It’s no secret that our online actions are watched — by hackers, Uncle Sam and corporations alike.
But what about when we’re not sitting in front of a computer or on our smartphones?
As a growing fear of terrorism, mass shootings and other amorphous threats pervades society, there are fewer spaces people can go without being tracked. And as surveillance technology improves, the threat to privacy is becoming more acute — notably from camera systems that recognize faces and microphones that can eavesdrop on conversations.
The trove of data derived from such surveillance can help local cops find missing children and enable the feds to track down potential terrorists, but experts say it also can be used to undermine the civil rights of innocent people, who may be targeted simply because they wandered into a mosque or attended a gun show. President Donald Trump has called for expanding government surveillance programs further, particularly targeting Muslim Americans, even while privacy advocates have raised concerns about how he’ll use the information.
“You have very powerful systems being purchased, most often in secret, with little-to-no public debate and no process in place to make sure that there are policies in place to safeguard community members,” said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the ACLU of California.
There are ways to avoid being watched — if you’re willing to get creative. You can dress in designs by Berlin-based artist Adam Harvey, whose geometric patterns are intended to confuse facial recognition technology, or camouflage your face with makeup. And you can keep your phone in a Faraday cage or wrap it in tinfoil to block tracking devices from picking up its signal (and prevent you from receiving calls). But for the most part, leaving the house means subjecting yourself to a certain level of surveillance.
“Sometimes it’s unavoidable if you want to be someone who actually goes outside into public,” said Jeramie Scott, national security counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “And that’s part of the problem. We as citizens of this country shouldn’t have to bend over backwards to prevent mass public surveillance.”
Yet that’s exactly what’s happening as security cameras have become almost ubiquitous.
There are security cameras on private homes and public buildings, which are perused by law enforcement as well as by their owners. San Jose has a voluntary registry of almost 450 neighborhood cameras that allows police easy access to footage if it becomes relevant to an investigation. And if a camera is connected to an insecure network, the video might end up available to the public on a website like Insecam, which streams hacked footage from cameras around the world.
The Bay Area’s public transit systems also are full of cameras. BART has cameras in most of its stations, parking lots and elevators, and in more than 40 percent of train cars, according to spokesman Jim Allison. There are two types of cameras in Muni buses, both of which record audio and video, and could potentially pick up passengers’ conversations.
Footage from Muni’s DriveCam typically is kept no longer than a week. But Muni may hold on to it indefinitely if it’s needed as evidence in a crash or other altercation, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency spokesman Paul Rose said.
But it’s not just that cameras always have eyes on you. The bigger danger is that increasingly they’re able to identify you as well.
In public buildings and offices, there’s a chance you’re being watched by cameras equipped with facial recognition software. Southern California-based FaceFirst, for example, sells its facial recognition technology to retail stores, which use it to identify shoplifters who have been banned from the store, and alert management if they return. Corporate offices and banks also use the software to recognize people who are wanted by police.
Facial recognition technology, which works by matching thousands of data points in a face with points on other faces in a database, has become dramatically more advanced in the past five years, said FaceFirst CEO Joe Rosenkrantz.
“The computers are getting better and better and better on a daily basis now,” he said.
A few Bay Area retail stores use FaceFirst systems, Rosenkrantz said, though he wouldn’t say which ones. And several local law enforcement agencies have expressed interest in the technology, but so far none have had the budget for it. FaceFirst sells software police officers can install on their smartphones and use to identify people in the field from up to 12 feet away.
Some privacy experts worry facial recognition technology will show up next in police body cameras, with potentially dangerous consequences.
Body cameras have become popular tools for police accountability following a wave of officer-involved shootings around the country. San Jose police officers wear them, as do most deputies in Alameda County. The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office says it has ordered body cameras and is drafting policies that will dictate their use.
In Alameda County, deputies are required to record all interactions with civilians, unless the interaction is in a private place like a bathroom or is otherwise of a sensitive nature, said Sgt. Ray Kelly. Those videos typically are stored in the Sheriff’s Office database for five years, and can be accessed by the deputies who shot them, and their supervisors.
The problem, say privacy advocates, is that all kinds of people come into contact with police, including many who are never suspected of any crimes. So lots of innocent people could be caught up in a police database fed by face-recognizing body cameras.
The body cameras could turn into a “massive mobile surveillance network,” EPIC’s Scott said.
And body cameras aren’t privacy advocates only concern when it comes to police surveillance systems.
The San Jose Police Department and Alameda County Sheriff’s Office each have half a dozen license plate readers mounted to patrol cars. Alameda County uses them to identify vehicles that are stolen or wanted in connection to crimes or missing person reports.
Deputies also can use the plate readers to track a suspect’s movements, Kelly said. But he played down the privacy implications.
“If you’re not committing a crime, and you’re a law-abiding person,” he said, “then we don’t care where you go or what you do.”
Privacy advocates aren’t convinced by such reassurances. Even law-abiding citizens can end up on a terrorist watch list, gang database or other list that could make it difficult to travel, get security clearance or pass a background check, or may affect their immigration status, they say.
“When you look at massive amounts of data on a particular individual,” Scott said, “it becomes easier and easier to find something that looks suspicious even if the person has done nothing wrong.”
Law enforcement surveillance
Here’s a rundown of the technology local law enforcement agencies have at their disposal.
San Jose Police Department
Drone: One, grounded pending FAA licensing.
Body cameras: All full-time, full-duty patrol officers wear them.
Registry of private security cameras: 448 submissions as of Jan. 24.
License plate readers: Six in patrol vehicles.
Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office
Body cameras: None, for now — the department is planning to outfit deputies with cameras in the future.
Registry of private security cameras: Yes, using CrimeReports.com.
License plate readers: One, mounted to a patrol vehicle.
Alameda County Sheriff’s Office
Drones: Five or six. Used to gather images in specific active shooter situations, bomb threats, search and rescue missions, etc. Not used for general surveillance.
Body cameras: Most deputies wear them.
Registry of private security cameras: None.
License plate readers: About six, mounted to patrol cars.
Privacy advocacy and regulations
Privacy is becoming a growing concern among local residents, prompting some to form advocacy groups and push for rules to govern the use of surveillance tools.
Santa Clara County
Last year Santa Clara County became the first in the country to implement rules for transparency in the use of surveillance technology.
Another group, Oakland Privacy, advocates for privacy and surveillance regulations. Their tagline is “I’ve been watching you watching me.”
The transit system is considering an ordinance that would require BART board approval for the use of surveillance technology, and allow for public comment on surveillance tools.
Published at Thu, 09 Feb 2017 15:20:35 +0000