Tag Archives: surveillance

Paparazzi drones (coffee delivery upgrade optional)

The Wall Street Journal reports on the inevitable migration of UAV drone technology into non-military spheres of life:

Personal drones aren’t yet plying U.S. flyways. But an arms race is building among people looking to track celebrities, unfaithful lovers or even wildlife. Some organizations would like them for emergency operations in areas hit by natural disasters. Several efforts to develop personal drones are scheduled for completion in the next year.

“If the Israelis can use them to find terrorists, certainly a husband is going to be able to track a wife who goes out at 11 o’clock at night and follow her,” said New York divorce lawyer Raoul Felder.

Drones now are associated with the unmanned Predator craft the Central Intelligence Agency uses to fire Hellfire missiles at militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas. But the essential technology is increasingly available beyond military circles, and spreading fast. An unmanned aircraft that can fly a predetermined route costs a few hundred bucks to build and can be operated by iPhone.

That’s pretty cheap and accessible; club together with a few neighbours, sketch out a rota, pay the kids pocket-money for manning a few shifts a week. Top marks to Randall “FuturePundit” Parker for this bit of close-range speculation:

The ability of surveillance drones to record high-res images could be combined with a wireless link to a criminal face matching computer server. So convicted rapists and muggers could be identified. Crowd sourcing becomes a real possibility. Many different personally owned drones could (along with cameras mounted in cars and outside of stores and houses) all pass info to servers that could then track the movement of known dangerous people (why they are out on the street is another subject). Also, after a crime is committed as soon as, say, a victim of rape or robbery reports the crime all recent drone feed logs in the vicinity could be scoured to identify possible suspects and start tracking them. Neighborhood watches could signal people to all send out their drones to do a massive sweep of the area.

I can imagine flying drones being sent off to a drug store to land on the roof to be loaded with a drug prescription or other light item. The energy costs would probably be lower than the energy costs of driving a car to the store. Wouldn’t work for a large grocery load. But would work for trips to get smaller items.

A bigger flying drone operated by, say, Starbucks or 7/11 could deliver coffee to a number of houses on a route. Or how about drones that deliver newspapers? A delivery truck could drive along with a flat bed where the drones lift off and deliver newspapers down side streets. Reduced labor costs, faster delivery.

Lots of potential apps there… each of them with their own potential shortcomings, exploit opportunities and failure consequences. (The intimidatory power of police drones will be somewhat negated when the rough neighbourhoods they’re intended to patrol can field their own jerry-built squadron of flying camera platforms; who will watch the watchmen, indeed. Won’t be long before some geek firebrand starts mounting Gauss weapons and scramblers on them, either, so plenty of potential for an escalating robot turf war between governors and governed; the street finds its own use for yadda yadda yadda.)

Definitely a potential plank in David Brin’s “Transparent Society” platform, too; the participatory panopticon becomes a lot more powerful when your cameras can move in more than one or two dimensions. And a perfect excuse to dig up one of Anders Sandberg’s classic near-future hazard signs from 2006:

Ubiquitous surveillance hazard sign

Spying on employees on social networks… before you hire them

This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, but it’s the first example I’ve seen of an outfit offering a service for outsourcing this sort of Human Resources gruntwork: a new startup gnomically named Social Intelligence promises to do a deep scan of a potential employee’s socnet presences in 48 hours, focussing on such catch-all categories as “‘Poor Judgment,’ ‘Gangs,’ ‘Drugs and Drug Lingo’ and ‘Demonstrating Potentially Violent Behavior.'” [via Bruce Schneier]

My instant knee-jerk reaction to this was OMG Panopticon! But if you think about it, it’s really just doing what paper references used to do, for a world where the fakeability and legal complications of references have made them much less useful. It’s easy to forget that social networks are a very old phenomenon; it’s their cybernetic extension into information space that’s new, and we’re all learning how to navigate these widening savannahs as we go along.

“But what about the kids? They have no concept of privacy, nor the sense to cover up their indiscretions!” Well, then the problem will solve itself, as I suggested a while back: if an entire generation starts falling foul of hawk-eyed HR socnet trawlers, the playing field will flatten. If everyone has a few dumb indiscretions on public display, we’ll simply become more accepting of the fact that everyone does stupid stuff every now and again. If anything, it’ll be the people with totally clean sheets who start to look suspect.

Schneier points out that the service is being marketed using scare tactics:

Two aspects of this are worth noting. First, company spokespeople emphasize liability. What happens if one of your employees freaks out, comes to work and starts threatening coworkers with a samurai sword? You’ll be held responsible because all of the signs of such behavior were clear for all to see on public Facebook pages. That’s why you should scan every prospective hire and run continued scans on every existing employee.

In other words, they make the case that now that people use social networks, companies will be expected (by shareholders, etc.) to monitor those services and protect the company from lawsuits, damage to reputation, and other harm. And they’re probably right.

They probably are right… but incidents like that are far rarer than the cognitive bias of media coverage would have us believe. Perhaps it’ll be fashionable for a while, but in tough economic times like these, I doubt there’ll be many companies willing to fork out big bucks to salve the legal department’s paranoia… though I have underestimated the stupidity of the hierarchical corporate mindset many times before, so I’m prepared to be proven wrong on that point.

