Interesting research on home security cameras with cloud storage. Basically, attackers can learn very basic information about what’s going on in front of the camera, and infer when there is someone home.
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Interesting research on home security cameras with cloud storage. Basically, attackers can learn very basic information about what’s going on in front of the camera, and infer when there is someone home.
Communities across the United States are starting to ban facial recognition technologies. In May of last year, San Francisco banned facial recognition; the neighboring city of Oakland soon followed, as did Somerville and Brookline in Massachusetts (a statewide ban may follow). In December, San Diego suspended a facial recognition program in advance of a new statewide law, which declared it illegal, coming into effect. Forty major music festivals pledged not to use the technology, and activists are calling for a nationwide ban. Many Democratic presidential candidates support at least a partial ban on the technology.
These efforts are well-intentioned, but facial recognition bans are the wrong way to fight against modern surveillance. Focusing on one particular identification method misconstrues the nature of the surveillance society we’re in the process of building. Ubiquitous mass surveillance is increasingly the norm. In countries like China, a surveillance infrastructure is being built by the government for social control. In countries like the United States, it’s being built by corporations in order to influence our buying behavior, and is incidentally used by the government.
In all cases, modern mass surveillance has three broad components: identification, correlation and discrimination. Let’s take them in turn.
Facial recognition is a technology that can be used to identify people without their knowledge or consent. It relies on the prevalence of cameras, which are becoming both more powerful and smaller, and machine learning technologies that can match the output of these cameras with images from a database of existing photos.
But that’s just one identification technology among many. People can be identified at a distance by their heartbeat or by their gait, using a laser-based system. Cameras are so good that they can read fingerprints and iris patterns from meters away. And even without any of these technologies, we can always be identified because our smartphones broadcast unique numbers called MAC addresses. Other things identify us as well: our phone numbers, our credit card numbers, the license plates on our cars. China, for example, uses multiple identification technologies to support its surveillance state.
Once we are identified, the data about who we are and what we are doing can be correlated with other data collected at other times. This might be movement data, which can be used to “follow” us as we move throughout our day. It can be purchasing data, Internet browsing data, or data about who we talk to via email or text. It might be data about our income, ethnicity, lifestyle, profession and interests. There is an entire industry of data brokers who make a living analyzing and augmenting data about who we are – using surveillance data collected by all sorts of companies and then sold without our knowledge or consent.
There is a huge – and almost entirely unregulated – data broker industry in the United States that trades on our information. This is how large Internet companies like Google and Facebook make their money. It’s not just that they know who we are, it’s that they correlate what they know about us to create profiles about who we are and what our interests are. This is why many companies buy license plate data from states. It’s also why companies like Google are buying health records, and part of the reason Google bought the company Fitbit, along with all of its data.
The whole purpose of this process is for companies – and governments – to treat individuals differently. We are shown different ads on the Internet and receive different offers for credit cards. Smart billboards display different advertisements based on who we are. In the future, we might be treated differently when we walk into a store, just as we currently are when we visit websites.
The point is that it doesn’t matter which technology is used to identify people. That there currently is no comprehensive database of heartbeats or gaits doesn’t make the technologies that gather them any less effective. And most of the time, it doesn’t matter if identification isn’t tied to a real name. What’s important is that we can be consistently identified over time. We might be completely anonymous in a system that uses unique cookies to track us as we browse the Internet, but the same process of correlation and discrimination still occurs. It’s the same with faces; we can be tracked as we move around a store or shopping mall, even if that tracking isn’t tied to a specific name. And that anonymity is fragile: If we ever order something online with a credit card, or purchase something with a credit card in a store, then suddenly our real names are attached to what was anonymous tracking information.
Regulating this system means addressing all three steps of the process. A ban on facial recognition won’t make any difference if, in response, surveillance systems switch to identifying people by smartphone MAC addresses. The problem is that we are being identified without our knowledge or consent, and society needs rules about when that is permissible.
