Entries Tagged "sensors"

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Surveillance and the Internet of Things

The Internet has turned into a massive surveillance tool. We’re constantly monitored on the Internet by hundreds of companies—both familiar and unfamiliar. Everything we do there is recorded, collected, and collated—sometimes by corporations wanting to sell us stuff and sometimes by governments wanting to keep an eye on us.

Ephemeral conversation is over. Wholesale surveillance is the norm. Maintaining privacy from these powerful entities is basically impossible, and any illusion of privacy we maintain is based either on ignorance or on our unwillingness to accept what’s really going on.

It’s about to get worse, though. Companies such as Google may know more about your personal interests than your spouse, but so far it’s been limited by the fact that these companies only see computer data. And even though your computer habits are increasingly being linked to your offline behavior, it’s still only behavior that involves computers.

The Internet of Things refers to a world where much more than our computers and cell phones is Internet-enabled. Soon there will be Internet-connected modules on our cars and home appliances. Internet-enabled medical devices will collect real-time health data about us. There’ll be Internet-connected tags on our clothing. In its extreme, everything can be connected to the Internet. It’s really just a matter of time, as these self-powered wireless-enabled computers become smaller and cheaper.

Lots has been written about theInternet of Things” and how it will change society for the better. It’s true that it will make a lot of wonderful things possible, but the “Internet of Things” will also allow for an even greater amount of surveillance than there is today. The Internet of Things gives the governments and corporations that follow our every move something they don’t yet have: eyes and ears.

Soon everything we do, both online and offline, will be recorded and stored forever. The only question remaining is who will have access to all of this information, and under what rules.

We’re seeing an initial glimmer of this from how location sensors on your mobile phone are being used to track you. Of course your cell provider needs to know where you are; it can’t route your phone calls to your phone otherwise. But most of us broadcast our location information to many other companies whose apps we’ve installed on our phone. Google Maps certainly, but also a surprising number of app vendors who collect that information. It can be used to determine where you live, where you work, and who you spend time with.

Another early adopter was Nike, whose Nike+ shoes communicate with your iPod or iPhone and track your exercising. More generally, medical devices are starting to be Internet-enabled, collecting and reporting a variety of health data. Wiring appliances to the Internet is one of the pillars of the smart electric grid. Yes, there are huge potential savings associated with the smart grid, but it will also allow power companies – and anyone they decide to sell the data to—to monitor how people move about their house and how they spend their time.

Drones are another “thing” moving onto the Internet. As their price continues to drop and their capabilities increase, they will become a very powerful surveillance tool. Their cameras are powerful enough to see faces clearly, and there are enough tagged photographs on the Internet to identify many of us. We’re not yet up to a real-time Google Earth equivalent, but it’s not more than a few years away. And drones are just a specific application of CCTV cameras, which have been monitoring us for years, and will increasingly be networked.

Google’s Internet-enabled glasses—Google Glass—are another major step down this path of surveillance. Their ability to record both audio and video will bring ubiquitous surveillance to the next level. Once they’re common, you might never know when you’re being recorded in both audio and video. You might as well assume that everything you do and say will be recorded and saved forever.

In the near term, at least, the sheer volume of data will limit the sorts of conclusions that can be drawn. The invasiveness of these technologies depends on asking the right questions. For example, if a private investigator is watching you in the physical world, she or he might observe odd behavior and investigate further based on that. Such serendipitous observations are harder to achieve when you’re filtering databases based on pre-programmed queries. In other words, it’s easier to ask questions about what you purchased and where you were than to ask what you did with your purchases and why you went where you did. These analytical limitations also mean that companies like Google and Facebook will benefit more from the Internet of Things than individuals—not only because they have access to more data, but also because they have more sophisticated query technology. And as technology continues to improve, the ability to automatically analyze this massive data stream will improve.

In the longer term, the Internet of Things means ubiquitous surveillance. If an object “knows” you have purchased it, and communicates via either Wi-Fi or the mobile network, then whoever or whatever it is communicating with will know where you are. Your car will know who is in it, who is driving, and what traffic laws that driver is following or ignoring. No need to show ID; your identity will already be known. Store clerks could know your name, address, and income level as soon as you walk through the door. Billboards will tailor ads to you, and record how you respond to them. Fast food restaurants will know what you usually order, and exactly how to entice you to order more. Lots of companies will know whom you spend your days—and nights—with. Facebook will know about any new relationship status before you bother to change it on your profile. And all of this information will all be saved, correlated, and studied. Even now, it feels a lot like science fiction.

