Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Best way to terminate surveillance society is through cost-benefit analysis

In a recent episode of the Fox-TV sci-fi hit, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a spin-off from the Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator movies about time travel and a future where intelligent machines took over the planet, the eponymous character (who'd returned to the past to eliminate the threat) discovers that, in the fictional plot, the key network that wound up allowing an artificial intelligence system to impose its will on humanity began with the implementation of red light cameras, giving the machines a near-ubiquitous surveillance and control of American cities.

Fictional fantasies aside, with technology advancing so rapidly, it's hard to know how concerned one should be about the possibility of some future, a la The Terminator, in which technology is used to enslave the public rather than liberate us from crime. My favorite quote from the show about the difficulty of that judgment came as Sarah Connor and her band of "heroes" contemplate whether to kill the maker of an artificial intelligence program at a 1997 computer chess tournament:
Cameron: “It could become Skynet.”
Sarah: “It could also become 'Pong.”
While we're a long way from any real world enactment of the "Skynet" scenario from Terminator, we're already to the point where human authorities, using increasingly intelligent machines, routinely use roadway cameras for purposes unrelated to traffic control, or even antithetical to it.

In Houston, tollway cameras have been configured to identify license plate numbers and run them against vehicle registration records and arrest warrants. Meanwhile, in California, red light cameras have been configured so that private vehicles owned by elected officials, public employees and their families will not be ticketed for red light running.

So these technologies already are used both to grant privileges and to bust "bad guys," not to mention (much more likely) low-level ticket scofflaws and other petty offenders not savvy enough to simply stay on the freeway.

Indeed, in Dallas, Houston, and Austin, police want to go even further in the direction of a human-run version of the the ubiquitous, automated surveillance society foreseen in Terminator, placing surveillance cameras in public spaces with feeds directly to the police department. The potential for real-time identification of individuals in the public sphere creates all sorts of scenarios worthy of a good sci-fi plot.

Whatever the merits though, of any arguments about privacy, a surveillance society, slippery slopes, and other debates about cameras centered around individual rights, the best argument against them when it comes to crime reduction is that they don't work. In Britain and other locations where they've been in place long enough to study the results, there's simply little impact on crime.

On his blog this week, Bruce Schneier, who arguably ranks among the most important electronic security specialists in the country (he literally "wrote the book" about cryptography in the computer age), links to a past Grits post in an item about the results from San Francisco's anti-crime cameras. As in Britain and everywhere else I'm aware of, results from San Francisco;s long-term study found that the "best thing that can be said about [cameras] is they have a placebo effect for worried residents," but crime didn't go down overall as a result of their placement.

That's why, rather than waste too much breath arguing about the possibility of Big Brother's potential misuse of camera technologies, a better tactic IMO may be to vet such ideas to determine if they really produce the promised results.

In that respect, my thoughts regarding surveillance cameras aren't that different from those regarding new, state-level "fusion centers" that have aggregated mountains of private citizens' information. Yes, there may be legitimate Big-Brotherish concerns, but those arguments will only ever convince people who are predisposed to agree with them. If those opposed to general public surveillance can demonstrate, however, that promised public safety benefits do not result - another thing security cameras in public areas have in common with fusion centers - those arguments appeal to broader constituencies and situate such opposition much more favorably in the political arena.

Not only that, they have the added benefit of being true.


Anonymous said...

It's creepy to think people are hiding and watching you or collecting data on you... even if you have "nothing to hide".

Anonymous said...

Technology is increasingly enabling the government to exercise more power, at the expense of the citizens losing freedom. The Sixth Amendment was supposed to protect the people against anonymous accusations, but now computers can bear false witness and there is no possibility of cross examining them. If a machine says you're guilty, you're guilty, period.

Innocent people become victims of unreliable mechanisms, and, worse yet, dishonest cops know how to cheat by using the technology to fabricate evidence. It is a whole lot easier to make quotas by cheating than by working, and so honest work is discouraged and cheating encouraged.

Anonymous said...

This type of surveillence is covered extensively on the epic.org website, especially that which has been placed in high-traffic areas of this nation's capitol. Take a look at the Spotlight on Surveillence Archive.