Wednesday, January 7, 2009

While You Sleep, the Cameras Are Being Prepped

I'm old enough that I can remember when privacy was a valued concept in the United States. And I'm old-school enough that I still adhere to the standards of privacy that prevailed in my youth. So I've been watching the swing toward a more -- what's the word? -- complacent attitude toward government surveillance with some alarm. As a result I've been talking about this issue with some extremely intelligent people for some years now.

As a result, I'm aware that I'm in the minority here.

But did you know that the Feds are mandating what seems to be a universal surveillance system? I didn't either, until I read Ingra Saffron's architecture column in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It begins:

The typical traffic light is roughly the size of a large table fan.
The hardware necessary to switch a signal from green to amber to red in a fail-safe way can probably fit into the space of an old desktop computer.

So why does Philadelphia need to install control boxes as big as refrigerators to operate its traffic lights?

Let's start with the Department of Homeland Security.

On orders from the federal government, Philadelphia is replacing all its electromechanical signal boxes with a digital system that will eventually host the guts for a citywide network of surveillance cameras. While the old signal boxes were small enough to be strapped to the poles of traffic lights, the new digital, camera-ready signals require a lot more space - freestanding cabinets 67 inches tall.

The first of these brown behemoths are now going in at every signalized intersection east of Broad Street between South and Market, in some of Philadelphia's oldest, most historic neighborhoods. You can't miss them.

Taller than a standard mailbox, they rear up over pedestrians like angry grizzly bears.

(Online, there's a clarifying statement that it wasn't a DHS mandate but a program "under the auspices of" the Federal Highway Administration. I used to work in the proposals office of the Franklin Institute Research Laboratories, so I suspect this is like the the CIA contracts we used to bid on which were issued by the USDA, but that's irrelevant. It hardly matters whether it's the branch of the American government with the scary name or the one that promotes the well-being of moo-cows. It's what will be done with the surveillance system that matters.)

In the 1950s, the very idea of such a thing would have been denounced in Congress. In the 1960s, there would have been riots. Today, the only reason I've heard that preparations are being made for a system that will permanently change the nature of public space in this country is because an architecture critic thought the casings were ugly.

Well . . . maybe I'm wrong to be upset.

Years ago, Bruce Sterling sneered at me for decrying the proliferation of surveillance cameras. "The real problem isn't being watched," he said, "it's getting anybody's attention."

More recently, Tom Purdom pointed out to me that having cameras in public spaces was no different in kind from having a policeman present -- or anybody else who might see what you're doing. "There's no reason for you to expect privacy in a public space," he said. Nor did he think such a system would be a de facto Big Brother 1.0 precursor to government surveillance of our private lives. "That would upset most people," he said, "and the government can't get away with things that upset the majority of people. They wouldn't put up with it."

Most tellingly, Farah Mendlesohn believes that privacy as we know it is a historical anomaly of the past two or three hundred years, and that improvements in technology are probably bringing that anomaly to an end. If I'm following her line of thought correctly -- and I may be putting my own words into her mouth -- it hardly matters whether or not governments build universal surveillance systems, because the technology's so cheap and widely available that such systems will effectively build themselfs.

These are all thoughtful and even convincing arguments. Mendlesohn's in particular provides a historical perspective that I find very hard to disagree with.

But still. For such a major step as this . . . shouldn't we have been consulted first?



SpeakerToManagers said...

This isn't a new issue; a number of cities have been installing traffic cameras, centralizing the control and monitoring of existing systems, and moving toward real-time license plate and/or face detection. London has been turned into a goldfish bowl by the "Ring of Iron" but so far as I know, that hasn't stopped any real terrorist threats so far, though that was it's orginal (stated) purpose.

I have the same old-school attitude about privacy, but I have to agree with Tom Purdom that surveillance of public spaces isn't a violation of civil rights. My concern is that it will muddy the issues when (not if in my opinion) governments start pushing their surveillance into more private areas. The argument is sure to be made that we accepted the traffic cameras and nothing awful happened, so how could more be bad? Not a logical argument, but it's not the logical arguments that win elections or establish public acceptance of government functioning. And I'm not at all sure that Purdom is right that going beyond the public places will upset enough people to prevent it being done. Not enough people seem to be bothered by the complete ineffectiveness (and downright counter-productiveness) of the TSA "Security Theater" at US airports to put a stop to it.

But still. For such a major step as this . . . shouldn't we have been consulted first?

What, and run the risk we'd say no?

mythusmage said...

When any who wish to can watch what you're doing, privacy is not in the picture. And is it truly privacy we're concerned with here, or a lack of control over our own lives?

Michael Swanwick said...

My concern is that we appear to be losing even the concept of privacy, and apparently without noticing it much. A guy in the defense industry, defending his assertion that a way should be found to tag every packet of information on the Net (which I don't think is technically possible, so that's probably not an issue), told me that "Young people have no sense of privacy anymore." My son and his friends were outraged by that. But the sentiment is definitely out there.

SpeakerToManagers said...

It's not necessary for them to tag every packet; the deal NSA has with the telecom companies allows them to read something like 40% of all packets that go through the backbone of the internet in realtime. And that's only packets that go through US backbone sites, so it's aimed squarely at US residents.

You're right, though, the offhand denial that people don't want privacy is a serious problem. Unfortunately, it seems to be true to that most people are willing to give up (probably more than they realize) privacy in return for the equivalent of the toaster that banks used to give away with new accounts.

The government is not the only entity that wants information about us. Marketing organizations in large corporations are spending huge amounts of money to build databases about our interests, purchasing decisions, and anything else that gives them an edge in selling things to us. And while the government's success in getting us to allow them to spy on us is based on telling us it will make us more secure, the corporations success is based on our not noticing what they're doing.