Will you know any of this? Will your friends? It depends. Lots of these devices have, and will have, privacy settings. But these settings are remarkable not in how much privacy they afford, but in how much they deny. Access will likely be similar to your browsing habits, your files stored on Dropbox, your searches on Google, and your text messages from your phone. All of your data is saved by those companies—and many others—correlated, and then bought and sold without your knowledge or consent. You’d think that your privacy settings would keep random strangers from learning everything about you, but it only keeps random strangers who don’t pay for the privilege—or don’t work for the government and have the ability to demand the data. Power is what matters here: you’ll be able to keep the powerless from invading your privacy, but you’ll have no ability to prevent the powerful from doing it again and again.

This essay originally appeared on the Guardian.

EDITED TO ADD (6/14): Another article on the subject.

Posted on May 21, 2013 at 6:15 AMView Comments

Technologies of Surveillance

It’s a new day for the New York Police Department, with technology increasingly informing the way cops do their jobs. With innovation comes new possibilities but also new concerns.

For one, the NYPD is testing a new type of security apparatus that uses terahertz radiation to detect guns under clothing from a distance. As Police Commissioner Ray Kelly explained to the Daily News back in January, If something is obstructing the flow of that radiation—a weapon, for example—the device will highlight that object.

Ignore, for a moment, the glaring constitutional concerns, which make the stop-and-frisk debate pale in comparison: virtual strip-searching, evasion of probable cause, potential racial profiling. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union are all over those, even though their opposition probably won’t make a difference. We’re scared of both terrorism and crime, even as the risks decrease; and when we’re scared, we’re willing to give up all sorts of freedoms to assuage our fears. Often, the courts go along.

A more pressing question is the effectiveness of technologies that are supposed to make us safer. These include the NYPD’s Domain Awareness System, developed by Microsoft, which aims to integrate massive quantities of data to alert cops when a crime may be taking place. Other innovations are surely in the pipeline, all promising to make the city safer. But are we being sold a bill of goods?

For example, press reports make the gun-detection machine look good. We see images from the camera that pretty clearly show a gun outlined under someone’s clothing. From that, we can imagine how this technology can spot gun-toting criminals as they enter government buildings or terrorize neighborhoods. Given the right inputs, we naturally construct these stories in our heads. The technology seems like a good idea, we conclude.

The reality is that we reach these conclusions much in the same way we decide that, say, drinking Mountain Dew makes you look cool. These are, after all, the products of for-profit companies, pushed by vendors looking to make sales. As such, they’re marketed no less aggressively than soda pop and deodorant. Those images of criminals with concealed weapons were carefully created both to demonstrate maximum effectiveness and push our fear buttons. These companies deliberately craft stories of their effectiveness, both through advertising and placement on television and movies, where police are often showed using high-powered tools to catch high-value targets with minimum complication.

The truth is that many of these technologies are nowhere near as reliable as claimed. They end up costing us gazillions of dollars and open the door for significant abuse. Of course, the vendors hope that by the time we realize this, they’re too embedded in our security culture to be removed.

The current poster child for this sort of morass is the airport full-body scanner. Rushed into airports after the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab nearly blew up a Northwest Airlines flight in 2009, they made us feel better, even though they don’t work very well and, ironically, wouldn’t have caught Abdulmutallab with his underwear bomb. Both the Transportation Security Administration and vendors repeatedly lied about their effectiveness, whether they stored images, and how safe they were. In January, finally, backscatter X-ray scanners were removed from airports because the company who made them couldn’t sufficiently blur the images so they didn’t show travelers naked. Now, only millimeter-wave full-body scanners remain.

Another example is closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras. These have been marketed as a technological solution to both crime and understaffed police and security organizations. London, for example, is rife with them, and New York has plenty of its own. To many, it seems apparent that they make us safer, despite cries of Big Brother. The problem is that in study after study, researchers have concluded that they don’t.

Counterterrorist data mining and fusion centers: nowhere near as useful as those selling the technologies claimed. It’s the same with DNA testing and fingerprint technologies: both are far less accurate than most people believe. Even torture has been oversold as a security system—this time by a government instead of a company—despite decades of evidence that it doesn’t work and makes us all less safe.

It’s not that these technologies are totally useless. It’s that they’re expensive, and none of them is a panacea. Maybe there’s a use for a terahertz radar, and maybe the benefits of the technology are worth the costs. But we should not forget that there’s a profit motive at work, too.

An edited version of this essay, without links, appeared in the New York Daily News.

EDITED TO ADD (2/13): IBM’s version massive data policing system is being tested in Rio de Jeneiro.

