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article imageOp-Ed: Surveillance gets much more invasive, but what are your options?

By Paul Wallis     Aug 17, 2012 in Technology
Sydney - Surveillance technology is big news, but its capabilities are usually underrated. The current technology is perfectly capable of creating a police state. If this technology had been available to Stalin, the Gulags would have been ten times bigger.
The new information coming from the “public gallery” of face recognition is bad enough:
Naomi Wolf, writing in the Guardian:
A software engineer in my Facebook community wrote recently about his outrage that when he visited Disneyland, and went on a ride, the theme park offered him the photo of himself and his girlfriend to buy – with his credit card information already linked to it. He noted that he had never entered his name or information into anything at the theme park, or indicated that he wanted a photo, or alerted the humans at the ride to who he and his girlfriend were – so, he said, based on his professional experience, the system had to be using facial recognition technology.
The story, and the software engineer's assumptions, turned out to be true. There are multiple legal issues here, and under US law, possibly constitutional issues as well.
(Note: Wolf's story includes talking lamposts and the similarity between face recognition cameras in China and the rest of the world, well worth reading.)
Elsewhere in the Earthly paradise, Forbes reports on bosses spying on their employees, including this passage about a famous case we covered on DJ a while back:
The FDA is currently fighting off a lawsuit by scientists who claim they were fired for whistleblowing, something the federal agency realized they were doing thanks to a spyware program from SpectorSoft that captured their emails and computer activity. Thanks to a mess-up by a contractor maintaining the files, the 80,000 (!) pages in the spying dossier were temporarily leaked online, making it clear just how extensive the monitoring was.
The methods allegedly used in the FDA case are pretty standard for businesses which have nothing better to do than spy on their employees and business associates. Also in the package of surveillance tools available commercially are:
• Keyloggers
• Spyware
• Real time monitoring
• Smart phone surveillance
• Face recognition- Much more dangerous than it looks
• Credit card and financial information capture
• Medical records
• Criminal records
• Facebook and other social sites
Surveillance, the new Wonder Bread you can sell to anyone
The really amusing thing here is that all these resources are being thrown against perceived threats, not even actual threats, at any price. The businesses obsessively tracking their employees are happy to rack up potential breach of privacy lawsuits which could cost a lot more than any actual wrongdoing. These businesses apparently also don’t realize that when tapping into contractors or external parties, they’re also exposing themselves to charges of industrial espionage, as well. Have all the lawyers gone to sleep, or are these guys only capable of listening to one salesman at a time?
At government level, the same mindsets that spend billions on surveillance are totally opposed to doing what taxpayers supposedly pay them to do. Never mind housing, health or education, we can have a spectator system to watch the society continue its collapse into total failure. Never mind democracy, look, you can push a button and watch the chick in the reception area. How much of this is voyeurism and how much of it is pure stupidity is debatable, but my guess would be that one causes the other. Maybe surveillance is some sort of vicarious puberty? Or maybe some people bought their way out of kindergarten. Time will tell.
The “total coverage” effect
From this list, see if you can find a single part of human life not covered. That list really is, already, just about everything. The classic conspiracy theory here is that generating the gigantic volumes of information required and the processing grunt power necessary to use it is part of a major global system.
The theory goes further- Are the Cloud servers, which are huge things with massive capacity, natural assets for a global surveillance scheme? Do the military and the rest of the largely unaccountable-in-practice areas of law enforcement have the ability to use these capabilities as a weapon against the public, if they’re not already doing so, as many people seem to think?
Wolf refers to “odd-looking” cameras being fitted to cover the Occupy protesters in New York. They turned out to be face recognition cameras. Are Wall Streeters that paranoid? Guess. Confronted with what was a very fortunately non-violent protest, they instantly summoned the nearest thing to Big Brother they could get.
Total coverage doesn’t have too many good sides. Sure, they could catch criminals, but they’re better suited, obviously, to creating watch lists of people. Who needs a database full of everybody and everything? Courts don’t. Law enforcement doesn’t require a “generic” data base- It’s supposed to be looking for suspects. The same applies to anti-terrorism- Too many people in a mix of subjects simply means a lot of non-information for them. (As a matter of fact, “data clutter” is one of the major issues for intelligence agencies.)