Similarly, we need rules about how our data can be combined with other data, and then bought and sold without our knowledge or consent. The data broker industry is almost entirely unregulated; there’s only one law – passed in Vermont in 2018 – that requires data brokers to register and explain in broad terms what kind of data they collect. The large Internet surveillance companies like Facebook and Google collect dossiers on us are more detailed than those of any police state of the previous century. Reasonable laws would prevent the worst of their abuses.
Finally, we need better rules about when and how it is permissible for companies to discriminate. Discrimination based on protected characteristics like race and gender is already illegal, but those rules are ineffectual against the current technologies of surveillance and control. When people can be identified and their data correlated at a speed and scale previously unseen, we need new rules.
Today, facial recognition technologies are receiving the brunt of the tech backlash, but focusing on them misses the point. We need to have a serious conversation about all the technologies of identification, correlation and discrimination, and decide how much we as a society want to be spied on by governments and corporations — and what sorts of influence we want them to have over our lives.
This essay previously appeared in the New York Times.
EDITED TO ADD: Rereading this post-publication, I see that it comes off as overly critical of those who are doing activism in this space. Writing the piece, I wasn’t thinking about political tactics. I was thinking about the technologies that support surveillance capitalism, and law enforcement’s usage of that corporate platform. Of course it makes sense to focus on face recognition in the short term. It’s something that’s easy to explain, viscerally creepy, and obviously actionable. It also makes sense to focus specifically on law enforcement’s use of the technology; there are clear civil and constitutional rights issues. The fact that law enforcement is so deeply involved in the technology’s marketing feels wrong. And the technology is currently being deployed in Hong Kong against political protesters. It’s why the issue has momentum, and why we’ve gotten the small wins we’ve had. (The EU is considering a five-year ban on face recognition technologies.) Those wins build momentum, which lead to more wins. I should have been kinder to those in the trenches.
If you want to help, sign the petition from Public Voice calling on a moratorium on facial recognition technology for mass surveillance. Or write to your US congressperson and demand similar action. There’s more information from EFF and EPIC.
EDITED TO ADD (3/16): This essay has been translated into Spanish.
Special Services Group, a company that sells surveillance tools to the FBI, DEA, ICE, and other US government agencies, has had its secret sales brochure published. Motherboard received the brochure as part of a FOIA request to the Irvine Police Department in California.
“The Tombstone Cam is our newest video concealment offering the ability to conduct remote surveillance operations from cemeteries,” one section of the Black Book reads. The device can also capture audio, its battery can last for two days, and “the Tombstone Cam is fully portable and can be easily moved from location to location as necessary,” the brochure adds. Another product is a video and audio capturing device that looks like an alarm clock, suitable for “hotel room stings,” and other cameras are designed to appear like small tree trunks and rocks, the brochure reads.
The “Shop-Vac Covert DVR Recording System” is essentially a camera and 1TB harddrive hidden inside a vacuum cleaner. “An AC power connector is available for long-term deployments, and DC power options can be connected for mobile deployments also,” the brochure reads. The description doesn’t say whether the vacuum cleaner itself works.
One of the company’s “Rapid Vehicle Deployment Kits” includes a camera hidden inside a baby car seat. “The system is fully portable, so you are not restricted to the same drop car for each mission,” the description adds.
The so-called “K-MIC In-mouth Microphone & Speaker Set” is a tiny Bluetooth device that sits on a user’s teeth and allows them to “communicate hands-free in crowded, noisy surroundings” with “near-zero visual indications,” the Black Book adds.
Other products include more traditional surveillance cameras and lenses as well as tools for surreptitiously gaining entry to buildings. The “Phantom RFID Exploitation Toolkit” lets a user clone an access card or fob, and the so-called “Shadow” product can “covertly provide the user with PIN code to an alarm panel,” the brochure reads.
The Motherboard article also reprints the scary emails Motherboard received from Special Services Group, when asked for comment. Of course, Motherboard published the information anyway.
New South Wales is implementing a camera system that automatically detects when a driver is using a mobile phone.
