Surveillance and Ubiquity

HexView has an article about tracking vehicles with RFID tire pressure monitors. The devices are found in tires and transmit tire pressure to the engine control module, which sounds innocuous enough, but to prevent modules from reading neighboring cars’ tires by accident, they also transmit a unique ID. Thus, you can follow a car around town based on its ID, turning tire pressure monitors into tracking devices.

RFID devices are becoming more and more common, and this trend will continue — they’re too convenient for many purposes for the security risks around them to stop them. You may not want every consumer good you buy to be tagged with an ID that lets people watch your shopping from 100 yards away, but the scenario of being able to check out at the grocery store by instantaneously scanning every item in your cart simultaneously is too compelling for people to resist.

Bruce Schneier has a post on the ineffectiveness of security cameras, but while calling them ineffective it does note that criminals moved their crimes to somewhere the cameras couldn’t see. This may be “ineffective” for a government camera system designed to deter crime, but it’s precisely what privately-owned security cameras are meant to do — make a target unappealing so criminals go elsewhere. This actually shows that cameras do deter crime… but only where they can see it.

However, both of these technologies can have pernicious effects, too. The HexView article points out that you could use the RFID tire monitors to commit murder — set a bomb with a radio trigger that goes off when the “right” car drives over it. It would also be just as useful to private investigators spying on citizens as it is to law enforcement chasing down criminals. And speaking of law enforcement, these cameras create a dangerous imbalance in their favor — the camera evidence is all under their control, and thus can come up when needed to prove a perpetrator’s guilt yet be conveniently lost in cases of police brutality, abuse of power, corruption etc.

This is an interesting time for surveillance — police and government surveillance ability is skyrocketing (London is practically blanketed in cameras at this point, as the British seem much less uncomfortable with them than Americans are) but it is still largely in the hands of authority figures. This is dangerous because of how fast the change is coming — our criminal laws and sentencing structures are based on the principle that most criminals get away with it. A $75 fine for speeding seems pretty reasonable, but what if that fine were levied every time a car hit 1 mph over the speed limit? Most of us would get fined a dozen times a day, every day, despite not even meaning to speed, because our behaviors are based on the idea that we probably won’t get caught and that even if we are police are unlikely to punish us for very minor transgressions. If people were caught for speeding every time, and fined every time, a $75 fine would be absurd — the fine could probably be under $1 and still bring in a few hundred dollars a month from every citizen. What is the right legal structure here? I can see two possibilities:

It’s not just traffic laws that are like this; consider the War on Drugs.  If every person who ever smoked marijuana went to prison, we would have a nation of felons — there’d be few people left who could vote, get security clearances, hold most jobs, etc.  The RIAA lawsuits against file-sharers are a good example of what happens when technology that catches everyone gets used to enforce laws designed under the assumption that only the worst and most flagrant criminals will be caught — people being hit by millions of dollars in fines for using technology to do something that wouldn’t even raise an eyelash if done by old, physical means (e.g. posting a song on BitTorrent vs. handing it to a friend on a cassette tape.)

A surveillance society needs a different kind of jurisprudence — one that sets punishments that fit the crime even if applied every time.  On the bright side, actually doing this would lower crime rates tremendously due to the psychology of criminals.  Escalating punishments does little to deter crime because criminals are risk-seekers — they do not expect to get caught.   Even a small punishment can be a strong deterrent if applied every time — if criminals are usually caught, such that all criminals have some first-hand experience with being caught and punished, it would break this idea.  On the not so bright side, a surveillance society must have very liberal laws to avoid being a police state — our current legal system, applied to everyone every time, would result in tyranny.  We all break 10 laws a day, it’s only sloppy enforcement that allows us to live our lives.  Unfortunately, the technology for ubiquitous enforcement will come well before the legal system changes to make it livable do.

What’s interesting to me is what will happen when surveillance becomes even more common: that is, when it is no longer monopolized by authority.  This has already started with cellular phones.   Almost everyone carries around a device which, while primarily for communication, contains a camera and often a voice recorder and videocamera as well.  Everyone is equipped to carry out impromptu surveillance at any time.  Devices like these glasses from ThinkGeek (found via BoingBoing) coupled with the rapidly falling cost of storage capacity will change this to everyone actually carrying out impromptu surveillance all the time.  This will have a chilling effect on human behavior at first — would you act differently if you knew everyone around you was videotaping everything you did?  Everything you say will, indeed, be able to be used against you, and not just in a court of law.  However, look at what young people put on MySpace and Facebook these days — the next generation does not have the assumption of privacy.  They’ve grown up in a world where they know everything goes on a permanent record, and have simply accepted it.  Sure, they’ll be occasionally shocked by it (e.g. the first time their party photos on MySpace disqualify them from a job), but the knowledge of permanence has not stopped them from sharing themselves, and eventually the rest of us will adjust, too.

Consider what the democratization of surveillance does to government power.  When we’re all recording, someone is watching the watchers.  Corruption, abuse of power, etc. all rely on the fact that authority figures can get away with crimes because they are more reliable witnesses in court than their victims are.  When everything is on the record — and not just the official record, but everyone’s record — police and government officials become compelled to act within the law.  While this may not be much of an impediment in truly totalitarian societies like China where the courts are as corrupt as everyone else, it’s a very strong bulwark of freedom in any society with an independent judiciary and a liberal tradition like the Untied States and Europe.  This is the next generation of surveillance — everyone sucking in light and sound from their glasses, or lapel pens, or even contact lenses, recording every moment of their lives on multi-terabyte devices that fit in their pockets.  It’s probably only 5-7 years away, and it washes away the current problems of a surveillance society and replaces them with new ones.

I think this cycle will continue for some time.  After all, once we’re past the era of democratized surveillance, computer graphics and artificial intelligence technology will improve to the point that ordinary people can modify their recordings to create perfect video of events that never happened, indistinguishable from the real thing.  What happens to recordings in law courts then, when they cease to be reliable evidence and become hearsay?  Tapes will become the new eyewitnesses, known to be unreliable and requiring corroboration from others.  When it becomes truly easy to make forged video, perhaps we will have emerged from the surveillance society from the other side — why bother to record anything when there’s no way to tell if it’s real?  Sometimes the only way out is through.

anonymity, hardware, legal, privacy, risk, society, terrorism

If you enjoyed this post, please consider to leave a comment or subscribe to the feed and get future articles delivered to your feed reader.