New York City is spending $212 million on surveillance technology: 1,000 video cameras and 3,000 motion sensors for the city’s subways, bridges, and tunnels.
Why? Why, given that cameras didn’t stop the London train bombings? Why, when there is no evidence that cameras are effectice at reducing either terrorism and crime, and every reason to believe that they are ineffective?
One reason is that it’s the “movie plot threat” of the moment. (You can hear the echos of the movie plots when you read the various quotes in the news stories.) The terrorists bombed a subway in London, so we need to defend our subways. The other reason is that New York City officials are erring on the side of caution. If nothing happens, then it was only money. But if something does happen, they won’t keep their jobs unless they can show they did everything possible. And technological solutions just make everyone feel better.
If I had $212 million to spend to defend against terrorism in the U.S., I would not spend it on cameras in the New York City subways. If I had $212 million to defend New York City against terrorism, I would not spend it on cameras in the subways. This is nothing more than security theater against a movie plot threat.
On the plus side, the money will also go for a new radio communications system for subway police, and will enable cell phone service in underground stations, but not tunnels.
Posted on August 24, 2005 at 1:10 PM •
The British government is testing a scheme to put active—the kind that are independently powered—RFID chips in automobile license plates. They can be read at least 300 feet away, and probably much, much further.
Posted on August 23, 2005 at 7:24 AM •
Is e-mail in transit communications or data in storage? Seems like a basic question, but the answer matters a lot to the police. A U.S. federal Appeals Court has ruled that the interception of e-mail in temporary storage violates the federal wiretap act, reversing an earlier court opinion.
The case and associated privacy issues are summarized here. Basically, different privacy laws protect electronic communications in transit and data in storage; the former is protected much more than the latter. E-mail stored by the sender or the recipient is obviously data in storage. But what about e-mail on its way from the sender to the receiver? On the one hand, it’s obviously communications on transit. But the other side argued that it’s actually stored on various computers as it wends its way through the Internet; hence it’s data in storage.
The initial court decision in this case held that e-mail in transit is just data in storage. Judge Lipez wrote an inspired dissent in the original opinion. In the rehearing en banc (more judges), he wrote the opinion for the majority which overturned the earlier opinion.
The opinion itself is long, but well worth reading. It’s well reasoned, and reflects extraordinary understanding and attention to detail. And a great last line:
If the issue presented be “garden-variety”… this is a garden in need of a weed killer.
I participated in an Amicus Curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in the case. Here’s another amicus brief by six civil liberties organizations.
There’s a larger issue here, and it’s the same one that the entertainment industry used to greatly expand copyright law in cyberspace. They argued that every time a copyrighted work is moved from computer to computer, or CD-ROM to RAM, or server to client, or disk drive to video card, a “copy” is being made. This ridiculous definition of “copy” has allowed them to exert far greater legal control over how people use copyrighted works.
Posted on August 15, 2005 at 7:59 AM •
Salon has an interesting article about parents turning to technology to monitor their children, instead of to other people in their community.
“What is happening is that parents now assume the worst possible outcome, rather than seeing other adults as their allies,” says Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at England’s University of Kent and the author of “Paranoid Parenting.” “You never hear stories about asking neighbors to care for kids or coming together as community. Instead we become insular, privatized communities, and look for
technological solutions to what are really social problems.” Indeed, while our parents’ generation was taught to “honor thy neighbor,” the mantra for today’s kids is “stranger danger,” and the message is clear—expect the worst of anyone unfamiliar—anywhere, and at any time.
This is security based on fear, not reason. And I think people who act this way make their families less safe.
EDITED TO ADD: Here’s a link to the book Paranoid Parenting.
Posted on August 3, 2005 at 8:38 AM •
Your cell phone company knows where you are all the time. (Well, it knows where your phone is whenever it’s on.) Turns out there’s a lot of information to be mined in that data.
