Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Surveillance Society: New High-Tech Cameras Are Watching You

Often when I have conversations with people about the ever expanding reach of video surveillance cameras the reaction is usually one of disinterest. Certainly, polls are also not on my side, as large majorities of Americans seem generally fine with having every movement of their existence on tape, and watched by someone (for your protection of course). Of course, we know that cameras DON'T in fact reduce crime and we also know that governments and law enforcement DO abuse our civil liberties when given such authority to monitor us. Those are two BIG strikes in my mind.

I'm still not convinced however, that this general support for such technological surveillance is a done deal, and the argument in favor of FEWER cameras in FEWER locations is a lost one. I believe this to be true for a couple reasons. One, most Americans have no concept of just how often they are being watched or worse, for what purposes. Two, few Americans have any idea the level of abuses such "watchers" are capable of...and if the Bush Administration has taught us anything its that we can't trust government when they are given more power than they know what to do with. My guess is we are just scratching the surface, on issues ranging from wiretapping to surveillance to monitoring, and when that surface is broken, public opinion might just change on this topic.

Well, here's some new data from an article in Popular Mechanics that just might get a few people questioning just how many cameras we need in this country, just how important is it really for us to always be watched, and just exactly what purpose does such an all seeing BIG Brother really serve?

This is a long article so I'll try to post a significant amount of what I consider to be some of the most important passages.

Popular Mechanics Reports:

Most Americans would probably welcome such technology at what clearly is a marquee terrorist target. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in July 2007 found that 71 percent of Americans favor increased video surveillance. What people may not realize, however, is that advanced monitoring systems such as the one at the Statue of Liberty are proliferating around the country. High-profile national security efforts make the news—wiretapping phone conversations, Internet moni­toring—but state-of-the-art surveillance is increasingly being used in more every-day settings. By local police and businesses. In banks, schools and stores. There are an estimated 30 million surveillance cameras now deployed in the United States shooting 4 billion hours of footage a week. Americans are being watched, all of us, almost everywhere.

We have arrived at a unique moment in the history of surveillance. The price of both megapixels and gigabytes has plummeted, making it possible to collect a previously unimaginable quantity and quality of data. Advances in processing power and software, meanwhile, are beginning to allow computers to surmount the greatest limitation of traditional surveillance—the ability of eyeballs to effectively observe the activity on dozens of video screens simultaneously. Computers can't do all the work by themselves, but they can expand the capabilities of humans exponentially.


Pathmark archives every transaction of every customer, and the grocery chain is hardly alone. Amazon knows what you read; Netflix, your taste in movies. Search engines such as Google and Yahoo retain your queries for months, and can identify searches by IP address—sometimes by individual computer. Many corporations log your every transaction with a stated goal of reducing fraud and improving marketing efforts. Until fairly recently it was impractical to retain all this data. But now the low cost of digital storage—you can get a terabyte hard drive for less than $350—makes nearly limitless archiving possible.

So what's the problem? "The concern is that information collected for one purpose is used for something entirely different down the road," says Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, D.C., think tank. This may sound like a privacy wonk's paranoia. But examples abound. Take E-ZPass. Drivers signed up for the system to speed up toll collection. But 11 states now supply E-ZPass records—when and where a toll was paid, and by whomin response to court orders in criminal cases. Seven of those states provide information in civil cases such as divorce, proving, for instance, that a husband who claimed he was at a meeting in Pennsylvania was actually heading to his lover's house in New Jersey. (New York divorce lawyer Jacalyn Barnett has called E-ZPass the "easy way to show you took the offramp to adultery.")

On a case-by-case basis, the collection of surveillance footage and customer data is usually justifiable and benign. But the totality of information being amassed combined with the relatively fluid flow of that data can be troubling. Corporations often share what they know about customers with government agencies and vice versa. AT&T, for example, is being sued by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group, for allowing the National Security Agency almost unlimited access to monitor customers' e-mails, phone calls and Internet browsing activity.


In July, New York City officials unveiled the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, modeled after London's "Ring of Steel," which will include license-plate readers, automated roadblocks and 3000 new surveillance cameras—adding to the 250 already in place. Chicago, meanwhile, which has 560 anti-crime cameras deployed on city streets, revealed plans in September to add a sophisticated IBM video analytic system that would automatically detect abandoned bags, suspicious behaviors (such as a vehicle repeatedly circling the Sears Tower) and vehicles sought by the police. Expanded surveillance is perhaps to be expected for these high-profile cities, but they're hardly alone. Richmond, Calif.; Spokane, Wash.; and Greenville, N.C., are among the cities that have recently announced plans to add electronic spying eyes. According to iSuppli, a market research firm, the global surveillance-camera business is expected to grow from $4.9 billion in 2006 to $9 billion in 2011.


So-called "facial profiling" has been surveillance's next big thing for nearly a decade, and it is only now showing tentative signs of feasibility. It's easy to see why people are seduced by the promise of this technology. Twelve bank companies employ 3VR systems at numerous locations, which build a facial template for every single person that enters any branch. If somebody cashes a check that is later determined to be stolen, the person's face can be flagged in the system, and the next time the con artist comes in, the system is supposed to alert the tellers.


There's a man in Salt Lake City who knows what I did last summer. Specifically, he knows what I did on Aug. 24, 2007. He knows that I checked my EarthLink e-mail at 1:25 pm, and then blew a half an hour on ESPN's Web site. He also knows that my wife, Anne, wanted new shoes, from Hush Puppies or DSW, and that she synced her electronic planner—"she has quite a busy schedule," the man noted—and downloaded some podcasts. We both printed out passes for free weeklong trials at 24 Hour Fitness, but instead of working out, apparently spent the evening watching a pay-per-view movie. It was Bridge to Terabithia or Zodiac, he thinks.

