Private Webcams and the Police

Our surveillance society marches on:

Commercial burglaries have risen in Corona in the past few years. At the same time, security-camera technology has improved, allowing business owners to use Web sites to view their shops or offices from home or while on a trip.

Now the Corona Chamber of Commerce and the Police Department are encouraging businesses with such systems to provide police dispatchers a password so they can see what’s going on during an emergency.

How soon before there’s a law requiring these webcams to be built with a police backdoor?

Posted on October 20, 2005 at 3:25 PM22 Comments


Davi Ottenheimer October 20, 2005 4:01 PM

The police can demand evidence useful to help certain investigations, especially in cases of imminent danger. This is the opposite of a “backdoor”, however, since the demand is meant to be directly addressed to the person with knowledge or evidence relevant to the investigation.

In that sense, what need for a backdoor would there be if the frontdoor law already exists?

Davi Ottenheimer October 20, 2005 9:06 PM

Ok, I’ll take another stab at answering your question, particularly since I’ve been wondering about whether the police should have some sort of emergency access (frontdoor) to the systems I’ve been working on:

“How soon before there’s a law requiring these webcams to be built with a police backdoor?”

The good news is that it’s fairly trivial to block/interfere with remote administration of networked surveillance systems so there’s a big technical hurdle to backdoors. The bad news is that, from my experience, very few systems are hardened enough (no logs, no encryption, etc.) to prevent just about anyone from stealing credentials and using the system secretly anyway. Don’t get me started on the security deficiencies of networked physical security systems…

Aside from that, timing of a police backdoor law would be based on a perceived need by the police and willingness by the businesses to give up their freedoms. The need expressed in the cited article seems overly broad and far too naive to win people over:

“Montanez’s son, a police officer, responded to a bank robbery in Corona. A good vehicle description would have helped officers capture of the suspects more quickly, he said.”

A good case of want (what investigator doesn’t want instant and unfettered access to all information). However, I do not think it qualifies as a pressing “need”. In fact, a more realistic need should originate from the business owners themselves. I mean how many businesses are going to think they should forget the 4th and 5th Amendment just because some local bank had a robbery? Or, for that matter, when was the last time local business owners said they’d be happy to give the government free access to their books just because some other company experienced fraud? Business owners are generally smarter about managing risk than that and I hope they do not give an inch without some kind of audit and protective control like a log of when/what the police monitored their space(s).

And then there’s the issue of whether the average police station is actually ready to manage a deluge of consumer-grade network video evidence. Given the wide range of formats and standards, I’d say the Corona police are also incredibly optimistic or talented to think that they can effectively access and aggregate a heterogenous neighborhood of surveillance systems. If they realize this, the “need” for backdoor might never be pursued at all, or at least until other standards/practices are in place to make it more feasible.

@ Moshe

If I remember correctly Chicago has invited business to join a centrally managed camera network that was meant to monitor public spaces. That means some significant infrastructure is already in place. Sending feeds to a central system is very different than Corona’s apparent request — “pay for us to be a fly on your wall and we’ll protect you”. Something tells me Corona’s approach would never have worked in Chicago…

Alex Dorph October 21, 2005 6:43 AM

Very interesting points in this blog. I have personally noticed the constant increase in cameras in all places, stores included. Suddenly normal retail stores look like banks, with several cameras at different angles.

Frankly, cameras serve two main group purposes: They are either detterents, or they provide a record of events. With the modern tiny cameras, perhaps it would be a good idea to also use a larger, most obvious camera. Even if it isnt connected, a big camera with a flashing led in your eye might prevent some crimials on the spot.

Bathroom Review

ARL October 21, 2005 6:47 AM

Horrors, the next thing you know the police will be wanting the alarm system the business installed to notify them of a break in.

Ed T. October 21, 2005 7:16 AM

“How soon before there’s a law requiring these webcams to be built with a police backdoor?”

What’s to say that the camera manufacturers haven’t already agreed to create such a backdoor, on the lines of the “secret forensic codes in color laser printers” agreement?

