“I always feel like somebody’s watching me.” So goes the Rockwell classic, ironically released in 1984. Back then, it was pure paranoia to have that thought – unless you were a mobster, narco, spy or some other person of interest. Why would someone be watching you? And how would they even go about doing it?
What a difference three decades makes. Now we’re living in a dystopian surveillance state that far exceeds anything Orwell could ever have imagined. Everything, everyone, everywhere – monitored, recorded, captured, analyzed, compiled – all the time.
Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know what conspiracy-heads have told us all along: the NSA monitors all emails and phone calls. They even intercept packages and plant backdoors into our computers. Nothing new, nothing to see here people – move along.
But what about non-governmental surveillance?
Forbes has a round up on the latest in facial recognition – some highlights below. But the takeaway is, your faceprint – the unique signature created by the geometry of your eyes, nose and mouth – is being captured practically everywhere you go.
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.
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.
In terms of online privacy, Google and Facebook have essentially made it clear that notion is a myth. From Gawker:
Google is not a search engine. The company Brin founded makes the vast majority of its money by eroding the privacy of billions of people, selling their data to corporations more evil than Google, and convincing everyone in the process that they should not have an expectation to privacy. Google has consistently understated the amount of data and misrepresented the kind of data it collects on its customers. Every word of every email sent through Gmail and every click made on a Chrome browser is watched by the company. “We don’t need you to type at all,” Schmidt once said. “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”
A recent study at UPenn specifically looked at what happens when you search for health ailments on sites like WebMD and others – and the results were chilling:
“Personal health information – historically protected by the Hippocratic Oath – has suddenly become the property of private corporations who may sell it to the highest bidder or accidentally misuse it to discriminate against the ill,” Libert said. “As health information seeking has moved online, the privacy of a doctor’s office has been traded in for the silent intrusion of behavioral tracking.”
A new study found that 91% of health-related web pages reveal potentially sensitive information to third parties like data brokers and online advertisers.
“Google offers a number of services which collect detailed personal information such as a user’s persona email (Gmail), work email (Apps for Business), and physical location (Google Maps),” Libert writes. “For those who use Google’s social media offering, Google+, a real name is forcefully encouraged. By combining the many types of information held by Google services, it would be fairly trivial for the company to match real identities to “anonymous” web browsing data.” Indeed, in 2014, the The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada found Google to be violating privacy Canadian laws.
And where is it all going? Well of course there’s profits – they’ll sell you the right thing at the right time. Fine. They’ll prevent you from getting insurance if you have been searching for the wrong ailments. Sure. But even better, they’ll arrest you for crimes you’re about to commit.
Pre-crime. No sorry, that’s science fiction. The term in the real world is “predictive policing” – and there are already products in the market. And cities are partnering with corporations like Microsoft to make it happen on a large scale:
New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has unveiled a new crime-fighting system developed with Microsoft – and revealed that the city will take a cut of the profits if it is sold to other administrations.
The innovation, which bears a passing resemblance to the futuristic hologram data screens used by Tom Cruise in the science fiction film Minority Report, will allow police to quickly collate and visualise vast amounts of data from cameras, licence plate readers, 911 calls, police databases and other sources.
It will then display the information in real time, both visually and chronologically, allowing investigators to centralise information about crimes as they happen or are reported. “It is a one-stop shop for law enforcement,” Bloomberg said at a City Hall press conference unveiling the new technology.
But, though it has many screens, maps, and flashing visuals that make it look like science fiction, the new technology has a distinctly un-Hollywood name: the Domain Awareness System. Developed by Microsoft engineers working with New York police officers, DAS will allow a host of activities to be carried out, such as spotting a suspicious vehicle and being able to track its recent movements or use cameras to track back and see who left a suspicious package.