Eagle’s Realty Mining project logged 350,000 hours of data over nine months about the location, proximity, activity and communication of volunteers, and was quickly able to guess whether two people were friends or just co-workers….
He and his team were able to create detailed views of life at the Media Lab, by observing how late people stayed at the lab, when they called one another and how much sleep students got.
Given enough data, Eagle’s algorithms were able to predict what people—especially professors and Media Lab employees—would do next and be right up to 85 percent of the time.
This is worrisome from a number of angles: government surveillance, corporate surveillance for marketing purposes, criminal surveillance. I am not mollified by this comment:
People should not be too concerned about the data trails left by their phone, according to Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
“The location data and billing records is protected by statute, and carriers are under a duty of confidentiality to protect it,” Hoofnagle said.
We’re building an infrastructure of surveillance as a side effect of the convenience of carrying our cell phones everywhere.
Posted on July 28, 2005 at 4:09 PM •
From The Register:
A former CIA intelligence analyst and researchers from SAP plan to study how RFID tags might be used to profile and track individuals and consumer goods.
“I believe that tags will be readily used for surveillance, given the interests of various parties able to deploy readers,” said Ross Stapleton-Gray, former CIA analyst and manager of the study, called the Sorting Door Project.
Sorting Door will be a test-bed for studying the massive databases that will be created by RFID tags and readers, once they become ubiquitous. The project will help legislators, regulators and businesses make policies that balance the interests of industry, national security and civil liberties, said Stapleton-Gray.
In Sorting Door, RFID readers (whether in doorways, walls or floors, or the hands of workers) will collect data from RFID tags and feed them into databases.
Sorting Door participants will then investigate how the RFID tag’s unique serial numbers, called EPCs, can be merged with other data to identify dangerous people and gather intelligence in a particular location.
Posted on July 26, 2005 at 9:31 AM •
I’ve already written about the stupidity of worrying about cell phones on airplanes. Now the Department of Homeland Security is worried about broadband Internet.
Federal law enforcement officials, fearful that terrorists will exploit emerging in-flight broadband services to remotely activate bombs or coordinate hijackings, are asking regulators for the power to begin eavesdropping on any passenger’s internet use within 10 minutes of obtaining court authorization.
In joint comments filed with the FCC last Tuesday, the Justice Department, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned that a terrorist could use on-board internet access to communicate with confederates on other planes, on the ground or in different sections of the same plane—all from the comfort of an aisle seat.
“There is a short window of opportunity in which action can be taken to thwart a suicidal terrorist hijacking or remedy other crisis situations on board an aircraft, and law enforcement needs to maximize its ability to respond to these potentially lethal situations,” the filing reads.
Terrorists never use SSH, after all. (I suppose that’s the next thing the DHS is going to try to ban.)
Posted on July 14, 2005 at 12:02 PM •
I was going to write something about the foolishness of adding cameras to public spaces as a response to terrorism threats, but Scott Henson said it already:
Homeland Security Ubermeister Michael Chertoff just told NBC’s Tim Russert on Meet the Press this morning that the United States should invest in “cameras and dogs” to protect subway, rail and bus transit systems from terrorist attacks.
Surveillance cameras didn’t deter the terrorist attacks in London. They didn’t stop the courthouse killing spree in Atlanta. But they’re prone to abuse. And at the end of they day they don’t reduce crime.
Posted on July 12, 2005 at 8:13 AM •
The U.S. Department of Justice is quietly shopping around the explosive idea of requiring Internet service providers to retain records of their customers’ online activities.
Data retention rules could permit police to obtain records of e-mail chatter, Web browsing or chat-room activity months after Internet providers ordinarily would have deleted the logs—that is, if logs were ever kept in the first place. No U.S. law currently mandates that such logs be kept.
I think the big idea here is that the Internet makes a massive surveillance society so easy. And data storage will only get cheaper.
Posted on June 28, 2005 at 8:16 AM •
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.