Bruce Schneier October 21, 2005 7:24 AM

“Horrors, the next thing you know the police will be wanting the alarm system the business installed to notify them of a break in.”

I think that’s different. And it’s also not at the request of the police. The police don’t like it, really, since they end up responding to all the false alarms. In some communities the police charge businesses some fee if they respond to too many false alarms.

David Frier October 21, 2005 8:07 AM

” Horrors, the next thing you know the police will be wanting the alarm system the business installed to notify them of a break in. ”

Alarm systems do not do this. The privately-hired services that monitor the alarm systems do this. Huge difference.

Anyway. I’m surprised the folks who have drunk the airport-security kool-aid aren’t all over this topic with “only people who are breaking the law have anything to fear from this….”

William Hendrix October 21, 2005 10:24 AM

Guilt by purchase – suspected counterfeiter – suspected terrorist.

As an American consumer I was under the impression presumption of innocence when buying a color printer. However, the Secret Service has taken the back-door approach making all Americans guilty-by-purchase for buying the latest computer printers sold on the market. Now all Americans are suspect counterfeiters just because they wanted to keep up with technology.

When I purchase a plane ticket in advance in my name and go to the airport two hours before my flight scheduled departure, I’m not allowed to travel anonymously in my own country. Instead I’m asked to show my papers before being allowed to board the plane. The reason is I’m a suspected terrorist. There seems to be something wrong with this picture.

When I buy products and services I do not expect or surrender my First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment Rights as an American. When I served in the Armed Forces I’ve flown all over the globe without showing my papers and when I’ve purchased printers, monitors and computers throughout my lifetime I am not a counterfeiter. The federal government is over paranoid and has turned into a socialistic communist police state. We’ve seen the FBI shoot innocent Americans and ATF agent’s burn to death 77 innocent children and it seems to me, it’s the federal government that is on over-kill, and is over paranoid snooping into my privacy as an American.

I guess from now on when I order a submarine sandwich at Juicy Jim’s on Highland Street in Memphis, Tennessee, I’ll have it screened for a tracking device planted in my sandwich. Maybe the Secret Service has a bar code inserted between the pickles and the tomatoes.

Davi Ottenheimer October 21, 2005 11:05 AM

@ William

Funny point about your pickles and tomatoes, but I have to disagree with your assessment that the current trend in US governance should be described as a a move towards a “socialistic communist police state.”

It has far more in common with right-wing fascist political ideologies (a seizure of power by an elite group through pseudolegal means) than socialism or communism (public revolution).

Today someone might proclaim “all your cameras are mine”, but it’s only a shade different from the official phrase in 1925: “Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato”

This means the legal system will be revised to crush (liberal) opposition (a “weakness” conveniently blamed for all state failures) and enable those in power to achieve the ultimate in non-democratic goals, whether it be unfettered economic domination of markets, domination of the media and public discourse, or worse.

Sorry for the tangent…

ARL October 21, 2005 1:20 PM

Well in my neck of the woods the police are often given the combinations to otherwise locked yards and such. I don’t know if they ask for them (I know they don’t demand them) but they are given them.

And yes today the alarm companies do buffer the connection to the police. Perhaps in the future they will be the ones to manage the web cams?

Tom Grant October 21, 2005 1:37 PM

“How soon before there’s a law requiring these webcams to be built with a police backdoor?”

They’re not already? I thought this is ‘standard procedure’ for hardware peripheral design now.

Frank McGowan October 21, 2005 1:52 PM

@ Davi –
We’ve been over this before and your left-right biases are showing again.

What difference does the uniform of the secret police make to those arrested for simple dissent against brutal regimes?

Were the people arrested for dissenting in Mussolini’s Italy by black shirted Fascist police treated better or worse than those arrested for the same offense by the brown shirted SA (followed by the black shirted SS) in Nazi Germany or those arrested for the same offense by the green shirted KGB (or GRU or whatever) in Soviet Russia?

