I was amused to read this article on the c|net website, on the perils of allowing home gadgets and other lifestyle products to recognise your face.
Doorbells were the thing that got their dander up, and the ability of the new breed of video products to apply facial recognition to the heads that they see and, to borrow a phrase from the article, ‘keep tabs’ on whoever enters, occupies and leaves your crib.
Why a doorbell should have prompted this sudden attack of the heebie-jeebies is unclear. The sad truth is that we were seduced by technology of this kind long, long ago, back when we might have been able to do something about it. But the horse is long gone, and shutting the stable door now will have little effect.
c|net does a little better at conveying the discomfiting bigger picture in their video piece:-
The report revealed that an estimated £2.2 billion was spent each year in the UK on surveillance camera technology. Recent surveys have put the number of CCTV cameras in the UK at between 4 and 6 million. For a country with longstanding democratic traditions we sure give China, that upstanding bastion of civil rights, a run for their money when it comes to mass surveillance.
Did you know, for example, that Transport for London (TfL) – which coordinates the capital’s enormous public transport network – oversees a network of 20 thousand cameras? TfL routinely shares data from its camera network with the Metropolitan Police.
Next up is traffic management. Police up and down the UK have their own network of cameras to monitor the UK road network. Their Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras scan 25 to 40 million car number plates across UK roads every day. This has created, in the words of the report, “one of the largest non-military databases in the UK”, holding “up to 20 billion ‘read’ records”.
About one year ago Mr Porter gave a speech at a conference on automatic number plate recognition (ANPR). Yes I know – it must have been a gripping, viscerally exciting event. He touched upon a system in China.
… Let me tell you about a programmed use of AFR (automatic face recognition) in China called ‘Sharp Eyes’ as an insight as to where the use of intrusive surveillance technologies can lead. …
This is a capability developing in China which connects security cameras with AFR that scans roads, shopping malls and transport hubs. It can connect to private and compound cameras and buildings and integrate then into one nationwide surveillance platform. This capability is backed up with a police cloud scooping up information of citizens, be it criminal, medical, commercial, socio-demographic upheaval and political unrest. Indeed the police commander … said, “ With AFR we can recognise strangers, analyse their entry and exit points, see who spends the night [here] and how many times’.Tony Porter, UK Surveillance Camera Commissioner
Tony P went on to acknowledge that many high street retailers – and most major fashion retailers – already use facial recognition in their stores.
I had to wonder why Tony used the word ‘intrusive’ to apply to China, when the UK has probably been the most aggressive western democracy after the USA in its expansion of mass surveillance technology.
By now you’ll have guessed the punchline. You are owned within moments of leaving your home in the morning and tracked across dozens, even hundreds, of cameras throughout your day, until you reach your front door.
And the fun has only just started.
Take a look at what you carry around both inside and outside the house. It will likely include a smartphone, and possibly also a tablet and perhaps a smart watch or fitness tracker.
The phone glued to your hand could well take ‘live photos’ that add a snippet of video – including audio – before and after the moment you take your snaps. But in order to deliver this feature the camera and microphone must be ready to go at all times. In practice this means your phone is always recording a buffer of audio and video. The camera sees all; the microphone hears everything.
If that weren’t enough, your phone – by default – provides the carrier with an audit trail of which cellular base stations it’s attached to. This was baked into the infrastructure even before phones got smart. But your phone is now much cleverer and offers you the option of tagging your snaps and video with fairly precise geographic coordinates. And, since live photos are a pretty neat feature that you leave turned on, the GPS is always tracking you.
This scenario can probably be repeated for your iPad or tablet. Your smart watch might not be so sophisticated but is still probably tracking your position, elevation, speed and heartrate in real time, all the time.
This pattern of willing disclosure continues in the home, where millions now have a home assistant, whether from Amazon, Google or Apple. The ability to shout insults at your digital companion and laugh at the responses comes at a price: that wee puck at your elbow in the kitchen is always listening, permanently connected to a remote server that monitors what you say.
All this surveillance – and the list above isn’t exhaustive – would have a Cold War spy exploding with delight, yet much of it is voluntary, ushered into our lives with grateful thanks.
How beguiling these convenient features are. I use many of them myself. But a nagging concern accompanies their use: this treasure trove of metadata is just begging to be abused.
Ah, you might say, but that’s the beauty of living in an advanced democratic state. We’ve got checks and balances, no?
Yes. And no. The trouble with having such an irresistible range of eavesdropping options is that they are, well, irresistible. Our Atlantic cousins, usually fond of trumpeting their constitutional safeguards, have learned this for themselves. Successive leaks from whistleblowers in the USA have revealed the extent of the electronic surveillance of phones and email traffic carried out by the National Security Agency.
More recently, our American friends’ fondness for data-rich imagery and interactive assistants has become too conspicuous for the spooks to ignore. Another leak has suggested that the CIA has a range of hacking tools to access phones, cars, and TVs. Here’s the Washington Post‘s take.
It doesn’t help that sniffing digital traffic is so damned scalable. If one box allows you to monitor 1,000 people, but the next box up spies on 100,000 at marginal additional cost, then what the hell, buy the big box! Buy ten! And if the souped-up surveillance system catches some innocent bystanders in its drag net, there’s no harm done. A proportion of them will end up committing some crime further down the line anyway, so it’s as well to catch the thoughtcrimes early before they hatch into nefarious deeds.
It’s easy to see how the logic supporting mass surveillance might evolve. It’s just so darned simple to scale up, and few law enforcement bodies would turn up their noses at the offer of a digital panopticon.
Where the US intelligence agencies lead, its major global partners follow, and I would think it’s a pretty safe bet that our own UK agencies are engaging, or have engaged, in one or more of the activities alleged in the States. Though Brits would tend not to admit it, the UK is probably more opaque than the USA in terms of due process, but some details do trickle out. In 2016, for example, it was claimed that GCHQ (the UK equivalent of the NSA) might have engineered a backdoor in technology designed to encrypt Internet voice traffic.
The UK government’s authority to access phone and email data has been challenged successfully in court, but I’m too jaundiced, through long exposure to the news cycle, to be convinced that the judiciary, biased as it is towards identikit middle-class establishment types, can be relied upon to defend the rest of us steadfastly.
After all, this is the same judiciary that can hear the case of an international lawyer who subjected an Air India crew and passengers to a prolonged, obnoxious and threatening drunken rant, and still have the cheek to describe her as being of ‘impeccable character’. She got six months but will likely serve a fraction of that. I somehow suspect that someone engaged in a lowlier profession wouldn’t receive the same compliment, or so brief a sentence.
Welcome to the machine
Back in 1994 I became the proud owner of one of the first handsets sold for the UK’s digital Orange network (you can insert a minute’s pause here to replicate my jaw-drop, and brief rumination, at how long ago that was). It was a Nokia ‘dumbphone’. Its hottest features were the absolutely incredible SMS texting function (I had to pay 8p per message, I think) and the maddeningly addictive ‘Snake’ game, reproduced in monochrome 8-bit blocks on the tiny screen. (Once adjusted for expectation inflation, ‘maddeningly addictive’ becomes ‘utter crap’.)
In many ways this presaged the beginning of the end for our traditional notions of privacy. Email was on the rise; the Internet was gaining speed thanks to the advent of the Web. Laptop computers were becoming a standard business issue. Data modems were getting faster, and cheaper. Rudimentary ‘digital assistants’ were just around the corner. All digital, and all imbued, almost as a by-product, with the ability to produce a rich seam of metadigital treasure: an audit trail of who sent what, to whom, when and where.
It was all new, all great, and I lapped it up.