Surveillance In A Digital Age

Time For Serious Thought

A few years back I was chasing beans and bacon as a high-tech writer and ran across a company called Viisage,* whose business it was, and is, to make computers that recognize faces.

Technologically, the idea was cute, though not original. A camera looked at your face. The computer then reduced your mug to a set of numbers and stored them. Next time you came by, it knew who you were. At the time, if memory serves, Viisage could not do it in real time. That is, the computation took long enough that it couldn't pick faces out of a moving crowd. But computers were getting faster.

I wrote a column somewhere saying that one day we'd have cameras everywhere, tracking us. People who didn't follow computers doubtless dismissed the idea as paranoia. Those who did, didn't (if that makes sense).

A few days ago, on the web site of The Register, a British site that covers developments in computers, I discovered the following story, also in many US papers:

"Super Bowl 2001 fans were secretly treated to a mass biometric scan in which video cameras tied to a temporary law-enforcement command center digitized their faces and compared them against photographic lists of known malefactors."

Bingo. Not good, not good at all.

But Fred, you you might say, what a convenient way to catch bad guys. It sure is. Hidden cameras could be put in all manner of public places. If a wanted criminal, or missing child, or suspected terrorist walked past, an alarm would go off, and the gendarmes would appear. Note the words, "fans were secretly treated" in the Register's story. The public needn't -- apparently didn't in Tampa -- know it was being watched. After a while, we would get used to it.

This is fundamentally different from the use of security cameras at Seven-Eleven. Unless the store is robbed, nobody has the time or interest to look at those tapes. There is no computer and no network. Nobody can track your movements with an ordinary catch'em-robbers camera.

But when a computer takes over, it becomes possible to keep a database of faces anywhere -- say at the FBI building in Washington -- and check huge numbers of people across the continent. The Internet makes it easy. Notice how fast Google does a search of an appalling number of Web sites. With perfect ease, the central server could record the time, the place, and a still of the video. Presto, you're being tracked. People wouldn't know whether they were on the watch list, and probably wouldn't notice the camera.

The legitimate uses of face-recognition are compelling. Putting a camera at entrances to governmental buildings appeals: What better way to stop terrorists? Department stores would love to know when a convicted shoplifter entered. With a central repository of faces, a serial killer wanted in Massachusetts would be caught when he walked into a gas station in Texas.

Why would a gas station want this kind of equipment? Because it would instantly warn the proprietor that the customer was a robber, and flash the villain's identity to the police along with his tag number, and record pictures of him. All this for a few grand.

Why not cameras on street corners? In many jurisdictions they are already in use, without image-recognition, to catch runners of red lights. Add the right software and the police could automatically read the license of every passing vehicle to find stolen cars. Surely you want to recover stolen cars?

Now of course the cops will say that they just want to catch criminals. That's true. I know lots of cops. They don't favor Stalinism. Neither, however, do they usually think beyond their immediate mission.

For example, USA Today in its story quotes Major K. C. Newcomb of the Tampa police as saying, "I was fully comfortable that we were not infringing anybody's rights."

I have no doubt that he meant it. And he has a point. If a cop can legally stand at a ticket gate and look at people walking by, which he can, why can't a camera? The problem is that Major Newcomb clearly hasn't a clue as to the downstream ramifications of what he is doing. Therein lies the danger.

The paper also quotes Beverly Griffin, of a company that uses the technology in the casinos of Las Vegas, as saying, "It's the wave of the future. It's for your protection."

See? It's good for us. Actually it's good for the casinos. But it's going to be sold as good for all of us.

The likely progression of uses is obvious. First we will look for criminals. Then for wanted suspects who haven't been convicted. (What? Don't you want to catch the guy suspected of chopping up three co-eds before he does it again?) Then for known troublemakers. Don't you think hit men for the Mafia ought to be watched? Next will come people disliked by incumbent politicians. Finding one's political opponent going into a gay bar, or out with someone else's wife, would be just real handy.

Remember that government already has your photo. Check your driver's license. Some states already digitize them. Some already deal with Viisage.

The potential for intimidation is fantastic. If the technology becomes widespread, which it will, you will never know whether there is a camera, or what it is networked to. It won't matter, unless you do something that displeases those in power. Then it will matter.

A digital, networked world isn't like the world of twenty years ago. Previously, the sheer work involved in spying on people made it largely impractical. Sure, it could be done. With effort and a large likelihood of getting caught, the government could steam open mail, read it, and put it back together. Phones could be tapped. Cars could be tailed. But watching many people, much less everybody, just wasn't workable.

Digital is different. Cheap cameras, commodity computers, and ubiquitous networking make mass surveillance easy. Monitoring email, without anyone's knowing it, is technically a snap. Telephone conversations aren't safe: Shrink-wrapped software for voice-recognition is fairly good; you can bet the spook agencies do it a lot better. Now we have cameras that know who you are.

Do I think the government is out to get us? No. But the technology of mass surveillance that catches criminals is precisely the technology of a degree of social control America cannot imagine. It's creeping in, innocuous step by innocuous step.