Posted on March 5, 2013 at 6:28 AMView Comments

Remote Scanning Technology

I don’t know if this is real or fantasy:

Within the next year or two, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will instantly know everything about your body, clothes, and luggage with a new laser-based molecular scanner fired from 164 feet (50 meters) away. From traces of drugs or gun powder on your clothes to what you had for breakfast to the adrenaline level in your body—agents will be able to get any information they want without even touching you.

The meta-point is less about this particular technology, and more about the arc of technological advancements in general. All sorts of remote surveillance technologies—facial recognition, remote fingerprint recognition, RFID/Bluetooth/cell phone tracking, license plate tracking—are becoming possible, cheaper, smaller, more reliable, etc. It’s wholesale surveillance, something I wrote about back in 2004.

We’re at a unique time in the history of surveillance: the cameras are everywhere, and we can still see them. Fifteen years ago, they weren’t everywhere. Fifteen years from now, they’ll be so small we won’t be able to see them. Similarly, all the debates we’ve had about national ID cards will become moot as soon as these surveillance technologies are able to recognize us without us even knowing it.

EDITED TO ADD (8/13): Related papers, and a video.

Posted on July 16, 2012 at 1:59 PMView Comments

New Airport Scanning Technology

Interesting:

Iscon’s patented, thermo-conductive technology combines infrared (IR) and heat transfer, for high-resolution imaging without using any radiation. The core of this is state of the art imaging which detects and processes a break in the established thermal balance between the clothes and a hidden object. The IR camera detects the heat radiating from even a tiny object, producing a dark/light shape. It is irrelevant how long an object is concealed under clothing as a new temperature imprint is created every time it is scanned. Using IR, the rays don’t penetrate beyond the clothing so there are no privacy issues.

EDITED TO ADD (6/14): Another article.

I know no details.

Posted on June 10, 2011 at 6:14 AMView Comments

Fingerprint Scanner that Works at a Distance

Scanning fingerprints from six feet away.

Slightly smaller than a square tissue box, AIRprint houses two 1.3 megapixel cameras and a source of polarized light. One camera receives horizontally polarized light, while the other receives vertically polarized light. When light hits a finger, the ridges of the fingerprint reflect one polarization of light, while the valleys reflect another. “That’s where the real kicker is, because if you look at an image without any polarization, you can kind of see fingerprints, but not really well,” says Burcham. By separating the vertical and the horizontal polarization, the device can overlap those images to produce an accurate fingerprint, which is fed to a computer for verification.

No information on how accurate it is, but it’ll only get better.

Posted on May 17, 2011 at 7:46 AMView Comments

Bomb-Sniffing Mice

I was interviewed for this story on a mouse-powered explosives detector. Animal senses are better than any detection machine current technology can build, which makes it a good idea. But the challenges of using animals in this sort of situation are considerable. The neat thing about the technology profiled in the article, which the article didn’t make as clear as I would have liked, is how far it goes in making the mice just another interchangeable part in the system. They’re encased in cartridges, which can be swapped in and out of the system. They don’t need regular handling:

Unlike dogs, which are often trained for explosives and drugs detection, mice don’t require constant interaction with their trainers or treats to keep them motivated. As a result, they can live in comfortable cages with unlimited access to food and water. Each mouse would work two 4-hour shifts a day, and would have a working life of 18 months.

If we are ever going to see animals in a mass-produced system, it’s going to look something like this.

Posted on February 9, 2011 at 11:39 AMView Comments

New TSA Security Test

I experienced a new TSA security check at Phoenix Airport last Thursday. The agent took my over-three-ounce bottle of saline, put a drop of it on a white cardboard strip, and then put a drop of another liquid on top of that. Nothing changed color, and she let me go.

Anyone know what the test is, and what it’s testing for?

Posted on December 10, 2010 at 2:11 PMView Comments

Alternate Scanning Technologies

Iscon uses infrared light rather than X-rays. I have no idea how well it works.

And Rapiscan has a new patent:

Abstract:

The present invention is directed towards an X-ray people screening system capable of rapidly screening people for detection of metals, low Z materials (plastics, ceramics and illicit drugs) and other contraband which might be concealed beneath the person’s clothing or on the person’s body. In an exemplary embodiment, the scanning system has two scanning modules that are placed in parallel, yet opposing positions relative to each other. The two modules are spaced to allow a subject, such as a person, to stand and pass between the two scanning modules. The first module and second module each include a radiation source (such as X-ray radiation) and a detector array. The subject under inspection stands between the two modules such that a front side of the subject faces one module and the back side of the subject faces the other module.

Posted on December 10, 2010 at 6:22 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.