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« | Main | ACLU Surveys California Surveillance »

Six Minutes to Midnight

Today, the ACLU released its report “Even Bigger, Even Weaker: The Emerging Surveillance Society,” and with it unveiled a Surveillance Society Clock on its website – set at six minutes to midnight. While a great attention-grabbing device, the ACLU’s privacy doomsday clock and report warn of the dangers of technology without showing the other side of the argument – that new advances in surveillance technologies can also be used to strengthen privacy. At least, compared to the current situation – in which surveillance is not particularly effective at either catching bad guys or protecting civil liberties.

Take CCTV and video surveillance. Today, 30 million cameras in the United States create 4 billion hours of video per week, and the number of cameras is expected to more than double over the next few years, according to market research and consulting firm J.P. Freeman.
Yet until now, the only way to make use of the video generated has been for people to manually review it. Video surveillance helped identify the perpetrators of the London Underground suicide bombings of July 2005 – but police officers had to spend thousands of hours looking at CCTV footage to find the relevant information. Manual review of video evidence is inefficient and expensive. Moreover, there’s no good way to track what the viewer is actually looking at. But new advances in video search, storage, and analytics not only make it easier to find important information, they also make it easy to keep an auditable record of the type of footage the reviewer searched for and replayed.

Human nature is what it is. Yet knowing that there’s now an accessible record of what someone has looked at (or emailed or downloaded) could make people think twice – about reviewing non-relevant titillating CCTV footage again and again, rather than checking for suspects to a crime that’s occurred. Or sending suggestive emails to teenage congressional aides, or downloading pornography at work.

The ACLU’s concerns about privacy and civil liberties are not unjustified. But as with just about all new technologies, tools for better surveillance can be used for good and ill.
Evidentiary DNA testing and DNA databases generated controversy when they were first proposed. Yet without them, the Innocence Project and its affiliates could not have gotten more than 200 people – many of them on death row – exonerated from the serious charges they were previously convicted of. The Innocence Project has been doing this since 1992, only a few years after DNA evidence was first used in the legal system, after being created as a pro-bono clinic by DNA legal experts Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld of the Benjamin R. Cardozo law school in New York. Clearly, this is a case where people saw how a new technology with significant potential effects on privacy could also be very effectively used to restore and strengthen civil liberties.

Another example is the ability to retrieve people’s online search records. That too led to controversy about loss of privacy – but when properly used with a warrant to identify murder suspects like Robert Petrick (shown to have googled “neck snap break” shortly before the death of his wife) or child pornographers, people clearly approve of the technology’s social worth.
And Home Electronic Monitoring Systems (a.k.a. ankle monitors) to maintain house arrest conditions were called Orwellian when they were first introduced in the 1980s. Since then, they’ve effectively worked to keep non-violent criminals off the streets and out of overcrowded prisons.Instead of merely decrying them as privacy-killers, those who fear new advances in surveillance technology that make more efficient tracking of individuals’ activities possible should take a good hard look at their context.

In a more enlightened era, privacy advocates and surveillance-tool users and creators should all be strongly encouraged to look at the context and history of similar advances. Instead of shouting at each other from opposite sides of the fence, or ignoring the other side, we should initiate forums for true discussion about these tools. There, we should take into thorough consideration both the effects on privacy and the societally valuable uses of the technologies for security and law-enforcement. Finally, ensuring that the use of these surveillance tools is auditable, both technologically and by law, is crucial.

If we commit to bringing more balanced views to the debate, carefully hearing both sides of the privacy vs. security argument, we can avoid the doomsday clock scenario. With better analysis of surveillance information and strong, automated auditing of that analysis, we can have both better surveillance, to help catch and foil people who are doing genuinely bad things, as well as strong civil liberties and privacy.

I agree with the ACLU that the U.S.’s spotty, patchwork laws around privacy need to be of the privacy vs. security argument, we can avoid the doomsday clock scenario. With better analysis of surveillance information and strong, automated auditing of that analysis, we can have both better surveillance, to help catch and foil people who are doing genuinely bad things, as well as strong civil liberties and privacy. overhauled, made consistent, and stronger – so that we at least catch up with just about every other developed country. And when we do, the new technologies the ACLU cites as cause for concern are also what could save the day in helping protect privacy.

Reader Comments (3)

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