Surveillance and the law
In theory, just about any kind of surveillance is a potential class action in waiting. Invasion of privacy is in the mind of the lawsuit, not the law, however supposedly bulletproof. One class action would throw a massive spanner in surveillance. There are qualifiers and constraints and legitimate issues on any information obtained by any third party.
For example:
1. Under some privacy laws, you can only be required to provide personal information like your name when the person requesting the information has a legitimate business reason to ask for that information.
2. Phone calls and emails are de facto private, party to party, conversations. They’re not supposed to be “broadcast” to uninvited third parties.
3. Walking down the street is not an offense. Any record of your movements could be construed as an invasion of privacy if it equates to a demonstrable risk. Say someone hacks into security camera records and robs you as a result, because they know where you’ll usually be at a certain time of day, or that you’re not home between certain hours. Damageable, even if the security cameras are permissible in their locations? Could be- If you're still alive.
4.Surveillance is a stalker’s dream. It can get information which would otherwise be impossible to find. Try finding a mention of that little fact in any form regarding any type of surveillance hardware or software. A real and possibly lethal risk, totally ignored.
The active oppression mode of surveillance
From these delightful issues we move on to the actual capabilities of surveillance. If you’ve ever been under real surveillance by a group of wackos or criminals, you’ll be aware of the possibilities. (If you haven’t, you’ll love it, according to those who have. Nothing like a pack of deformed subhuman megalomaniacs breathing down your neck for that feelgood moment.) There are plenty of nut jobs and psycho groups around the world who are well known for their insane little efforts to get information about individuals.
Governments and agencies can be a lot worse. Many of these wannabe Himmlers pay no attention to the laws they’re supposed to be enforcing. If you’ve read the Gulag Archipelago, you don’t need to be told much more. This is a totalitarian dream come true. In one widely known incident in the 1960s, an “interesting” association between the CIA and Mafia apparently allowed the Mob to get its hands on the original laser recording technology. A beam on a window could record anything. Fun for all involved, no doubt, and this was also the era of the rogue CIA guys who created havoc for the US in the process of their rampages.
The net effect of all this “acceptable” surveillance is to put everybody at risk. To make things even less tolerable, the technology to do these things is easily available off the shelf. Instead of merely destroying democracy, you can go out and buy something to actively prevent it.
What to do about surveillance?
The options for dealing with surveillance vary from the naïve to the violent:
Trust the courts, politicians and the law- That’ll be the day.
Action groups to force better privacy laws- Might achieve something, but let’s not get too dewy-eyed. These characters will break any law when it suits them, and usually never get any kind of penalty.
Class actions- Can achieve something, but watch out for qualifiers. If you thought Roe vs. Wade was a matter of some mild dispute, wait for this one to hit the fan.
Smash every camera you see- Fun if nothing else. It’ll cost them money, but the likely result is inconspicuous cameras.
Anti-face recognition options- There are quite a few. Anything that upsets the critical measures will do. Fake noses, eyes, shades, etc., are pretty reliable.
Hack every surveillance system- There are so many, it’s (ironically enough) illegal, and remember that you’re likely to access only a part of these gigantic amounts of information. The good side could be a Wikileaks-like major blowout.
All out attacks on surveillance systems- Sadly, not the best option. This Bastille can’t be stormed that way. Again, will only hit part of the systems, and they have backups. Not likely to do much more than achieve martyr status for those trying to remove privacy as an option for the human race. The nuts and spooks will achieve hero value for the paranoids.
Then there’s the always-popular alternatives to doing anything at all:
Join the surveillance team and its sparkling intellectual culture- Sorry, if you’re human enough to tell the difference between yourself and a cow, you’re probably not qualified enough.
Get a job which pays you to spruik the virtues of surveillance- “Surveillance improves your sex life- Even for sex you didn’t have and we spliced together”, for example.
Craven groveling submission and agreeing with breaching the rights of the rest of the human species- Clichéd as this is, it’s very popular and required for entry into political parties in most democracies. Not so much an abrogation of any claims to personal respect as an admission to a world of privileged mediocrity.
Actually- The only way to hit this maniacal type of super-overdone surveillance is where it hurts- Its bottom line. The decision makers in this ant farm react to what costs them money, not actual real world issues. Self-interest and playing on paranoia created the surveillance culture. The creators of these systems fear accountability. These are also the best ways to control it.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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