I submit that the courageous but unfortunate persons arrested by the uniformed thugs employed by each of these regimes were treated similarly and had little real hope of deliverance from torment. Uniform color or cut makes no difference and neither do the designations of “Communist” vs “Fascist”, “Left” vs “Right”. Governments (I use the term loosely here) that rely on secret police to keep their subjects intimidated are all essentially the same.

Give the left-right politics a rest unless you’re going to adopt a model that actually works. The conventional one is broken and using it does not fix it.

Davi Ottenheimer October 21, 2005 2:19 PM

@ Frank

I knew you were out there somewhere. You’re confusing anti-totalitarian feelings with anti-left sentiment.

Unfortunately totalitarianism can come from right or left, as you point out, but your hatred of totalitarians from the left doesn’t mean the right should be ignored or indirectly labelled infallible.

In fact, it’s dangerous to go around thinking that everything that is totalitarian must be socialist/communist. That’s like saying every attack comes in through the back door so leave the front door open.

I support your point if you say it is anti-toltalitarian, but find it rediculous that you do not see anything “rightist” about heavily pro-corporate anti-public elitists who want to manipulate the laws and use police control to shore up absolute control by an already powerful few. That is the very defintion of right-wing toltalitarian movements, which is actually quite different in approach than left-wing totalitarians, even though they end up in approximately the same place.

Your point about “people arrested for dissenting” is true in the core sense (human rights violations) but ignores the difference in the charges that were levvied. For example, a right-wing regime that picks you to be part of the selected elite would not treat you as a dissenter, and vice-versa, so there are very real differences about who ends up where on the pecking-order and what they do to stop the slide towards totality, etc.

Maybe I just should have said: apples and bananas are both fruit but they have some differences too.

David Frier October 22, 2005 4:14 AM

@Frank The plain fact is that if you analyze the current stance & trends of the Federal government in 2005, I think even you might agree that “liberal” is not applicable.

“Fascist” is.

Retired Military October 23, 2005 9:28 PM

My “webcam” is actually an IR beam. The voltage that would normally go to the “ding dong” goes to a solenoid that tightens a wire on the trigger of a strapped down Mossberg 12 ga autoload shotgun with a 10 round magazine.

The IR beam is bounced between three mirrors describing a “Z” with the lower horizontal about 3.5′ off the floor, the higher horizontal about 6.5′ off the floor.

The shotgun is directed from the upper right to the lower left of the “Z”, the muzzle is behind a paper vent in the ceiling.


DigiLife October 24, 2005 12:38 AM

does it matter where the persecution comes from?
if our government(s) persecute us over fear of terrorism then the terrorists have won and gained more victims. if our rights are denied us then we lose some of our freedom and again the terrorists have won.

on another note i have heard the argument that 4th admendment rights don’t apply in public places because in public places there is no expectation of privacy. cameras in these areas should not be a problem in most cases. there are exceptions…….. i definitely object to all the databases though. they are not effective enough to justify them. too many people dont even have a computer and/or are not yet up to speed on the security/privacy issues, or on how to lookup someone to see if they have a worrysome background. the other databases are no help either, unless you are a criminal needing money or a new identity. we need to keep fighting for our rights.

radiantmatrix October 25, 2005 11:15 AM

@Retired Military

Automated lethal response to intrusion is not only illegal in the US, it’s a fantastically bad idea. There are, ocasionally, very good reasons for someone to break in. If there is a fire and the responders need access, for example. Or if EMTs are responding to a 911 call.

I think shooting someone who breaks in, even as a joke, highlights the very poor attitude toward level of security required for protection. The decision to use lethal (or even “crippling”) force should be in the hands of humans, not automated systems.

thnkfstr October 29, 2005 3:33 PM

Within the next year, if not already, surveillance systems integrators will be installing audio enabled network camera systems in school districts across the country viewable through simple web based interfaces. Police officers will be able to monitor this data on demand, via a wireless enabled laptop in their squad car.

Take a look at Spotsylvania ISD, Virginia, for an example of this scenario, minus audio integration, already in place.

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