EDITED TO ADD (12/13): The Dutch police are testing these, too.
EDITED TO ADD (8/14): LIDAR from self-driving cars has damaged security cameras before.
It’s a bad vulnerability, made worse by the fact that it remains even if you uninstall the Zoom app:
This vulnerability allows any website to forcibly join a user to a Zoom call, with their video camera activated, without the user’s permission.
On top of this, this vulnerability would have allowed any webpage to DOS (Denial of Service) a Mac by repeatedly joining a user to an invalid call.
Additionally, if you’ve ever installed the Zoom client and then uninstalled it, you still have a localhost web server on your machine that will happily re-install the Zoom client for you, without requiring any user interaction on your behalf besides visiting a webpage. This re-install ‘feature’ continues to work to this day.
Zoom didn’t take the vulnerability seriously:
This vulnerability was originally responsibly disclosed on March 26, 2019. This initial report included a proposed description of a ‘quick fix’ Zoom could have implemented by simply changing their server logic. It took Zoom 10 days to confirm the vulnerability. The first actual meeting about how the vulnerability would be patched occurred on June 11th, 2019, only 18 days before the end of the 90-day public disclosure deadline. During this meeting, the details of the vulnerability were confirmed and Zoom’s planned solution was discussed. However, I was very easily able to spot and describe bypasses in their planned fix. At this point, Zoom was left with 18 days to resolve the vulnerability. On June 24th after 90 days of waiting, the last day before the public disclosure deadline, I discovered that Zoom had only implemented the ‘quick fix’ solution originally suggested.
This is why we disclose vulnerabilities. Now, finally, Zoom is taking this seriously and fixing it for real.
EDITED TO ADD (8/8): Apple silently released a macOS update that removes the Zoom webserver if the app is not present.
It used to be that surveillance cameras were passive. Maybe they just recorded, and no one looked at the video unless they needed to. Maybe a bored guard watched a dozen different screens, scanning for something interesting. In either case, the video was only stored for a few days because storage was expensive.
Increasingly, none of that is true. Recent developments in video analytics — fueled by artificial intelligence techniques like machine learning — enable computers to watch and understand surveillance videos with human-like discernment. Identification technologies make it easier to automatically figure out who is in the videos. And finally, the cameras themselves have become cheaper, more ubiquitous, and much better; cameras mounted on drones can effectively watch an entire city. Computers can watch all the video without human issues like distraction, fatigue, training, or needing to be paid. The result is a level of surveillance that was impossible just a few years ago.
An ACLU report published Thursday called “the Dawn of Robot Surveillance” says AI-aided video surveillance “won’t just record us, but will also make judgments about us based on their understanding of our actions, emotions, skin color, clothing, voice, and more. These automated ‘video analytics’ technologies threaten to fundamentally change the nature of surveillance.”
Let’s take the technologies one at a time. First: video analytics. Computers are getting better at recognizing what’s going on in a video. Detecting when a person or vehicle enters a forbidden area is easy. Modern systems can alarm when someone is walking in the wrong direction — going in through an exit-only corridor, for example. They can count people or cars. They can detect when luggage is left unattended, or when previously unattended luggage is picked up and removed. They can detect when someone is loitering in an area, is lying down, or is running. Increasingly, they can detect particular actions by people. Amazon’s cashier-less stores rely on video analytics to figure out when someone picks an item off a shelf and doesn’t put it back.
More than identifying actions, video analytics allow computers to understand what’s going on in a video: They can flag people based on their clothing or behavior, identify people’s emotions through body language and behavior, and find people who are acting “unusual” based on everyone else around them. Those same Amazon in-store cameras can analyze customer sentiment. Other systems can describe what’s happening in a video scene.
