Secrecy surrounds government surveillance programs

September 4, 2014 - 

Lack of accountability is usually a common theme when it comes to camera surveillance, so San Diego’s public disclosure of its city surveillance program is atypical.

In 2011, the city launched a program entitled “Operation Secure San Diego” that sought the participation of private retail merchants in a police CCTV scheme. The city’s police department believes that the use of private store camera systems could help support public safety efforts. Under the initiative, the San Diego Police Department obtained access to external camera systems in order to deter criminal activity. The program allowed the police department to use CCTV from private stores to view, record and document activity for evidentiary purposes, along with providing real-time tactical information to enhance law enforcement in the field. The ultimate goal of accessing the video was to identify questionable individuals or conduct. But local news reports have claimed that its deployment has been unsuccessful.

The task of integrating multiple camera systems have been too daunting, exacerbated by telecom integration challenges. While San Diego has not been tremendously forthcoming with information about the program, at least it disclosed it. Arguably, the municipality would have disclose information due to the participatory nature of the program, but more often than not, governments are typically criticized for being absolutely secretive about their surveillance programs.

As reported last month in BiometricUpdate.com, Boston surreptitiously spied and used facial recognition on concertgoers last year. According to Dig Boston, a local alternative news daily, a new and sophisticated event monitoring platform supplied by IBM was tested at the Boston Calling Music Festival in 2013. The system gave authorities “a live and detailed birdseye view of concertgoers, pedestrians and vehicles in the vicinity” of the event.

The system captured facial images of thousands of event attendees using more than 10 cameras. Utilizing intelligent video analysis, the system allowed the Boston Police to review over 50 hours of security footage. While the system utilized the city’s existing security camera infrastructure, the city did not inform its residents in a timely manner that they would be subjected to system testing. More than a year later, city officials only disclosed the test when exposed by excellent, local investigative journalism.

Such a pattern of non-disclosure has been pretty typical across North America. In 2013, Canadians only learned after a special investigation that government agencies had been collecting personal information about citizens from social networking sites without a justified legal reason. And earlier this year, it was revealed that Canada’s electronic spy agency used data from a free Internet Wi-Fi service at the country’s busiest international airport, Toronto-Pearson, to track the wireless devices of thousands of ordinary air travelers “for days after they left the airport”. These secretive spy programs have caused so much concern that Canadian academics and civil liberties organizations banded together to issue a statement against government mass surveillance.

American citizens, of course, have also had to long contend with large scale, secretive spying programs that are national in scope. Famously, the Guardian and The Washington Post reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) operates a classified program entitled “PRISM” that enables U.S. intelligence services to directly access servers operated by Google, Facebook, Apple and other Internet giants. The “PRISM” disclosures came from documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Earlier this year, the U.S. government declassified documents that also demonstrated that the NSA was illegally collecting a broad range of domestic electronic intelligence on Americans. The NSA had developed the capacity to monitor as much as 75 percent of all U.S. Web traffic and has admitted that its network monitoring has touched 1.6 percent of the world’s Internet data.

Previous editorial commentary on BiometricUpdate.com indicated that the U.S. government is already exploiting “Big Data” in the areas of surveillance for criminal and anti-terror investigations. BiometricUpdate.com reporting has also found that U.S. government is also increasingly developing “predictive pattern-matching” techniques to determine suspicious patterns of behavior by actively collecting and collating metadata from the Internet, cellular phone networks and other publicly-accessible sources.

Arguably, the most infamous predictive pattern-matching tool employed by government was TrapWire. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security paid US$832,000 to deploy Trapwire surveillance in Washington, D.C. and Seattle. Through WikiLeaks disclosures, we learned that TrapWire software leverages networks of surveillance cameras that are installed “at selected high value targets” and analyzes the images to detect “suspicious” behavior.

However, only due to “whistleblower” disclosures have we learned anything definitive about all the government surveillance schemes above.

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About Rawlson King

Rawlson O’Neil King is a contributing editor at BiometricUpdate.com and is an experienced communications professional, management consultant, trade journalist and author who recently published a book about control and electronic networks and who has written numerous articles in trade publications and academic journals about smart home and building technologies. Follow him @rawlsonking2.