Posts Tagged ‘Surveillance’

Yea or Nay: NYPD Skywatch crime surveillance…coming to a corner near you.

Friday, March 19th, 2010

One of these just showed up nearby. Here’s more info on what these things are.

Not the most subtle device in the world. But really that’s just the point?

Mobile crime surveillance units?

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Yea or Nay: Sympathetic Advertising

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Using facial recognition technology, an internal computer determines your gender and your age. The billboard then pulls up an ad based on your demographic, targeting your best possible interest. The billboard I tried out saw that I was indeed a woman in her thirties and… lo and behold, pulled up a very appealing lunch advertisement.

The author of this article compares this new technology to retina scanning technology in the movie “Minority Report” that allowed “billboards” to play ads that are tailored to YOU, personally, not you, as a member of a demographic group. Is that a fair comparison?

After all, the data behind the Japanese advertising technology probably looks more like this Wikipedia page on Japanese demographics than this IMDB page on Tom Cruise.

Still, it’s very easy to see the slippery slope between these two scenarios, in particular because they are collecting the faces they’re reading.

So the question remains, where’s the bright line between tracking people to gain a “general understanding” of what’s going and tracking individuals so they can’t get away with anything? Has this face-reading advertising technology already crossed that line?

What do you think?

Read faces to play demographically targeted ads?

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Yea or Nay: Track Taxis with GPS?

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

We talk a lot on this blog about how tracking personal activities and collecting data can be extremely useful. We also talk about the need for better laws, regulations and shared social understanding of how such data should be collected, shared and used.

As part of our ongoing work to make sense of such a complicated and confusing set of issues, we’ll be collecting interesting “moral dilemmas” related to the issue of tracking human behaviors and posting them as a series of online polls. It’s an attempt to take a more “empirical,” case-by-case approach in an effort to keep high-level policy thinking rooted in reality.

If you come across something an interesting moral dilemma, please send them our way.

Without further ado, here’s the first poll:

Using G.P.S. technology installed in cabs, the (Taxi and Limousine) commission discovered more than 1.8 million trips where passengers were charged the higher rate.

Should we track taxis with GPS devices?

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In the mix

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

EFF Launches New “Terms of (Ab)use” Page (EFF)

Eight Million Reasons for New Surveillance Oversight (Slight Paranoia)

Everyman Offers New Directions in Online Maps (NYTimes)

Should I still have expectations of privacy in my “home”?

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

When are we going to stop using “physical” boundaries to determine where we should and shouldn’t have expectations of privacy?

Not any time soon, says the Wisconsin Appellate Court, which recently ruled:

“We discern no privacy interest protected by the Fourth Amendment that is invaded when police attach a device to the outside of a vehicle, as long as the information obtained is the same as could be gained by the use of other techniques that do not require a warrant,” wrote Judge Paul Lundsten for the unanimous three-judge panel.”

(For what it’s worth, the New York State Court of Appeals recently went the other way.)

Seems like everything hangs on how you interpret the phrase “as long as the information obtained is the same as could be gained by the use of other techniques that do not require a warrant.

I guess they just figure that GPS tracking is simply a less labor-intensive equivalent of “tailing” vehicles in an undercover cop car, which does not require a warrant. (The logic there is that a vehicle on public byways is in plain sight of anyone who wants to look.)

But “tracking” vehicles with a GPS device just feels different. For one, there’s no “looking” involved. The police simply “know” where you are. And they know regardless of whether you’re indoors or out, in private spaces or public spaces.

Really, we are all being tracked already by our cellphones, metrocards and Fastrak/EZPass devices. So maybe we just shouldn’t have an expectation of privacy anywhere (at least anywhere we can get a signal or until our batteries run out). Instead, we should “expect” that we’re being tracked all the time whether we’re in our homes or in the middle of Times Square.

If the courts are going to draw physical boundaries around expectations of privacy in the satellite/cellular/wireless age, they should draw them around areas with poor cell coverage and wireless service. In which case, the back of my basement is the money spot for me.

But really, I’d prefer it if the cops had to obtain a warrant before they could plant a GPS tracking device or access existing GPS data.

Needles in a verbal haystack

Monday, February 16th, 2009

Sometime during the Bush administration, a 1970s-ish malaise settled on the country, and it hasn’t lifted yet. There’s the volatile price of oil…that cop drama about an officer who goes back in time to 1973…everyone in a bad mood about something (I was teething)…and oh yeah, the government is apparently spying on journalists!

