August 1, 2001
Smile! Big Brother and Friends Have You under Surveillance
by Joseph P. Tartaro
In his social science fiction novel 1984, George Orwell depicted a society in which everyone was constantly under surveillance by the government, personified as Big Brother. That Orwell book was published in 1948, and the author imagined that it would take almost 40 years for us to experience that kind of all-intrusive invasion of privacy.
Perhaps it has taken a little longer than Orwell imagined, butwith the help of modern technologywe have pretty much reached that kind of condition. Consider some of the following examples gleaned from recent news reports.
The New York Times reported in early July that the Tampa Police Department has placed 36 security cameras with face-recognition software in Ybor Citya downtown entertainment district with a strong Cuban character that is popular with locals and tourists.
Now, everyone who visits the district runs the risk of having his or her face digitally scanned and the noses, cheeks and chins checked against a mug-shot database of murderers, drug dealers and other criminal suspects with arrest warrants.
The police have used surveillance cameras in other cities to record and catch criminals in the act. But Tampas effort, according to The Times, is the widest use of this technology by a police department in this country to fish for criminal suspects in the general public sea.
The makers of the system, the Visionics Corporation of Jersey City, NJ, offered Tampa free use of it for a year, in an effort to build a market among municipalities. City officials, who had used a competing system in January to scan the crowds at the Super Bowl for possible terrorists, were agreeable.
Public Safety Excuse
Tampa officials have trotted out the old public safety justification for this type of random surveillance.
Its a public safety tool, no different than having a cop walking around with a mug shot, said City Councilman Robert F. Buckhorn Jr., chairman of Tampas public safety committee.
Randall Marshall, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, disagreed, saying it amounted to subjecting the public to a digital lineup.
This is yet another example of technology outpacing the protection of peoples civil liberties, Marshall said. It has a very Big Brother feel to it, he said in making the connection to Orwells book.
But some Ybor City business owners said they hoped the cameras become a permanent fixture, much like street lights, according to The Times.
Both the manufacturer and the police say the chance of a false arrest based on the facial scanning is slim and an acceptable trade-off for the possibility of nabbing a criminal who might otherwise remain at large. When Tampa first used face-recognition surveillance at the Super Bowl in January, its public safety value was nil. Even though the system spotted 19 people thought to be subjects of outstanding warrants for minor crimes, none were arrested because the crowd was so large, and because the number of matches exceeded the polices expectations.
According to Associated Press, about 100 peoplewearing masks and making obscene gestures at police camerasprotested the new system on the night of July 14.
Being watched on a public street is just plain wrong, said May Becker, wearing a bar code sticker on her forehead.
Becker joined demonstrators in the Ybor City, wearing a sign reading: Were under house arrest in the land of the free.
One protester walked by a camera, gestured obscenely and shouted, Digitize this!
Others wore gas masks, Groucho Marx glasses and other items to protest the FaceIt scanning system police are using in a neighborhood that attracts 75,000 to 150,000 people on weekend nights.
Tampa is currently the only American city where police use the face-recognition technology for routine surveillance, but Virginia Beach, VA, is seeking a $150,000 state grant for a similar system.
Meanwhile, Colorado is moving ahead with a plan for statewide mapping of motorists faces, according to The Denver Post.
Photo-radar vans can snap pictures of Denver-area speeders, and soon, Big Brothers roving eye will be watching all of Colorado with the arrival of a new high-tech European import called face recognition.
The states Department of Motor Vehicles, allegedly in an effort to prevent identity theft and drivers license fraud, is buying cameras that will map every drivers facial characteristics like a three-dimensional land chart. The state legislature authorized the technology during the last session, but state officials have not yet disclosed the cost of the system.
Theres more. A rental car company that uses Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to track its vehicles and fines customers who speed has refused to halt the practice, the Connecticut state consumer-protection agency says, according to AP.
As a result, a hearing will be held Aug. 22 on a complaint brought against the company by the Department of Consumer Protection.
The agency in July accused Acme Rent-A-Car in New Haven of violating state consumer law.
The company uses the GPS system to track customers speed, and automatically fines them for each infraction. The state said it had identified 26 customers who were fined.
Department spokeswoman Anna Ficeto said that Acme decided recently not to sign a consent decree that would have halted the practice and reimbursed consumers who were fined.
Acme said its rental contracts inform customers they will be fined $150 every time the satellite catches them speeding for more than two minutes. But Connecticut claims the company did not give adequate warning and debited consumers bank accounts or credit cards without notification.
The government isnt the only one checking up on you.
CBS and Associated Press reported on July 9 that more than one-third of US employees who browse the Internet and use e-mail at work have their cyberspace activities and time systematically monitored by their employers.
They cited a Privacy Foundation report that found employee monitoring to be growing rapidly, spurred by the cheap price of surveillance software and concerns about productivity and sexual harassment liability. The study found that of the 40 million US workers who have Internet access in the office, 14 million, or 35%, are constantly monitored by their employers.
Worldwide, 27 million of the 100 million with Internet access were monitored.
Unlike earlier studies of workplace surveillance, which were based on questionnaires or surveys, the Privacy Foundation based its numbers on sales figures for web-monitoring software such as Websense Inc. and MIMEsweeper. The surveillance software allows employers to monitor and record the Internet activity of an entire office. And federal law gives employers broad latitude to monitor their workers activities.
Does Anyone Care?
In spite of these and other examples, a significant number of Americans may not really care. The number of Americans who think the First Amendment of the US Constitution goes too far in the rights it guarantees has doubled to four in 10 over the past year, according to a new poll on freedom of speech conducted by researchers at the University of Connecticut.
More people58%still disagreed that the First Amendment goes too far, but that number has dropped from two years ago when two thirds felt that way.
These findings seem to be in line with other polls about civil rights, including the Second Amendment. Increasingly, in spite of the warnings of people like Benjamin Franklin, Americans seem willing to give up more and more of their basic civil liberties in exchange for an illusive promise of greater security.
It is not just the Second Amendment that is in jeopardy, but the entire Bill of Rights, and the appallingly high level of public ignorance about the Constitution seems to be hastening the process.
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