Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Two Different Uses of Big Data and Mass Surveillance

 

shutterstock_340300073The 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.

There are 7 comments.

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  1. genferei Member
    genferei Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: 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.

    Or just drop the requirement for every car to display a licence plate.

    • #1
    • January 27, 2016, at 8:58 AM PST
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  2. genferei Member
    genferei Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    These are two different things. One is talking about techniques for using data, and the main examples are hunting bad guys. (But see below.) The other is talking about collecting data.

    There is no reason the analysis techniques in the Economist article are limited to bad guys. The article ominously concludes:

    As Brent Smith, of the University of Arkansas’ Centre for Advanced Spatial Technologies observes, right-wing extremists rarely hole up near gay bars, abortion clinics and other places they consider “pollutants of urban life”. In the matter of politically motivated violence, the ideas thought worth killing and dying for vary. To the geoprofiler it makes no difference.

    Why are ‘right wing extremists’ being geoprofiled? By whom? How? Are you one? How would you know?

    • #2
    • January 27, 2016, at 9:02 AM PST
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  3. Lazy_Millennial Member

    The flip side of the Vigilant Solutions thing is that it should be pretty easy to construct a map of previous travel patterns of police cruisers. Looks like the police will be logging all our movements (and selling the info to whoever wants it), and we’ll be logging all of theirs. The surveillance “arms race” continues.

    • #3
    • January 27, 2016, at 9:20 AM PST
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  4. Robert McReynolds Inactive

    The second example is yet another case of the law enforcement industrial complex viewing ALL Americans are potential threats for not other reason than possessing something that is lawful. They know that there is a technological ability to collect mass data and they want access to that data, your rights be damned. It’s our own fault. We allowed them to get away with treating us like threats simply because we purchased a plane ticket, now they get to do the same because we use cell phones and drive cars.

    • #4
    • January 27, 2016, at 9:57 AM PST
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  5. Pilli Inactive

    genferei:

    Why are ‘right wing extremists’ being geoprofiled? By whom? How? Are you one? How would you know?

    A Right Wing Extremist is any of the following: A Christian, a gun owner, a Republican, a Libertarian, a conservative, a white male, a blue collar worker, a NASCAR fan, a hunter, a fisherman, member of the middle class, a Southerner, a red-neck, a farmer, anyone who works in an extractive industry, a construction worker, any person needing to be watched for any reason.

    • #5
    • January 27, 2016, at 10:42 AM PST
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  6. Owen Findy Member

    genferei: Or just drop the requirement for every car to display a licence plate.

    Yes.

    And then, everyone’s “requirement” to display their face everywhere they go. ;)

    • #6
    • January 27, 2016, at 11:12 AM PST
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  7. Jim Kearney Contributor

    Today’s Los Angeles Times has an article about the use of political data mining.

    While the focus is on privacy issues, some key political “tells” emerge.

    Every wonder what that guy inside the Chevy truck parked near a Starbucks thinks about immigration? Wonder no more, he’s probably a hardliner!

    Then there’s that great looking young woman in the grocery store with no wedding ring. Before you hit on her, note that she’s buying frozen vegetables instead of locally sourced fresh ones. Odds are … well, you figure it out.

    • #7
    • January 27, 2016, at 8:49 PM PST
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