Thursday, December 16, 2004

Biometric Blues, Third Stanza

Do you like to have your picture taken?

wrote Tuesday about two Texas legislative initiatives -- secret government surveillance cameras, which were approved in the 78th Texas Legislature in 2003, and gathering biometric "facial recognition" data about law-abiding Texans, which is the top priority of the House Defense Affairs Committee in their recently released Interim Report (pdf), heading into the 79th Legislature next year.

Kuff has been writing recently about the third leg of the surveillance stool -- the mass proliferation of surveillance cameras in public spaces, often under the pretense of traffic enforcement. Houston's proposal to install traffic cameras to ticket red-light runners is being billed as a traffic safety and revenue generation initiative, but Kuff is right to worry that if biometric data becomes available on average citizens, the cameras also pose major privacy concerns.

After all, if the cameras have resolution high enough to capture license plate numbers from a moving car, they're sharp enough to capture someone's face through the windshield, and once the Texas Department of Public Safety has biometric data on every driver, in theory, government will be able to identify you from those pictures.

I know, it sounds crazy, like a scene from the futuristic movie where Tom Cruise walks through the mall and stores use biometric facial recognition to target him with ads. Just because you're paranoid, though, doesn't mean no one's out to get you. A major European Union study called An Appraisal of the Technologies of Political Control concluded that, “much of this [surveillance] technology is [in fact] used to track the activities of dissidents, human rights activists, journalists, student leaders, minorities, trade union leaders and political opponents.”

For example, “The cameras used in Tiananmen Square were sold as advanced traffic control systems by Siemens Plessey. Yet after the 1989 massacre of students, there followed a witch hunt when the authorities tortured and interrogated thousands in an effort to ferret out the subversives. The Scoot surveillance system with USA made Pelco cameras were used to faithfully record the protests. The images were repeatedly broadcast over Chinese television offering a reward for information, with the result that nearly all the transgressors were identified. ... Foreign companies are exporting traffic control systems to Lhasa in Tibet, yet Lhasa does not as yet have any traffic control problems.”

If the Chinese government had biometric facial recognition technology, like the House Defense Affairs Committee wants, they wouldn't have had to offer rewards, or ever reveal how they were using their traffic cameras. They could have just secretly identified the dissidents from their pictures and rounded them up.

Great Britain has become the most surveilled country in the world, largely in response to IRA terrorism. Dr Clive Norris and Gary Armstrong of the Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice at Hull University, UK, authored a study of the British experience called The Unforgiving Eye: CCTV Surveillance in Public Spaces, in which they found:
  • 40% of people were targeted for "no obvious reason", mainly "on the basis of belonging to a particular or subcultural group."
  • "Black people were between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half times more likely to be surveilled than one would expect from their presence in the population." Thirty percent of targeted surveillances on black people were protracted, lasting 9 minutes or more, compared with just 10% on white people.
  • Those deemed to be "out of time and out of place" with the commercial image of city centre streets were subjected to prolonged surveillance. "Thus drunks, beggars, the homeless, street traders were all subject to intense surveillance".
  • One out of ten women were targeted for “voyeuristic” reasons by the male camera operators.
  • "Finally, anyone who directly challenged, by gesture or deed, the right of the cameras to monitor them was especially subject to targeting."
Most traffic cameras can zoom in and out, and many can rotate to view sidewalks or even into the windows of buildings. Typically, dozens or hundreds of cameras can be monitored from a centralized police command post. So once they're up, police can use them for surveillance of public spaces, just like police officers who sometimes write traffic tickets may, on another day, be asked to infiltrate a political meeting.

The Texas House of Representatives resoundingly rejected giving tickets based on
red light cameras last year in a 104-33 floor vote. Then, Rep. Linda Harper Brown amended a separate, unrelated bill with language that, the Garland and Houston legal departments believe, allows cities to use cameras for tickets that are civil fines, like parking tickets, not Class C criminal penalties like the ones officers usually give red ligh runners.

Her amendment was pretty sneaky; she should expect a backlash. I watched that vote live, and the Texas House didn't just vote down that bill - members stomped on its grave on the House floor. Some offered humiliating amendments to ridicule it, ultimately including one by Rep. David Swinford that would have only allowed cameras to be used in towns with fewer than 50 residents! I think Rep. Swinford, Gary Elkins, and quite a few others may make it a personal mission to ensure Harper Brown's language doesn't stand.

In many cities, though, like Austin, the cameras are already up, and police may use them for nefarious purposes, even if the Legislature disallows using them to ticket drivers.

See also Biometric Blues, and Biometric Blues, Second Stanza. Thanks to Laurel for research done to oppose this bill in 2003.


chunkyasparagus said...

So what's the problem? Doesn't this just mean we live in a safer society where criminals can be caught and guilt proven more easily? Surely the only problem is ensuring the security of data from these cameras. However, I see no problem with the number of surveillance cameras whatsoever. It is only people with something to hide that have a problem.

Anonymous said...

Dear Chunky,

The problem is that we don't have control over what the definition of a criminal is. Why does the TSA list include ACLU members, Nuns, Socialists, Greens, and anyone who cares about the world and tries to change our administrations policies.

What if we must dissent.

Shall we allow our Government to set up a system to punish and intimidate everyone that doesn't agree with what it is is doing.

We are losing our rights because we are scared of our neighbors and the bugi men.

- S.A.R.

Anonymous said...