as rogue law enforcement agents abusing their authority) would have a more powerful and comprehensive tool at his or her disposal.”
According to the Baltimore Sun, the city of Baltimore is expanding its public surveillance network to curb crime. Philadelphia, San Jose, Calif., and Chicago are said to be among other cities that have similar private security camera registries or networks.
Besides government departments, businesses are not being left behind in the surveillance mix. According to an article by Nathaniel Mott published by Pando.com , titled “You can run, but you can’t hide: Google expands its real-world surveillance system with Google Fit”, Google has developed an application that allows Android smartphone owners to collect health-related information in one place.
It’s called Google Fit, and besides challenging Apple’s HealthKit service, it also represents Google’s efforts to gather real-world data to complement the information it already has about the digital world. Facebook has also reportedly been considering the addition of health-related information to its services.
Mott adds: “It’s especially worrisome for a company like Google to be gathering so much real world data. The company has historically struggled with striking the right balance between its presumed right to gather information and consumers’ actual right to privacy. For example, it’s been tracking the locations of countless people to serve better advertisements and improve Google Maps.
It’s also acquiring an increasing number of services that surveil consumers’ homes. And finally, it’s building drones that could gather information about anyone beneath their flight path, like a murder of all-seeing crows”.
So who will control any potential personal or consumer privacy excesses by “Big brother” and powerful businesses such as Google and Facebook?
Given that “Big Brother” and “Big business” are at the top of their respective spheres of authority and influence, can they be trusted to police themselves? Or will they continue to work together to ensure that there will eventually be “no place to run, or to hide?” No prizes for guessing what will happen…