Computers can also identify people. AIs are getting better at identifying people in those videos. Facial recognition technology is improving all the time, made easier by the enormous stockpile of tagged photographs we give to Facebook and other social media sites, and the photos governments collect in the process of issuing ID cards and drivers licenses. The technology already exists to automatically identify everyone a camera “sees” in real time. Even without video identification, we can be identified by the unique information continuously broadcasted by the smartphones we carry with us everywhere, or by our laptops or Bluetooth-connected devices. Police have been tracking phones for years, and this practice can now be combined with video analytics.
Once a monitoring system identifies people, their data can be combined with other data, either collected or purchased: from cell phone records, GPS surveillance history, purchasing data, and so on. Social media companies like Facebook have spent years learning about our personalities and beliefs by what we post, comment on, and “like.” This is “data inference,” and when combined with video it offers a powerful window into people’s behaviors and motivations.
Camera resolution is also improving. Gigapixel cameras as so good that they can capture individual faces and identify license places in photos taken miles away. “Wide-area surveillance” cameras can be mounted on airplanes and drones, and can operate continuously. On the ground, cameras can be hidden in street lights and other regular objects. In space, satellite cameras have also dramatically improved.
Data storage has become incredibly cheap, and cloud storage makes it all so easy. Video data can easily be saved for years, allowing computers to conduct all of this surveillance backwards in time.
In democratic countries, such surveillance is marketed as crime prevention — or counterterrorism. In countries like China, it is blatantly used to suppress political activity and for social control. In all instances, it’s being implemented without a lot of public debate by law-enforcement agencies and by corporations in public spaces they control.
This is bad, because ubiquitous surveillance will drastically change our relationship to society. We’ve never lived in this sort of world, even those of us who have lived through previous totalitarian regimes. The effects will be felt in many different areas. False positives — when the surveillance system gets it wrong — will lead to harassment and worse. Discrimination will become automated. Those who fall outside norms will be marginalized. And most importantly, the inability to live anonymously will have an enormous chilling effect on speech and behavior, which in turn will hobble society’s ability to experiment and change. A recent ACLU report discusses these harms in more depth. While it’s possible that some of this surveillance is worth the trade-offs, we as society need to deliberately and intelligently make decisions about it.
Some jurisdictions are starting to notice. Last month, San Francisco became the first city to ban facial recognition technology by police and other government agencies. A similar ban is being considered in Somerville, MA, and Oakland, CA. These are exceptions, and limited to the more liberal areas of the country.
We often believe that technological change is inevitable, and that there’s nothing we can do to stop it — or even to steer it. That’s simply not true. We’re led to believe this because we don’t often see it, understand it, or have a say in how or when it is deployed. The problem is that technologies of cameras, resolution, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are complex and specialized.
Laws like what was just passed in San Francisco won’t stop the development of these technologies, but they’re not intended to. They’re intended as pauses, so our policy making can catch up with technology. As a general rule, the US government tends to ignore technologies as they’re being developed and deployed, so as not to stifle innovation. But as the rate of technological change increases, so does the unanticipated effects on our lives. Just as we’ve been surprised by the threats to democracy caused by surveillance capitalism, AI-enabled video surveillance will have similar surprising effects. Maybe a pause in our headlong deployment of these technologies will allow us the time to discuss what kind of society we want to live in, and then enact rules to bring that kind of society about.
This essay previously appeared on Vice Motherboard.
The ACLU’s Jay Stanley has just published a fantastic report: “The Dawn of Robot Surveillance” (blog post here) Basically, it lays out a future of ubiquitous video cameras watched by increasingly sophisticated video analytics software, and discusses the potential harms to society.
I’m not going to excerpt a piece, because you really need to read the whole thing.
“Hey Siri; I’m getting pulled over” can be a shortcut:
Once the shortcut is installed and configured, you just have to say, for example, “Hey Siri, I’m getting pulled over.” Then the program pauses music you may be playing, turns down the brightness on the iPhone, and turns on “do not disturb” mode.
It also sends a quick text to a predetermined contact to tell them you’ve been pulled over, and it starts recording using the iPhone’s front-facing camera. Once you’ve stopped recording, it can text or email the video to a different predetermined contact and save it to Dropbox.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.