Bonus panopticon news: the latest development over here in the United Kingdom of Closed Circuit Surveillance is an outfit called Internet Eyes, which is offering a bounty of up to £1,000 for any user who spots a crime being committed on the feeds of private security footage that will be piped through the site.

Again, sounds pretty nasty (though I’m rather alarmed by how desensitised I’ve become to stories like this in recent years), but I can’t see it working as well as Internet Eyes thinks it will. How’re they going to vet their userbase (who will watch the watchmen, indeed)? Are the sorts of people willing to stare at grainy and uneventful video feeds for hours on end on the off-chance of winning some money the sort of people whose vigilance and motives best suit the task at hand? What if the mighty Anonymous decided to infiltrate the userbase (for LULZ and great justice)? Or if criminal syndicates placed their own low-level operatives on the site, found out who was watching which feeds at what times and then planned their jobs accordingly?

And all of that largely bypasses the underlying problem, namely that Internet Eyes’ business plan almost certainly contravenes EU privacy laws. That said, the UK isn’t exactly unfamiliar with doing just that

William Gibson: Google isn’t a panopticon

The New York Times turns the mic over to William Gibson, who ponders Google’s place in the world (or, perhaps more appropriately, our place in Google’s world):

Cyberspace, not so long ago, was a specific elsewhere, one we visited periodically, peering into it from the familiar physical world. Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical. Making Google a central and evolving structural unit not only of the architecture of cyberspace, but of the world. This is the sort of thing that empires and nation-states did, before. But empires and nation-states weren’t organs of global human perception. They had their many eyes, certainly, but they didn’t constitute a single multiplex eye for the entire human species.

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison design is a perennial metaphor in discussions of digital surveillance and data mining, but it doesn’t really suit an entity like Google. Bentham’s all-seeing eye looks down from a central viewpoint, the gaze of a Victorian warder. In Google, we are at once the surveilled and the individual retinal cells of the surveillant, however many millions of us, constantly if unconsciously participatory. We are part of a post-geographical, post-national super-state, one that handily says no to China. Or yes, depending on profit considerations and strategy. But we do not participate in Google on that level. We’re citizens, but without rights.

Note to self – I’m still enough of a vain little fanboy that I’m hugely gratified when my heroes think  similar things to myself, in this case regarding Eric Schmidt’s unGooglable childhood idea:

… I don’t find this a very realistic idea, however much the prospect of millions of people living out their lives in individual witness protection programs, prisoners of their own youthful folly, appeals to my novelistic Kafka glands. Nor do I take much comfort in the thought that Google itself would have to be trusted never to link one’s sober adulthood to one’s wild youth, which surely the search engine, wielding as yet unimagined tools of transparency, eventually could and would do.

I imagine that those who are indiscreet on the Web will continue to have to make the best of it, while sharper cookies, pocketing nyms and proxy cascades (as sharper cookies already do), slouch toward an ever more Googleable future, one in which Google, to some even greater extent than it does now, helps us decide what we’ll do next.

The genie won’t go back into the bottle, folks.

Because we don’t have enough sources of terrorism false-positives already

Psychology boffins at Northwest University reckon they can detect “guilty knowledge” with 100% accuracy using scans of P300 brainwaves. Haven’t we reached a point where we should just abolish all modes of collective transportation, close down all buildings and spaces to which the general public have access, and oblige everyone to walk around naked with their ID tattooed onto their foreheads? After all, we’ve handed terrorists most of the victory they wanted by means of our descent into technology-mitigated paranoia, so why not just disassemble civilisation totally and treat everyone as a potential enemy? Better we destroy the freedom “the terrorists” hate so much than let them do it for us, AMIRITE?

Paranoia bonus: for those Statesiders feeling smug about not living in camera-infested Orwellian Britain, GizMag rounds up a few loophole-exploiting surveillance schemes that your own government is using to keep an eye on you. Don’t you feel safer now?

Smart Grids == Spy Grids?

We’ve talked about smart grids before – infrastructure networks for basic utilities that incorporates all sorts of networked active monitoring technologies to make our use of energy and water more efficient. Sounds like a win-win situation for consumers and utilities companies alike, doesn’t it?

That altogether depends on how worried you are about extensive data on your lifestyle and consumer choices becoming easily scraped up by your utility suppliers

It knows how often you use your microwave, how many loads of laundry you do every week, what kind of television you own and even how often you shower. It can tell how many people live in your home, what time they go to bed and when the house is empty. All of this information and more is gathered by smart grid meters…


The information could be used in all kinds of ways, legitimate or not, from cities seeking broad information about how well energy-efficiency programs are working to burglars looking for expensive electronics.

Law enforcement agencies want to use smart meters to spot potential marijuana-growing operations or the location of an underground sweatshop. Companies hope the data will help them target marketing to consumers.

Where there’s data, there’s money… and you can’t always trust organisations who promise never to sell your data to third parties to actually keep their word. AMIRITE, Mr Zuckerberg? Smart grids will be a boon to our increasingly energy-hungry planet, but they’ll also be another battleground for the privacy war that’s slowly lumbering its way into the Now.

But hey, think positive: there’s an upside to the fact that utilities companies monitor their grids. If you get lost in the middle of nowhere without a cellphone, you can just cut down an electricity pylon and wait for the repair crew to arrive[both links via John Robb]