The man's name is Joe Wilkinson, and he works for Raytheon Oakley Systems. The company specializes in "insider risk management," which means dealing with the problem of employees who, whether through innocent accident or nefarious plot, do things they really shouldn't be doing at work. Oakley's software, developed for the U.S. government and now used by ten Fortune 100 companies, monitors computer use remotely and invisibly. Wilkinson had agreed to run a surveillance trial with me as the subject, and after accessing my computer via the Web, he installed an "agent" that regularly reported my activities back to him.


Surveillance of this sort is common. A 2005 survey by the American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute found that 36 percent of companies monitor workers on a keystroke-by-keystroke basis; 55 percent review e-mail messages, and 76 percent monitor Web sites visited. "Total Behavioral Visibility" is Raytheon Oakley's motto. The vice president of marketing, Tom Bennett, knows that some people fear workplace monitoring. But the technology has many positive aspects. "We are not Big Brother," he insists.


The debate over surveillance pits the tangible benefits of saving lives and dollars against the abstract ones of preserving privacy and freedom. To many people, the promise of increased security is worth the exchange. History shows that new technologies, once developed, are seldom abandoned, and the computer vision systems being adopted today are transforming America from a society that spies upon a small number of suspicious individuals to one that moni­tors everybody. The question arises: Do people exercise their perfectly legal freedoms as freely when they know they're being watched? As the ACLU's Stanley argues, "You need space in your life to live beyond the gaze of society."

In the end, perhaps that's the biggest problem I have with an all-seeing, all watching two headed corporate and government monster: how does such surveillance effect how people think and behave in a free society? Does it in fact, stifle dissent? Will it slowly but surely create a population more controlled, more docile, and less questioning of the status quo? I believe the answer to each of these questions is yes. Worse, I think this is precisely the wrong direction our species needs to go in order to evolve.

Read the article in its entirety here.


Anonymous said...

I attended a city council meeting and sent this email to my council representative.

Derrick Donnell (Cape Coral City Council Member),

It is a gross understatement to say that I am fed up with the video surveillance cameras popping up all over our city. Currently I am "asking" for them to be disabled and removed. Especially the ones mounted on traffic light booms at intersections pointed directly in my windshield at my face, and pointed at your face, and pointed at everyone else's face as well.

They are just bad on so many levels.

You can find good information about them at this link:

A few questions I would like to have answered:

1) What is or are the name or names of the city officials who authorized the county to install the video surveillance cameras in my city, on my city streets?

2) Are there plans and blueprints regarding the installation of those camera systems, submitted by the county to the city for review and inspection, in order to maintain compliance with all city ordinances and regulations thereof? If so, can I see these plans and approval by our city inspectors?

3) The video feeds from those cameras go into utility boxes, usually located next to the traffic light control boxes. Is the public land on which those boxes are installed and located being leased or sold? How much money is the city getting from the county for allowing the county the privilege of having them there?

4) The electricity for powering those cameras has to be paid for by someone. Is the city paying to power those cameras, or is the county, and how much? If the county is responsible for the cameras, then it should be paying the electric bill for them. If the county is not paying the bill, then can we cut the electricity off to those cameras and how soon?

5) What is the resolution and frame rate specs on the surveillance cameras installed, and can we have a demonstration of the systems power and capability at the next city council meeting?

6) How much money has the city spent so far on a public awareness campaign concerning the surveillance camera system?

7) What is the timetable for my questions to be answered? I don't expect comprehensive answers in a matter of days, but a few weeks or a month would be nice.

On another matter that involves our city, I want to let you know in case you are not aware...

Cape Coral was #1 in the nation on two separate occasions last year......IN FORECLOSURES!

I would like to help our city by giving you some ideas on how to attract individuals and families to want to move to our fair city over other places in the country. Desperate times call for desperate measures. So it is with great pleasure and fanfare that I announce the First Annual Freest City In America Competition. I invite Cape Coral to participate in this friendly competition, and perhaps win it. Who in America wouldn't want to live in the Freest City in America?

One of the metrics and hallmarks of this competition will be the City with the Fewest Surveillance Cameras Per Capita Surveilling the Citizenry. Perhaps we could sponsor workshops for keeping our citizens' rights in shape. Rights fitness workshops will retrain us on how we are permitted to exercise our rights and keep them in shape. This will be another metric and hallmark of a proud city that competes annually to distinguish itself as the Freest City in America.

I came up with a slogan, maybe we can use it:

"Keep Your Rights in Shape, Exercise Them!"

I hope you take these issues seriously, because I am dead serious about them.

Thank You,
Michael J. Norton

Anonymous said...

The news lies about such posts As does most all Mainstream media They are owned By the Top 13 Bloodlines. ie. NBC Rockefeller NY they own NBC thats the whole damn idea. they write the laws own the media and tell you what you think you want to hear Which is all BS. Your TV Is the biggest Damn Propaganda Machine In the World . Another example In 1930's war of the worlds by Orson wells. What they were Really doing is seeing how well there propaganda Machine Worked.BTW It worked well.(Then THE perfect idea was created. THE TELEVISION.

ZJK said...

Thanks for the posts. Now, let me apologize to everyone. Due to issues with my account, for the past year and a half I was not aware of all the comments that were being submitted!! I'm so sorry. I went back and approved some, but others were so long ago it just didn't make much sense. At any rate, thank you, and I will be aware of comments in the future so comment away...Zack