...The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plate commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. but at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You have to live - did live, from habit that became instinct - in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
While Americans await the latest opportunity to watch from their couches and smartphones as bombs are rained down on brown people, the Department of Homeland Security has been very quietly implementing video surveillance of more and more aspects of our public lives. Ginger McCall is a lawyer and the founder of Advocates for Accountable Democracy. Her Op-Ed, linked above, appears in this morning's New York Times. Through a Freedom of Information Act Request she was able to obtain the DHS' latest plans to keep us all safe from the obscure but omnipresent threats that we've all come to accept are perpetually stalking us.
Last week, thanks in part to documents that I and the Electronic Privacy Information Center obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the American public learned that the Department of Homeland Security is making considerable progress on a computerized tool called the Biometric Optical Surveillance System. The system, if completed, will use video cameras to scan people in public (or will be fed images of people from other sources) and then identify individuals by their faces, presumably by cross-referencing databases of driver’s license photos, mug shots or other facial images cataloged by name.(That's BOSS in case you missed it).
What will BOSS do? Wonderful, just wonderful things for law enforcement! McCall, like some commenters to the Op-Ed, feels compelled to bring up the Boston bombers whose capture was assisted by video surveillance. As if they were the only criminals the Boston Police have ever caught. But her larger point, the one (I think) we really should pay attention to, is this:
While this sort of technology may have benefits for law enforcement (recall that the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings were identified with help from camera footage), it also invites abuse. Imagine how easy it would be, in a society increasingly videotaped and monitored on closed-circuit television, for the authorities to identify antiwar protesters or Tea Party marchers and open dossiers on them, or for officials to track the public movements of ex-lovers or rivals. “Mission creep” often turns crime-fighting programs into instruments of abuse.
We know this already, because the NSA, for example, has admitted it is populated by jilted ex-boyfriends who spy on their former lovers' communications. Imagine the masochistic allure of being able to watch your ex on video during the day...or night. BOSS can help you with that, lonely NSA guy. Talk about "Mission Creep!"
And we're still waiting to find out what tools DHS used to monitor the Occupy movement.
Of course, it's not just DHS developing this technology but all governmental agencies charged with protecting the "Homeland":
The Department of Homeland Security is not the only agency developing facial-surveillance capacities. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has spent more than $1 billion on its Next Generation Identification program, which includes facial-recognition technology. This technology is expected to be deployed as early as next year and to contain at least 12 million searchable photos. The bureau has partnerships with at least seven states that give the agency access to facial-recognition-enabled databases of driver’s license photos.Thirty-seven states now have active facial-recognition software for purpose of searching driver's license photos. It's not something they advertise to the public. According to McCall, only 11 states have any protections in place limiting access to such technology.
McCall acknowledges that many Americans will have no problem with expanded video monitoring. And there are always those who will argue that because these technologies are inevitable, there is no point fighting them. From my standpoint, if you can't see the potential for abuse of this technology then I would submit you have some screws loose. Note McCall's language:
The system, if completed, will use video cameras to scan people in public (or will be fed images of people from other sources) and then identify individuals by their facesThis is not just about the Feds setting up a camera and pointing it at your house. The technology that can enable full use of face-recognition scanning would be--if it isn't already--satellite or drone-driven, essentially an "Eye in the Sky." We already know that Google Earth can photograph our front door from a satellite. Do we really want a permanent camera trained on us? When "law enforcement" talks about a public area, they're not talking about the school playground. They're talking about everything outside your front door.
Defenders of this technology will say that no one has a legitimate expectation of privacy in public. But as surveillance technology improves, the distinction between public spaces and private spaces becomes less meaningful. There is a vast difference between a law enforcement officer’s sifting through thousands of hours of video footage in search of a person of interest, and his using software to instantly locate that person anywhere, at any time.Since Edward Snowden's revelations about the extent of the NSA's domestic surveillance, the focus by the media has mostly been on the capacity of the NSA to sift through and collect digital data such as emails, phone calls, web browsing history, anything that leaves a "digital footprint." No one seems to have addressed the fact that technology now exists not only to visually observe virtually anyone, but to track them as well. So when you walk out in your bathrobe to pick up the paper from the curb, you can be monitored. When you get in your car and drive to work, you can be monitored. When you walk into your place of employment, you can be monitored. When you go that restaurant or bar, or store, you can be monitored. Not just by the NSA or the FBI, but by your local yahoos in state government and your local police department. And if you think this is all just peachy-keen because you've already thrown away your privacy on Facebook, try to come up with an explanation why surveillance such as this would magically stop at the solid walls of your house or apartment. Or at your Smartphone or tablet or desktop, staring back at you right now.
A person in public may have no reasonable expectation of privacy at any given moment, but he certainly has a reasonable expectation that the totality of his movements will not be effortlessly tracked and analyzed by law enforcement without probable cause. Such tracking, as the federal appellate judge Douglas H. Ginsburg once ruled, impermissibly “reveals an intimate picture of the subject’s life that he expects no one to have — short perhaps of his wife.”
McCall says the only faces that should populate these facial recognition databases are those of known terrorists and convicted felons. Also that access to such databases be limited and monitored. Because:
We cannot leave it to law enforcement agencies to determine, behind closed doors, how these databases are used.
Related story from the Times last week describes development and trial testing of BOSS.
In a sign of how the use of such technologies can be developed for one use but then expanded to another, the BOSS research began as an effort to help the military detect potential suicide bombers and other terrorists overseas at “outdoor polling places in Afghanistan and Iraq,” among other sites, the documents show. But in 2010, the effort was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security to be developed for use instead by the police in the United States* * *
After a recent test of the system, the department recommended against deploying it until more improvements could be made. A department official said the contractor was “continuing to develop BOSS,” although there is no sign of when it may be done. But researchers on the project say they made progress, and independent specialists say it is virtually inevitable that someone will make the broader concept work as camera and computer power continue to improve."Electronic Warfare Associates." Feeling safer yet?
“I would say we’re at least five years off, but it all depends on what kind of goals they have in mind” for such a system, said Anil Jain, a specialist in computer vision and biometrics engineering at Michigan State University who was not involved in the BOSS project.
The effort to build the BOSS system involved a two-year, $5.2 million federal contract given to Electronic Warfare Associates, a Washington-area military contractor with a branch office in Kentucky. The company has been working with the laboratory of Aly Farag, a University of Louisville computer vision specialist, and the contract was steered to the firm by an earmark request in a 2010 appropriations bill by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.