This story has been reported widely, but not gotten much traction. In January, former National Security Agency analyst Russell Tice told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann that the NSA did inded listen in on the communications of all kinds of ordinary Americans, with special attention paid to journalists (hey, who says 24-hour news networks never actually make news?)

TICE: Well, I don’t know what our former president knew or didn’t know. I’m sort of down in the weeds. But the National Security Agency had access to all Americans’ communications, faxes, phone calls, and their computer communications. And that doesn’t — it didn’t matter whether you were in Kansas, you know, in the middle of the country, and you never made a communication — foreign communications at all. They monitored all communications.

One American who is sure he was spied on is the New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright, who writes on terrorism. He told NPR’s On The Media (full disclosure: they are work colleagues) that two federal agents actually showed up at his front door to ask him directly about the contents of his conversations:

WRIGHT: And then they began asking if the person on our end of the call, my end, was named Caroline. And that’s my daughter’s name. And they asked, you know, is her name Caroline Brown? And I said, no, she’s, you know, a student at Brown. But I said, her name’s not on any of our phones. How do you know this information? Are you listening to my calls? And they just shut their briefcases and left.

There is so much here to unpack: the question of whether monitoring Wright’s communications was legal then, whether it would be legal today, the fact that federal agents still apparently make housecalls, and the specific way in which communications are unpacked. Tice told Olbermann the NSA’s monitoring a bit like googling for keywords:

TICE: what was done was a sort of an ability to look at the meta data, the signaling data for communications, and ferret that information to determine what communications would ultimately be collected. Basically, filtering out sort of like sweeping everything with that meta data, and then cutting down ultimately what you are going to look at and what is going to be collected, and in the long run have an analyst look at, you know, needles in a haystack for what might be of interest.

It would be interesting to know whether this sort of data sweep gets better results than labor-intensive 24-hour East German surveillance operation depicted in The Lives of Others. Judging from “Caroline Brown”, I’d say maybe not – yet.

(Click here if you need primer on presidential spying on journalists from Kennedy onwards.)

Scary pizza

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

My friend sent this to me recently. Created by the ACLU for its campaign against the National ID program, it’s a mash-up of all our worst surveillance fears. It starts with a guy calling his local pizzeria for a couple of double meat pizzas, while you see the computer screen the girl at the pizza place is looking at as she rings up his order. She surprises him first by knowing his name, his home address, and his place of work from the moment his call comes in, but it gets rapidly worse, from a $20 health surcharge for meat pizza because of his high cholesterol and blood pressure to her snide comments about his waist size and his ability to pay for the pizzas, based on what she knows of his purchase history, including airplane tickets to Hawaii.

It’s entertaining, but also frustrating for a couple of reasons. First, there are very good reasons for me to be concerned about private companies’ data collection and their potential for collusion in U.S. government surveillance, but this video doesn’t explain how the National ID program would lead to the pizzeria having my health records. By focusing only on the sensational horror of the pizza girl knowing the customer bought a bunch of condoms, it forgets to tell us the pizzeria might literally be giving their customers’ names, phone numbers, and addresses to government officials. (The ACLU does have this report providing a more detailed argument about the dangers of private-public surveillance, but there was no direct link to it from the pizza video.)

Second, in terms of data collection and its dangers in general, the video ends up feeling sort of hysterical. It obscures, rather than clarifies, what’s really at stake.

We do live in a world where data collection is happening on an unprecedented level. But for me, what’s scary is not the mere possibility that all this data could get linked together. It’s about control. Do I get to decide who has my information? Do I get to control how it’s disseminated and analyzed?

Right now, we definitely don’t and that’s a problem. But the solution may not be to stop data collection altogether and segregate all the information out there so no linkage can happen ever.

I might not want the pizza girl at my local pizzeria to know about my health problems, but I might not mind if, as I ordered food online, the program allowed me to review my choices and build a more a nutritious meal specific to my needs, without disclosing my specific preferences to each restaurant. I might not want the government to be able to access my purchase history, but I might want to be able to securely track and access my purchases and my financial accounts at the same time so I can better determine how well I’m meeting my budget. I might even want to share certain information, securely and anonymously, if I thought it would lead to beneficial research by scientists, economists, and policymakers.

Of course, I wouldn’t sign up for anything if I thought my personal information could get leaked to the government or anyone else without my consent. It would make for a somewhat less dramatic video, but this is what the Common Datatrust Foundation is interested in addressing—how can we turn our capacity for data collection and sharing into something that is a public good, rather than a scary fear?


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