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The first comes from The Economist and describes how intelligence agencies, the military, and police are using data and electronic surveillance to fight terrorism at home and jihad abroad:
Thanks to the clever use of software, tips from … [terrorist] manuals obtained by intelligence agencies are proving increasingly valuable to counter-terrorist forces deployed both in the West and abroad. Technologists are modifying existing mapping software to produce “geographic profiling” programs that show which areas should be searched or put under surveillance first in the hunt for hideouts, bomb workshops and weapons caches. “Declaration of Jihad Against the Country’s Tyrants”, for example, was a cornerstone of Building Intent, a geoprofiling program developed … for America’s defence department. In addition to terrorist guidelines on which buildings to use, software such as Building Intent is fed the co-ordinates of bombings and other actions thought related to the group of interest. These are useful because such groups are often reluctant to conduct operations far from their bases, be it to save time, to remain in familiar or friendly territory, or to reduce the likelihood of encountering a checkpoint.
The second, via Conor Friedersdorf, profiles a company whose business is photographing and geotagging as many car license plates as they can and selling access to their database:
[Vigilant Solutions] has taken roughly 2.2 billion license-plate photos to date. Each month, it captures and permanently stores about 80 million additional geotagged images. They may well have photographed your license plate. As a result, your whereabouts at given moments in the past are permanently stored. Vigilant Solutions profits by selling access to this data (and tries to safeguard it against hackers). Your diminished privacy is their product. And the police are their customers.
The company counts 3,000 law-enforcement agencies among its clients. Thirty thousand police officers have access to its database.
There seems to me to be a fundamental difference between these. The former is — by and large — tracking unlawful (or enemy) activity for the specific purpose of stopping the bad guys. Essentially, it’s CompStat for terrorism and is at least somewhat limited and focused.
In contrast, the latter is wholly opened-ended; it takes as little imagination to see how the service could be used for good as for bad. In the past, if someone wanted to hire a private investigator, they were limited by the costs of conducting the surveillance; here, the surveillance has already been done — and on a massive scale — and all one is paying for is the access to the information. Under this model, no one is being tracked because he’s believed to be doing something illegal; rather, everyone is being tracked because, hey, it might be useful at some point. God only knows what such a company could be capable of with additional resources and better technology (Vigilant sells a variety of stationary and mobile license plate recording cameras on its website and, this weekend, I noticed that Best Buy sells quad copters with 4K cameras for $900 … which is pretty cool).
On the flip side, not only does Vigilant’s business appear to be absolutely legal, it’s hard to see how it could be prohibited — or effectively regulated — without causing massive abridgments of people’s liberty to take photographs in public. Maybe it makes sense to require law enforcement to obtain a warrant to search such databases, but that only stems one potential form of abuse.
On the right, we’re naturally vigilant against government abuse of our liberty but sometimes forget that there are other potential threats. In the meantime, I’m going to make sure that our next house has an enclosed garage.